One of my favourite Monty Python sketches is the Argument Clinic:
I especially like this bit:
Man Well, an argument’s not the same as contradiction.
Mr Vibrating It can be.
Man No it can’t. An argument is a connected series of statements to establish a definite proposition.
Mr Vibrating No it isn’t.
Man Yes it is. It isn’t just contradiction.
Mr Vibrating Look, if I argue with you, I must take up a contrary position.
Man But it isn’t just saying ‘No it isn’t’.
Mr Vibrating Yes it is.
That keeps replaying in my mind every time I try to have an argument on the internet (I know, I shouldn’t) with people who deny some aspect (or all) of science, and through a combination of the Dunning-Kruger effect and a steady diet of crappy websites, pontificate with the arrogance of the ignorant. This can be very frustrating, especially when this kind of discussion involves one’s professional field of expertise. After spending almost twenty years studying something, and even more time actually teaching it, it can be quite irritating having some ignoramus or other claiming a knowledge they obviously do not have, and do not even have the minimum necessary information to realize how ignorant they actually are.
A favourite gambit of that crowd is playing the “skeptic” card. Fortunately, a recent manifesto on this subject makes a clear distinction between actual skepticism – a cornerstone of actual science – and denialism (the hallmark of the willingly obtuse): Deniers are not Skeptics: “As scientific skeptics, we are well aware of political efforts to undermine climate science by those who deny reality but do not engage in scientific research or consider evidence that their deeply held opinions are wrong. The most appropriate word to describe the behavior of those individuals is “denial.” Not all individuals who call themselves climate change skeptics are deniers. But virtually all deniers have falsely branded themselves as skeptics. By perpetrating this misnomer, journalists have granted undeserved credibility to those who reject science and scientific inquiry.”
This usually leads to claims of false equivalence, usually aided and abetted by a press more concerned with celebrities than the trivial pursuit of actually finding out about stuff. This was commented more extensively in a blog post which details several strategies employed by denialists to derail evidence-based discussions: How science deniers use false equivalency to pretend there’s a debate.
The author enumerates some of the most used strategies of denialism:
- Claim science is a democracy.
- Appeal to authority.
Closing with this: “For evolution, global warming, HIV/AIDS, vaccines, the age of the earth and universe, there is no scientific controversy. There is only a public debate, where one side is using science, and the other side is inventing data, cherry picking research out of low quality journals, or just simply yelling the loudest. But in the real world of logical science, there is no debate. We’ve moved onto uncovering more mysteries of the universe.” The whole thing is worth reading.
And just to add a few selected examples of anti-science BS, I’ll quote some other blog posts.
One of the most lucrative scams is the “detox” business. Drawing on reasonable (up to a certain extent) concerns about environment contamination, a theory of unnamed “toxins” that “accumulate” in one’s body and require “natural” interventions to purge them is pervasive on almost every conceivable media, including (and especially) the internet. Well, it is BS. Detoxing is bullshit. “It’s true that people with substance abuse problems can ‘detox’ when they get clean, but the kind of ‘detoxing’ offered by stuff in the grocery store or pharmacy has no basis in science and is just a scammy way to scare you into opening your wallet (the companies that sell ‘detox’ can’t even say what ‘toxins’ they’re getting rid of)”.
On a similar note (and this will probably cost me a few friends), there is no evidence of harm caused by GMOs. The study that supposedly showed this was deeply flawed, and if that’s all the evidence there is, well, it isn’t actually evidence. The Seralini Rule. “I have a new rule for debating anti-GMO people: If you favorably cite the 2012 Séralini rats fed on Roundup ready maize study, you just lost the argument. If you cite this study as demonstrating any dangers in genetically modified food, you are either (a) so clueless as not to have spent 30 seconds checking to see if there are any reported problems in the study, or (b) so dishonest in citing a blatantly fraudulent study, that you are not worthy of any more serious consideration. You just lost the debate and you’re done. (Obviously you don’t lose the if you cite the study to demonstrate its flaws, only if you claim the study’s conclusions are valid.)“.
Onwards to the mother of all antiscience crap, creationism. This is so stupid it shouldn’t even be something that we still have to argue about, but, alas, that’s not how things work. A particularly egregious example of the militant, arrogant ignorance I mentioned was a video made by a self-taught “expert” discussing a museum exhibit on evolution. It is so dumb it is painful to watch, fortunately someone did that and wrote about it. This Crazy Lady is Totally Not Having Museum’s Evolution Nonsense. “Anyone who follows the infuriating ‘debates’ about topics like climate change, vaccinations, and the choice myth of sexual orientation — where fear, misinformation, urban legends, and pseudoscience are presented alongside scientific consensus as though both ‘sides’ are equally legitimate — knows that we’ve got a serious idiocy problem here in America. Another issue where this problem manifests itself is that of evolution. For Exhibit A, I give you Megan Fox. She’s a self-described ‘homeschooling, Tea Partying, conservative mother of two (with another on the way!) out and about in the suburbs.’” (no, it’s not that Megan Fox – and she believes she can educate her children about science!)
And finally, a favourite topic of mine, anti-vaxxers. The recent measles outbreak in Disneyland seems to have placed them in an unfavourable light, but boy, didn’t they come back swinging… I won’t repeat all the stuff I already posted on that, but point to just one particular blog post with a self-explanatory title: Here’s how irrational flu vaccine deniers are. “So –what’s up with this? Or more precisely, how can vaccine skeptics simultaneously be swayed by good and accurate pro-vaccine information, and yet simultaneously become less likely to get vaccinated? The result, says Nyhan, suggests that factual misperceptions about vaccines — like the myth that the flu vaccine causes the flu — ‘are more a consequence of people’s mixed or negative attitudes towards vaccines, rather than the cause. So when we challenge one misperception, people may simply bring to mind other misconceptions or concerns that they have, and remind themselves of their more general concern about vaccines in the first place.’“.
Trying to follow that with a happy note, I endorse this game: Anti-vax bingo: Minutes of family fun! I practically filled the card with two or three iterations of an “argument” with an anti-vaxxer…
This is not to say that science is inerrant or that it doesn’t have its problems. The following quote, from two sociologists of science, make the case with much more clarity than I could dream of: “Science may be wrong (…) but this does not make the opposite view right. In the absence of careful research about the opposite view, science is probably the way to bet. This is even more likely to be the case if science is continually put under scrutiny.”
Colins H & Pinch T. Dr. Golem: How To Think About Medicine. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005 (p. 202)
UPDATE: Mother Jones published last year an article on Collins and his work, which includes a podcast of an interview with the man himself. Good reading, I recommend it: This Is Why You Have No Business Challenging Scientific Experts.
This has become my mantra in the last few years.
UPDATE: A rough guide to spotting bad science is a very useful resource in weeding out BS.