The Worrying Growth Of Antiscience Claims

This is going to be a somewhat lengthy post, based on a lot of interesting notes I collected over some time in my web wanderings.

I am returning to a favourite subject, namely, the extremely dangerous (in my opinion) process of de-legitimization of science undertaken by actors with a variety of political and economic interests (usually hidden) who actively engage in campaigns to undermine the public trust in scientifically generated knowledge.

A blogger has summarized the problem as follows: Are Science And Truth At Odds? Creationism, the anti-vaccine movement, resistance to genetically modified crops, cellphone radio waves, fluoridation, the ongoing global climate change debate, the risk of certain high energy physics experiments (see my post from last week), all point to a curious ‘personalization’ of science. It’s as if scientific issues are simply matters of opinion — and not the product of a very thorough process of consensus-building among technically trained people. The same way that you wouldn’t trust a physicist to perform a root canal treatment on your molar, you shouldn’t trust a dentist’s opinion on the cataclysmic risks of high-energy proton collisions at the Large Hadron Collider. But that’s what’s happening, a drive toward a subjective take on science — the polar opposite of what science stands for: A way of extracting universal truths about the natural world through a detailed process of observation and data analysis.

A similar point was made in a recent New Yorker article, originally a commencement address, The Mistrust Of Science, in which the author (Atul Gawande) remarks that “Today, we have multiple factions putting themselves forward as what Gauchat describes as their own cultural domains, ‘generating their own knowledge base that is often in conflict with the cultural authority of the scientific community.’ Some are religious groups (challenging evolution, for instance). Some are industry groups (as with climate skepticism). Others tilt more to the left (such as those that reject the medical establishment). As varied as these groups are, they are all alike in one way. They all harbor sacred beliefs that they do not consider open to question. To defend those beliefs, few dismiss the authority of science. They dismiss the authority of the scientific community. People don’t argue back by claiming divine authority anymore. They argue back by claiming to have the truer scientific authority. It can make matters incredibly confusing. You have to be able to recognize the difference between claims of science and those of pseudoscience.

The of lack of knowledge masquerading as deep insight also hides behind denialism, as aptly defined here: Features of Denialism.I characterized denialism as a subset of pseudoscience, one that tries to cloak itself in the language of skepticism while eschewing the actual process of scientific skepticism. But further, denialism exists on a spectrum with skepticism, without a clear demarcation in between (similar to science and pseudoscience). People also tend to use themselves for calibration – anyone more skeptical than you is a denier, and anyone less skeptical than you is a true believer.

This is not to say that science is above and beyond criticism and reproach; quite the other way. Only by being systematically subjected to organized skepticism can any scientific proposition acquire any credibility. The examples I am about to provide, however, are a totally different enterprise; they are not an attempt to strengthen science through critique, but unduly demolishing it with manipulative and dishonest tactics to make way for something much worse.

First, an example from a systematic study about one subject where science stands in the way of powerful economic interests: Corporate funding and ideological polarization about climate change.First, that organizations with corporate funding were more likely to have written and disseminated texts meant to polarize the climate change issue. Second, and more importantly, that corporate funding influences the actual thematic content of these polarization efforts, and the discursive prevalence of that thematic content over time.

The results of this kind of systematic attack on perfectly legitimate science are made evident in surveys such as this one: Major Gaps Between the Public, Scientists on Key Issues. Despite broadly similar views about the overall place of science in America, there are striking differences between the views of the public and those of the scientific community connected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) on a host of science-related issues, from whether genetically modified foods are safe to eat to whether the world’s growing population will be a major problem.

Further corroboration comes from a scholar who has been studying tthis kind of deliberate obfuscation of science for economic gain: The Man Who Studies The Spread of Ignorance. Proctor found that ignorance spreads when firstly, many people do not understand a concept or fact and secondly, when special interest groups – like a commercial firm or a political group – then work hard to create confusion about an issue. In the case of ignorance about tobacco and climate change, a scientifically illiterate society will probably be more susceptible to the tactics used by those wishing to confuse and cloud the truth.

A perfect illustration was provided in a way that is both funny and infuriating by the comedian-slash-critic-slash-reporter John Oliver, as reported in this blog post: Is Science Bullsh*t? As John Oliver explains in his latest episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, there is a seemingly endless barrage of data being thrown at the public and plenty of BS masquerading as science. In his latest entertaining and informative segment on scientific studies, the satirical commentator made some critical points.” (make sure to watch the video the post links to, it’s worth every second)

This is not to say that only big industries with hidden agendas and threatened profits propagate pseudoscience; even some well-meant people disseminate unwarranted misconceptions based on distrust and paranoia that more often than not feed off the same anti-scientific trough as the previous examples. And this benefits on one hand from a weasely attitude with regard to checking information before propagating it, especially over the social networks, has been aiding and abetting this destructive force: Another favorite pseudoscience trope: ‘I’m just providing information’. Yes, it’s the fallacy of ‘I’m just providing an alternative viewpoint.’ Or maybe I should call it an excuse or a dodge, because that’s what it is: a strategy for avoiding taking responsibility for what you say and write.” And on the other, by a lack of knowledge about even the most basic scientific facts, as illustrated quite humorously by this post, just consider the first item, which I cite here: 5 simple chemistry facts that everyone should understand before talking about science. 1). Everything is made of chemicals

People fear things like cellphones, for instance, which have been exonerated by several studies including a very thorough, recently published research: 11 Years of Research Found Zero Evidence Mobile Phones Cause Cancer. Of course, despite the lengthy research, there’ll no doubt still be people who think mobile phones are the cause of all society’s ills. We’re naturally—and perhaps wisely—suspicious of things that are new, which means technology often becomes the fall guy. Then there’s the fact that it’s basically impossible to prove something isn’t true—‘absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence’ and all that.” Or certain herbicides, demonized by people with the wrong kind of academic credentials: Glyphosate – The New Bogeyman. “Dr. Seneff gives every indication of being an anti-GMO ideologue. She is not a biologist, but rather is a computer scientist, and yet she is being presented as an expert. She has also not conducted any original research, but is spreading fears about glyphosate based on pure speculation, bad science and bad logic.

It should be noted that sometimes scientists and scientific institutions are sometimes to blame, when they add to the general confusion by making unwarranted, exaggerate claims about their own research: It’s not just stem cell research that’s overhyped— medical science spin is a widespread problem. ‘There is essentially an industry already out there that is marketing unproven therapies directly to patients.’ -George Daley, Harvard Medical School

How to navigate among such diverse claims without getting lost? There is no quick response to that, and in order to minimally understand what is going on on a given field some investment in time and reading is necessary. But there are some guidelines, and this two-part post about this problem provides very sound advice on how to deal with supposed scientific controversies:

Settled science part 1: Is science ever actually settled? If there is still significant debate about an issue, then you should find lots of high quality, peer-reviewed studies which supply evidence in support of the minority view. If, however, the only studies that you find are of low quality and are published in minor or questionable journals, then you can fairly safely conclude that there isn’t a significant debate.

Settled science part 2: Creating the illusion of a debate There is really only one criteria that matters for determining whether or not there is significant scientific debate about an issue, and that criteria is the peer-reviewed literature. If there is significant debate, you will find it there. Media debates, Youtube videos, petitions, personal opinions, etc. are all irrelevant and frequently fabricate conflicts where none exist.

Closing, I would like to cite a very interesting blog by a person who made a long journey from rejecting to embracing science, who makes a very compelling observation that summarizes what I am trying to say. Why Trust Vaccines if Pluto Isn’t a Planet?And that’s why so many people, like me, fall for it when people question science. We know it’s been wrong before. We know it can be wrong again. But here’s what it comes down to, and what turned me from a ‘fence-sitter’ who bought into pseudoscience, to a skeptic and rational thinker. When science has been proven wrong, it has always—every single time, with no exceptions—been proven wrong by more science. Every time there has been a mistake or misunderstanding within the scientific community, it was found out by brilliant researchers working together using the scientific method. It has never once been proven wrong by a spiritual vision, a surprise visit from a deity, or an act of magic.

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