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.

Bad Signs From The Publishing World

The recent acquisition of an open access publisher by the publisher juggernaut Elsevier raised a lot of concerns in the scientific publishing arena, justifiably so, in my opinion; see Elsevier buys SSRN: “Elsevier is one of the world’s largest scholarly publishers and one of the most bitter enemies that open access publishing has; SSRN is one of the biggest open access scholarly publishing repositories in the world: what could possibly go wrong?

Coming not long after some major incidents around issues of editorial independence, this is indeed cause of major concern. In one case, the editorial staff of an important medical journal resigned in protest to the sacking of its editor: Medical journal editor sacked and editorial committee resigns.All but one member of the editorial advisory committee for Australia’s top medical journal have resigned following the sacking of its eminent editor. Stephen Leeder, an emeritus professor of public health at the University of Sydney and chair of the Western Sydney Local Health District Board, was sacked as editor of the prestigious Medical Journal of Australia after he raised concerns about a decision by the journal’s publisher AMPCo to outsource the journal’s production to Elsevier. AMPCo is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Australian Medical Association.” In another case, an OA publisher sacked virtually the whole core team of two journals: Open-access publisher sacks 31 editors amid fierce row over independence. “A booming open-access (OA) publishing company has dismissed virtually the entire leadership of two medical journals amid a heated conflict over editorial independence. Frontiers, based in Lausanne, Switzerland, removed 31 editors of Frontiers in Medicine and Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine on 7 May after the editors complained that company staff were interfering with editorial decisions and violating core principles of medical publishing. Emotions are running high. The editors say Frontiers’ publication practices are designed to maximize the company’s profits, not the quality of papers, and that this could harm patients. Frederick Fenter, executive editor at Frontiers, says the company had no choice but to fire the entire group because they were holding up the publication of papers until their demands were met, which he likens to ‘extortion.’

Such events makes one ponder about the role of the publishers in general, and makes inevitable that proposals to fundamentally change the status quo start popping up all over the world, such as this: Want to Change Academic Publishing? Just Say No. If academic work is to be commodified and turned into a source of profit for shareholders and for the 1 percent of the publishing world, then we should give up our archaic notions of unpaid craft labor and insist on professional compensation for our expertise, just as doctors, lawyers, and accountants do. This does not mean we would never referee articles free. Just as the lawyer who is my neighbor bills corporate clients a hefty fee but represents prisoners in Guantánamo pro bono, so academics could referee without charge for nonprofit presses but insist on professional rates of compensation from for-profit publishers that expect us to donate our labor while paying mansion salaries to their chief executives and top managers.

I am not sure that this is the best approach, but it has the merit of exposing a major problem in the publishing industry, that is being compounded by the strong hand tactics in the examples given, which compromise the very core of the enterprise, namely the circulation of scientific knowledge.

Cancer Quackery

One of the worst kinds of misinformation in my opinion is the type that preys on the desperate, offering false hopes, making them turn away sound treatments that might in fact help them and often also bilking them of much needed money. An area that is rife with this kind of dangerous quackery is the domain of cancer "treatments", which abound on the internet.

This is not to say that there is not a lot wrong with orthodox oncology treatments, especially with regard to drug prices, but that I addressed elsewhere, and will return to it shortly, if time permits.

I recently came across two blog posts that address this problem, making some valid points about the problem of credibility of internet sites in general and the unfortunate "brainwashing" that takes place in many cases making people impervious to critique to such outrageous claims of miracle cures.

One is from a site dedicated to confronting pseudoscience, and presents the obvious red flags that should alert people to the real nature of some "alternative" stuff: Confronting Cancer Quackery.
"The Internet is abuzz with “natural remedies” and “holistic” measures against cancer, and a quick trawl through some of the websites spouting them reveals that the nature and extent of the errors (and lies) upon which they are based are as varied as they are pernicious. However, two hallmarks crop up invariably: 1, a gross de-emphasis of the complexity and diversity of cancer, and 2, a blurring of the (extremely important) distinction between cancer prevention and cancer cure. Equipped with a basic understanding of how cancer works, cancer pseudoscientists’ lack thereof becomes painfully obvious."

The other is from a site with a pretty descriptive name, "Science-Based Medicine", and offers some good insights into how to address this problem:

Answering Cancer Quackery: The Sophisticated Approach to True Believers.
"You can’t change someone else’s mind; they have to change their own mind. The sophisticated approach is to ask them questions that lead them to doubt, and gently lead them to discover the truth for themselves. That is something Socrates was very good at; I’m not. But I can suggest some questions to ask. Maybe start with some kind of validation: Wow, that really sounds good; I can see why you’re impressed, but there are some things I’m wondering about…"

Both good reads which I thoroughly recommend.

Abject attack on non-commercial open access scientific publishing

SciELO (Scientific Electronic Library Online) is a public, non-commercial, open access portal which harbours the most important Brazilian scientific periodicals. It has come under attack by an American librarian who apparently believes that only commercial publishers can provide visibility to scientific journals.

The Forum of Brazilian Public Health Editors and the Brazilian Public Health Association responded to such attacks with the manifest below, please help to disseminate:

By the Brazilian Forum of Public Health Journals Editors and the Associação Brasileira de Saúde Coletiva (Abrasco, Brazilian Public Health Association)

Jeffrey Beal, an American librarian who gained notoriety publishing a list of open access publishers considered as “predatory” by him, posted in his blog an unbelievably mistaken and prejudiced article, beginning with its title, “Is SciELO a Publication Favela?”[1]
Based on an ethnocentric and purely commercial point of view, mr. Beal supposes that, since the whole ensemble of its publications are not indexed by Thomson Reuter’s bibliographic database, and because of the discontinuation of a proposal by a Brazilian government agency to hire a commercial publisher to disseminate some of the nation’s periodicals, SciELO’s publications would be “hidden from the world” (sic).
In order to promote commercial publishers, mr. Beal despises the asset that the SciELO collection represents, and makes factually incorrect assertions. Contrary to his statements, the whole collection is already indexed in the Scopus database. Also in opposition to another of his mistaken affirmations, SciELO has adopted for some time the Creative Commons license, which means that there is no risk of an article “losing its interest” due to author’s copyright issues.
A paragraph in particular demonstrates the prejudices, classism, imperialism and crass commercialism present in the tone of mr. Beal’s diatribe: “Thus, commercial publisher platforms are nice neighborhoods for scholarly publications. On the other hand, some open-access platforms are more like publication favelas.”
As a counterpoint to this neocolonial point of view, a recent article by Vessuri and cols emphasizes the contribution of initiatives such as SciELO and Redalyc (also targeted by mr. Beal) for the development of science in Latin America and the world: “In fact, Latin America is using the OA publishing model to a far greater extent than any other region in the world. Also, because the sense of public mission remains strong among Latin American universities, the effectiveness of open access for knowledge sharing was heard loud and clear. (…) These current initiatives demonstrate that the region contributes more and more to the global knowledge exchange while positioning research literature as a public good.”[2]
Contrary to the classist disgust that favelas elicit from mr. Beal, we would like to reiterate that they are a kind of neighborhood where a sizable portion of the Brazilian population, which uses the nation’s healthcare system and is ultimately the source of funding for the Brazilian science itself, resides. Discrimination and prejudice against these Brazilian citizens is inadmissible. If the only alternatives for scientific publishing are either inhabiting the gated communities of the 1% of the world population which concentrates wealth at the cost of exploiting the other 99% or being with the people in a favela, long live the favela.
[2] VESSURI, Hebe; GUÉDON, Jean-Claude; CETTO, Ana María. Excellence or quality? Impact of the current competition regime on science and scientific publishing in Latin America and its implications for development. Current Sociology, p. 0011392113512839, 2013.

UPDATE: More on the same subject at SciELO’s own blog.