Are You Naïve, Delusional, A Rube, A Chump?–The War On Science

Do you believe everything you read?

Can you verify everything you know?

How much of what you know is wrong?

People believe what they want to believe, and they always think they’ve right.  Would you even know when you’re wrong?  Does it matter, or would you really like to know the truth?

The reason I ask these question is because we’re in the middle of a war on science.  Like the rulers in Nineteen Eighty-Four, there are people who want you to believe what they want to believe and they know what they believe isn’t scientific, so their battle plan is to confuse people by attacking science and making it very hard to know what’s true and what’s not true.  Like those rulers in that famous dystopian novel, they’re willing to rewrite history and invent newspeak to fool people into believing their version of the truth.

Why trust what I have to say is the truth?  Well, you shouldn’t.  Never trust anyone.  The important thing is to learn how to verify facts for yourself.  It’s also important to learn how information is presented to you.  It’s very easy to be persuaded.  People are quick to believe anything.  It’s surprisingly easy to convince people to believe false information.  It’s devilishly hard to be logical.  People aren’t rational, even though we believe we are.  We’re geniuses at self-delusion.  Don’t trust yourself either.

Absolute truth is elusive in this reality.  We don’t live in a black and white world, but one with infinite shades of gray.  One of the biggest misconceptions about science is its knowledge is one hundred percent certain.  We know with absolute certainty that the Earth orbits the Sun.  Our knowledge of celestial mechanics is good enough that we can launch a satellite to Saturn and years later and billions of miles traveled, we’ll hit our target perfectly.  This is while the Earth, the satellite and Saturn all move independently tens of thousands of miles an hour in different directions, and the gravity of all the bodies in the solar system come into play.  This is fantastic knowledge that correlates to many decimal places.

Science is far less sure about the causes of breast cancer or global warming, but scientists know far more about those topics than you think.  The trick is, if you are worried about getting cancer or impending global warming, is to understand just how much they do know.  Evolution is closer to the fact of the Earth orbiting the Sun than the causes of global warming, and what we know about global warming is massive, but millions of people are fooled otherwise.

Now I can’t prove that in this essay.  It would take more words than I have time to write.  What you need to learn is how to examine news about science, and to do that I highly recommend reading Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway.  Oreskes and Conway examine several public scientific debates that have occurred since the 1940s and they show how science works and doesn’t work, as well as how anti-science forces are corrupting science in the United States.

merchantsofdoubt

After World War II scientists began to tell people that smoking cigarettes was not safe.  Now the tobacco industry didn’t want people believing that, even though their own scientists told them it was true.  When the tobacco industry realized they couldn’t refute the actual science, they discovered they could confuse the public by attacking science in general and sowing doubt.  Oreskes and Convey show a history of how big businesses have refined these techniques to fight one scientific discovery after another that threatened livelihood.  And they use the public as their dupes.

Oreskes and Conway examine these battles like a court case carefully weighing all evidence presented by science and the anti-scientists.  One thing big business learned quickly was to hire scientists to attack other scientists, and Merchants of Doubt presents several men  and women who have made careers of being anti-scientists.  Oreskes and Conway try hard not to vilify these individuals, but I can’t help seeing them as evil.

But who is to say I’m right?  The point of Merchants of Doubt is to learn how scientific issues are studied and decide for yourself.

We all get email with a political agenda.  These emails have carefully crafted stories designed to convince us to believe something specific about reality.  It might be that global warming is a myth, or Obama isn’t a natural born American.  Why believe what you read?  Why be skeptical?  Because there’s a war going on and each side is recruiting.  One side wants you to be their chump.  It’s like computer viruses that convert your computer into zombies used for organized crime – someone wants to use your mind, and they want you to act for them.

Don’t get brainwashed.  Learn how to think for yourself.  Learn how to think scientifically.  Be skeptical.  Seek good evidence.

Real science works through peer reviewed journals.  A scientist will develop a hypothesis to test.  They will set up an experiment.  They will report their results in a paper and send it to a peer reviewed journal.   Fellow scientists in the same discipline will review the article and judge it for proper methodology.  If the article is accepted and published it doesn’t mean the results are facts.  Other scientists will read the article and devise new tests and go through the process again.  Topics under examination will be thoroughly researched over and over again until a statistical consensus emerges.  It takes a long time.  All too often one test result will be reported in the national news and causes a big brouhaha.  This is one reason why many people find science confusing.  They think one test result is suppose to tell the absolute truth and it doesn’t.

To further complicate scientific inquiry, people with a vested interest in a particular topic will make that topic newsworthy.  They will do everything they can to try their case in the court of popular journalism.  In peer reviewed journals only people who are specialists in the topic deal with the subject, but in regular journalism anybody can say anything.  You might get a food processing chemist proclaiming facts about climatology.  Or you might get high school dropout that just wants to get their opinion heard.

Don’t believe what you read about scientific concepts unless you thoroughly research them.  Few people are going to read peer reviewed science journals.  So what can you do?  Learn to read popular science books.  At least research Wikipedia.  Wikipedia can be untrustworthy, but many of its articles are a battleground between many points of view and a consensus often gets hammered out.

Another good realty check is Snopes.com.   Snopes often reviews silly topics, but all too often people believe silly crap.  When you hear about something new check Snopes.  A large percentage of internet gossip is fabricated.

Like I said, I highly recommend reading Merchants of Doubt.  Instead of saying anything more about the book please read Global Warming Deniers and Their Proven Strategy of Doubt to get a bit of the flavor of the book.

This isn’t the only book on this subject.  Journalists, writers and historians are beginning to see a pattern.

JWH – 6/21/12

22 thoughts on “Are You Naïve, Delusional, A Rube, A Chump?–The War On Science

    1. That article is right on target. It sounds very logical that science can only repress natural thinking for many people. What’s needed I think, is a way to teach children science before unscientific logic sets in. But is that possible?

      That 46% of the U.S. population believes God created humans within the last 10,000 years explains why the Merchants of Doubt are so successful.

      The rich have always corrupted politics, but now they are corrupting science. They go so far as to create fake peer review journals. To a population that cannot understand science, pseudo-science can easily bamboozle them.

  1. John, I just read your New Yorker article a great addition to J. Harris’ blog….It seems that common sense is often wrong, don’t feel so bad we are just clever animals trying to muddle thru….Jim in Miami

  2. That book sounds great, Jim. Thanks.

    Note that no one can be an expert in everything. Even scientists can’t claim any particular expertise outside of their own specialization.

    So we need to teach children science, but – much more importantly – we need to teach them about the scientific method. You don’t have to be an expert in any particular issue. You just have to understand why it’s always smart to accept – provisionally, as all science is provisional – the scientific consensus.

    Of course, corporate and political interests try very hard to convince people that there’s a scientific controversy when there isn’t one. But it’s not hard to find out what biologists think about evolution or what climatologists think about global warming (for two examples).

    I can’t be an expert in everything, but I can understand why accepting the scientific consensus is the only rational position for us laymen. And that makes it pretty easy. (If there’s no clear consensus, I just reserve judgement.)

    1. I’m very impressed with the work that went into Merchants of Doubt. In every battle between anti-scientists and environmentalism they document how each side made claims and counter claims, and even down to published letters.

      All too often people claiming to be experts aren’t but they effectively sell themselves as expects and people believe them. They key I think is learning how to evaluate knowledge for yourself.

      Merchants of Doubt shows a consistent track record by big business to cloud the issues when it comes to environmental safety. I think if people learn to spot their techniques it will help them think for themselves, and not become zombie minds co-opted to do other people’s dirty work.

      1. Actually, many scientists are clouding the issue, because they step outside of their specialty. Scientists are human. Most of the “villians” of Merchants of Doubt were scientists at one time. The problem is when we try to decide what is science outside of the scientific method.

  3. It must be tough being a scientist, devoting your life to research, then publishing the results of years of study only to hear some uneducated Philistine say ‘well, that’s your opinion’. I’ve seen Paul Krugman on TV a lot the past couple of weeks – he’s promoting a book I think. The look on his face when people just completely disregard his research is one of utter astonishment. You acquire a PhD in a subject, spend your whole adult life trying to understand something, then some guy who sold cars for a living before becoming a Congressman brushes off your advice by repeating the same dictum over and over again. Sad.

  4. Don’t dismiss the opinion of the ‘uneducated Philistine’. Just because someone has a PhD doesn’t give them a divine right to be automatically accepted as correct.
    Many, many people may be ‘unqualified’ but have practical experience that do give them a unique insight, and that shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. Indeed, it may be that people actually are qualified but in an unrelated field in which their experience leads them to an entirely different conclusion that may be equally valid and worthy of serious consideration, though marginalized because they might be ‘out of their field’.
    Sure, you can perhaps give those that are ‘qualified’ a greater weight, but it’s prudent to recognize that this weight can be used to crush dissenting opinions or theories. This is a danger in the peer-review system where those that have an interest in maintaining the status quo can effectively censor that which doesn’t jibe with them.
    By blindly accepting what those that have a PhD say is correct, you are exposing yourself as a sheep of a different color.

    Someone said to me once – your mind is like a parachute – it functions best when it’s open – not set like concrete.

    1. This brings up the whole issue of authority. Who has the right to claim to be an expert? Everyone has an opinion, and even uneducated people can have insightful opinions. Some people are autodidactics and can study up on any subject. But when it comes down to scientific issues, it’s best to leave stating the results to the people doing the experiments and going through peer review.

      For global warming we give thousands of scientists all over the world billions of dollars to study the problem. Their results are from fighting over the issue for decades. I would assume they’d have the best answer if there was one.

      1. That they’re fighting about it suggests that objectivity has gone out the window on both sides, therefore no-one is engaging in real science. Why?? Because there is money and vested interest (career, reputation, ego, employment) involved. Sadly a symptom of much of ‘scientific’ pursuit these days, including the peer-review system.

      2. At the public level there is no scientific objectivity at all. Global warming is a political issue. Big business is using scientists to fight science, but it’s more than just defending self-interest. Politically, the right has chosen environmentalism as the new communism. They see regulations an anti-freedom, and global warming will require a lot of regulations. They equate such level of control with communism and socialism.

        Liberals see global warming as a threat to the whole world, but conservatives see global warming as a threat to the United States. They will do anything to attack the science behind climate change.

    2. If you understand the scientific method, you’ll understand why the scientific consensus is always the smartest bet.

      After all, if you don’t choose your positions that way, then you’re just picking what you want to believe. Yes, that includes choosing to believe in a minority position among scientists.

      For laymen, and for scientists outside their field of expertise, there is only one rational choice: the scientific consensus. Everything else is just believing what you want to believe. There is simply no alternative, if you want to be rational.

      Sure, you can rationalize your beliefs. All faith-based believers do that. You can decide that the scientific consensus makes no sense. But, of course, the scientific consensus is based on evidence, not on what sounds good to the ignorant. There is simply no alternative here, not for rational people.

      Keep an open mind, but not so open that your brain falls out. If there were real evidence backing up your position, then that would be the scientific consensus. And if someday such evidence is discovered (no scientist claims to be infallible), then the consensus will change.

      But that’s not the smart bet.

      1. But Bill, how do we get everyone to think scientific? You’re right, what it comes down to is getting everyone to clearly understand the scientific method. Once they understand that, they will realize that there is no other method for examining reality. Everything else is conjecture and logic, and logic is usually based on false assumptions.

        The scientific method is the only system for telling fantasy from fact. Why can’t people see that?

      2. People find it very easy to believe what they want to believe. That’s one of the big things the scientific method is designed to combat.

        Is it perfect? Of course not. But I think we need to keep asking detractors for their alternative. How do you separate delusions and wishful-thinking from reality? If you don’t respect the scientific method, what method do you use.

        Whatever you think of science, there’s simply no alternative for rational people. There is no other rational method of determining the truth. Aaron, if you don’t accept the scientific consensus, you’re just picking what you want to believe and going with that.

        That’s not science. That’s not even understanding the scientific method, let alone “supporting” it. (Choosing which scientist to “believe” isn’t science, it’s faith.)

      3. How do we teach everyone to understand the scientific method?

        How do we teach everyone to stop thinking philosophically and think scientifically?

        I’ve been contemplating this for days. At first I thought religion was the problem, but people who are just religious are sheep – they follow. The real troublemakers in our society are the philosophical thinkers, they are the wolves. They use logic and rhetoric to justify what they want – and they ignore science.

        The people identified in Merchants of Doubt who are undermining science use philosophical skills to attack science, and most people are persuaded by philosophical logic. Science works by statistical logic, and that kind of thinking is alien to most people.

      4. I’m in full support of the scientific method. However, it appears to be applied partially or selectively at times. For it to function as the measure of what qualifies as scientific, it has to be applied with full and equal rigor in every circumstance. It isn’t.

  5. Science is quite good over the long term, but not so much in the short term. All my life, I was told that salt was bad for me. It turns out that this was based on one poorly-designed study in the early 70s. FORTY YEARS LATER, well-designed studies shows that salt is actually good for you, and too little salt causes the very problems that it was designed to cure.

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=its-time-to-end-the-war-on-salt

    As a research mathematician, I believe strongly in peer review, but I am also aware of its limitations. First, it depends on the journal, the editors, and the reviewers. I have known good mathematicians who tell me that they check only whether the results make sense, and leave the details of the proof to the author’s reputation. After all, they reason, if the results turn out to be wrong (as opposed to sensible), whose reputation is ruined? the referees’, or the author’s?

    I find this attitude appalling. First, the journal’s reputation can also be ruined. In some cases, it isn’t (Nature, the Lancet) but there are usually good reasons for that. Even so, they get a little egg on their face. Second, it can take years or even decades for someone to discover the problems in the original article. That means years or decades pass where people operate under false assumptions, politicians thump their chests about how they’re solving a “problem” that doesn’t actually exist, etc. See also: salt.

    A last note: a lot of things bother me about the climate science controversies, but the biggest was the attack on some journals by scientists who didn’t like the publishing of papers that contradict their own conclusions. Personally, I agree with them that the climate is warming, and I don’t doubt that humans have something to do with it; as Lorenz proved long ago, it’s a dynamical system, after all, and hence, chaotic. Nevertheless, blacklisting journals that publish carefully-researched papers by good scientists that argue a different conclusion, merely because you don’t like the conclusion or the fact that the authors routinely poke holes in your own arguments, is not responsible science — it’s a war on science all of its own.

    1. Science is far from perfect – and that’s one of the problems with science – people expect it to be perfect. Science is easily corrupted. There are too few premier journals and too many journals just out to publish stuff.

      The essential thing about science is it’s the only discipline that tries to validate its result in a systematic way. All other forms of knowledge are based on assumptions, logic and beliefs – and although they can be persuasive, have to checks and validations. Take for instance the idea of free market capitalism. Millions of people base their whole personal and business philosophy around that idea, but is it validated in any way? Milton Friedman preached its value so they believe it.

      Our society is full of beliefs people just accept. I think science fiction has many common assumptions we just accept. I think we should really evaluate them scientifically.

      1. Take for instance the idea of free market capitalism. Millions of people base their whole personal and business philosophy around that idea, but is it validated in any way? Milton Friedman preached its value so they believe it.

        What are the goals of free market capitalism, and what are you comparing it to? The answers to these questions matter. If you want to say, “Free Market Capitalism isn’t perfect,” a lot of its advocates would actually agree. On the other hand, people who either advocated or apologized for Marxism were for decades disproportionately represented in the professoriate. This included a lot of scientists and economists. Yet the history of the 20th century suggests that, if anything, Marxism is the surest way to guarantee poverty, inequality, and oppression.

        (FWIW I am not a “free market” capitalist.)

        The essential thing about science is it’s the only discipline that tries to validate its result in a systematic way.

        I could be wrong, but I don’t agree. I would say that science is the one discipline that is fortunate enough to have an abundance of empirical data on the material it chooses to study, and much of that data is both well-defined and in possession of high degrees of certainty and/or accuracy. Problems arise when the data has less and less certainty, and the best scientists acknowledge this. Sadly, it is presented — sometimes by the media, sometimes by the scientists themselves — as being absolutely certain.

        This is why, for example, many people criticize string theory as being “not even wrong”, which is a way of saying it’s not a science. They say that you can’t even formulate verifiable hypotheses. I think this has turned out not to be true after all, but it does give an example: empirical verification with high certainty is the hallmark of science, not systematic validation.

        Our society is full of beliefs people just accept.

        Aren’t all societies like that? :-)

        Anyway, I just wanted to express my skepticism about trusting anything that hasn’t had a period of time to settle and be verified. Sadly, absolute certainty doesn’t exist. I’m hoping I will see God one day, as I have quite a few choice words for how he’s run the place, and this matter of uncertainty is near the top of my list of complaints.

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