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.
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.
- Doubt is their Project: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health by David Michaels
- Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution by Gerald Markowitz
- The Republican War on Science by Chris Mooney
- The Battle Over Climate Science – Popular Science
JWH – 6/21/12