Tag Archives: anti-science

Who are you calling ‘anti-science’? How science serves social and political agendas

The Conversation

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Left, right, populist, elitist: there are many different ways to be anti-science. arindambanerjee/shutterstock

Darrin Durant, University of Melbourne

Florida recently passed a law which “authorizes county residents to challenge use or adoption of instructional materials” in schools. It’s been described as “anti-science” by individual scientists and USA’s National Center for Science Education.

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From climate change to vaccination, genetic modification and energy security, anti-science is used as a critical phrase implying a person or group is rejecting science outright.

But it’s not that simple.

All shades of political positions are routinely ambivalent about science. Neither the right or left arms of politics are consistent supporters or attackers of science.


Read more: Why politicians think they know better than scientists


If there is no one definition of anti-science that works across all settings, why does it matter that we know anti-science means different things to different people? The reason is that science remains a key resource in arguing for social and political change or non-change.

Knowing what counts as anti-science for distinct groups can help illuminate what people take to be the proper grounds for social and political decision-making.

Left, right, populist, elitist

First up, I’ll define some broad terms.

To be politically “left” is to be concerned about social and economic equality, sometimes cultural equality too, and usually a state big enough to protect the less fortunate and less powerful.

To be “right” is to be concerned about individual autonomy and a state small enough to let markets and personal responsibility decide fates rather than central planners.

To be “populist” involves being anti-elite, anti-pluralist (the “us vs them” view of civic relations), tending toward conspiracy theories, and displaying a preference for direct over representative democracy.

It’s also worth noting here that science can be viewed as an elite endeavour. Not elitist in the two main negative senses, of being impractical or of being practiced by special people somehow different in kind to the rest of us. Instead, I mean science is elitist in the more technical sense of being a professionalised body of practice.

To become a scientist is to be admitted to an elite group in society – not everyone can attend events like Science and Technology 2017 Conference held in Hofburg Palace, Austria. ctbto/flickr, CC BY

The skills and knowledge possessed by scientists are gained by social immersion in various forms of training regimens. Both those learning contexts and the resulting skills and knowledge gained are not widely participated in, nor widely distributed. The experience-based and often professionalised context of science creates a select group.

Different flavours of anti-science

To make clear the way anti-science comes in different political flavours, let me first make some general claims.

Populists of either left-wing or right-wing persuasions distrust elites, and that can be enough for populists to at least be suspicious of factual claims produced distant from the populist. Pauline Hanson said that public vaccinations are a worry and parents should do their own research, including getting a (non-existent) test of their child for negative effects.

Anti-science among the mainstream left and right wings of politics is more complex. Each share a worry that science can be corrupted, but the left blames capitalist profiteering, and the right blames careerist attempts to distort the market.

Each also shares a worry that science can engulf politics, but the left worries that technical answers will displace deliberative politics, and the right worries that science will displace traditional values as the motor of social change.

But whereas anti-science from the left arises as a label for apprehensions about the application of science, anti-science from the right arises as a label for apprehensions about science’s raw ability to discover causal connections.

Populist left

Skeptic magazine publisher Michael Shermer thinks the populist left are anti-science by virtue of disliking genetically modified organisms (GMOs), nuclear power, fracking and vaccines. According to him, they shockingly obsess over the “purity and sanctity of air, water and especially food”.

But writer Chris Mooney is correct to reply that, taking vaccine-related scepticism as an example, Shermer has picked up on conspiracist rather than leftist beliefs.

Lacking authoritarianism, today’s populist-left disquiet with science is actually a lament that production-science tramples human values.

An example might be the Australian Vaccination Network, which claims to be neither pro- nor anti-vaccination and instead “pro-choice”. The populist left in this case pushes parental rights to the limit, presenting it as sufficient for decision-making yet under threat by larger institutions and their “foreign” ways.

Mainstream left

The mainstream-left are more ambivalent than straight anti-anything. GMOs and nuclear power are suspect? Climate science and vaccinations are promising? Leftist anti-science is more about anti-corruption and wariness that technical reasoning will supplant values debates in our democracies.

Greenpeace believes some kinds of scientific evidence, but distrusts others. takver/flickr, CC BY-SA

The Greenpeace critique of GMOs is a good example. Greenpeace appeals for independent science but suggests agro-chemical corporations are corrupting it, and they call for ethical-political deliberation about our food supply not just dry technical assessments of safety.

Populist right

The populist-right implies shadow governments conspire against the market and the people, as when the One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts reportedly claimed climate change science had been captured by “some of the major banking families in the world” who form a “tight-knit cabal”.

In general, the populist-right’s anti-science is just pro-conspiracist.

Mainstream right (small-state conservatives)

The mainstream-right is more complicated.

Sociologist Gordon Gauchat found that to be anti-science the political right had to score high on four dimensions:

  • religiosity
  • authoritarianism
  • distrust of government, and
  • scientific literacy (surprisingly).

They sometimes parrot the left’s allegations of corruption, but mainstream-right and populist-right approach corruption differently.

The mainstream-right is loath to imply a shadow world order, as that disrupts the ideology of the market. Instead, they limit the corruption implication to accusations of groupthink that distort the market (the typical example being climate scientists shutting down dissent for careerist reasons).

The mainstream-right has bigger fish to fry. Philosopher Heather Douglas has ideas about why the political right leans toward anti-science.

Douglas argues that shifts in the public-private boundary, whereby private behaviours become treated as matters of public concern, trouble the right more than the left. Social change is thus viewed more positively by progressive leftists than traditionalist right-wingers.

Douglas suggests that science routinely discovers causal relationships that prompt shifts in the public-private boundary; like finding waste has human and biosphere effects beyond the individual. That means science is pitted directly against traditional values as one of the motors of social change.

Not every example fits Douglas’ pattern. The Australian Liberal Party has been described as undermining renewable energy and being resistant to meaningful policy action on climate change, but clearly supports vaccination. Is that because, for the right, vaccinations expand the market, and right-wingers are more comfortable with social change driven by markets?

The predatory influence science can exert over important ethical-political issues troubles both left and right-wingers.

But where the left worries about the application of science to broader issues, small-state conservatives implicitly react to the means of production that enable political application: the discovery of causal relationships. The observations and experiments that feed into community-based assessments of causality constitute the core of science, not its secondary application to social issues.

As regulatory science has grown since the 1950s, small-state conservatives watched it expand the state by showing the private could be public. Science is a well-resourced competitor among the motors of social change.

Small-state conservatives experience science as guiding social change, a function they want to preserve for traditional values. Small-state conservatives are the true heirs to anti-science.

When the historian Naomi Oreskes talks of merchants of doubt – right-wing free marketers opposed to environmental regulation – she is in my judgement talking about small-state conservatives worried that science is a motor of change outside their sphere of direct control.

What anti-science isn’t, and what it might be

In his book How to be Antiscientific, Steven Shapin argues that descriptions of science, and what ought to be done in science, vary tremendously among scientists themselves.

So you’re not anti-science if you have a preference for or against things like a preferred method, or some particular philosophy of science, or some supposed “character” of science.

Nor are you anti-science because you highlight the uncertainties, the unknowns and the conditionality of scientific knowledge. Even when you are the outsider to science. That’s called free speech in a democracy.

Where does that leave anti-science? Maybe it leaves anti-science living with small-state conservatives, who in effect cast aspersions about something that might be essential to the ideal of scientific authority having a positive and functional relationship with democracy. That is, science as a public good.

If you end up denying the relevance of science to informing or guiding democratic decision-making, because you want some value untouched by information to do that guidance work, maybe that makes you about as anti-scientific as democracies can tolerate.


The ConversationRead more: Should scientists engage with pseudo-science or anti-science?


Darrin Durant, Lecturer in Science and Technology Studies, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Peter Doherty: why Australia needs to march for science

The Conversation

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March for Science events will be held across the world on April 22 2017. From www.shutterstock.com

Peter C. Doherty, The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity

The following article is adapted from a speech to be delivered at the Melbourne March for Science on Saturday 22 April, 2017. The Conversation

The mission posted on the March for Science international website states:

The March for Science champions robustly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity. We unite as a diverse, nonpartisan group to call for science that upholds the common good and for political leaders and policy makers to enact evidence based policies in the public interest. The March for Science is a celebration of science.

To me, it seems the reason concerned people across the planet are marching today is that, at least for the major players in the English-speaking world, there are major threats to the global culture of science.

Why? A clear understanding of what is happening with, for example, the atmosphere, oceans and climate creates irreconcilable problems for powerful vested interests, particularly in the fossil fuel and coastal real estate sectors.

Contrary to the data-free “neocon/trickle down” belief system, the observed dissonance implies that we need robust, enforceable national and international tax and regulatory structures to drive the necessary innovation and renewal that will ensure global sustainability and a decent future for humanity and other, complex life forms.

Here in Australia, the March for Science joins a global movement initiated by a perceived anti-science stance in Donald Trump’s administration.

Trump’s 2018 budget proposal

In the USA, President Trump’s proposed budget for 2018 incorporates massive cuts to the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

And, though it in no sense reflects political hostility and deliberate ignorance, British scientists are fearful that Brexit will have a terrible impact on their funding and collaborative arrangements.

How does this affect us in Australia? Why should we care? The science culture is international and everyone benefits from progress made anywhere. NOAA records, analyses and curates much of the world’s climate science data. A degraded EPA provides a disastrous model for all corrupt and regressive regimes.

Science depends on a “churn”, both of information and people. After completing their PhD “ticket”, many of our best young researchers will spend 3-5 years employed as postdoctoral fellows in the USA, Europe and (increasingly) the Asian countries to our north, while young American, Asian and European/British scientists come to work for a time with our leading scientists.

The proposed 2018 US President’s budget would, for example, abolish the NIH Fogarty International Centre that has enabled many young scientists from across the planet to work in North America. In turn, we recruited “keepers” like Harvard-educated Brian Schmidt, our first, resident Nobel Prize winner for physics and current Vice Chancellor of the Australian National University (ANU).

We might also recall that – supported strongly by Prime Ministers JJ Curtin and RG Menzies – the ANU (with 3 Nobel Prizes to its credit) was founded as a research university to position us in science and international affairs.

Not a done deal, yet

What looks to be happening in the US is not a done deal.

The US political system is very different from our own. The Division of Powers in the US Constitution means that the President is in many respects less powerful than our PM.

Unable to introduce legislation, a President can only pass (or veto) bills that come from the Congress. Through to September, we will be watching a vigorous negotiation process where separate budgets from the House and the Senate (which may well ignore most, if not all, of the President’s ambit claims) will develop a “reconciled” budget that will be presented for President Trump’s signature.

How March for Science might help

The hope is that this international celebration of science will cause US legislators, particularly the more thoughtful on the right of politics, to reflect a little and understand what they risk if they choose to erode their global scientific leadership.

There are massive problems to be solved, along with great economic opportunities stemming from the development of novel therapies and new, smart “clean and green” technologies in, particularly, the energy generation and conservation sector.

Ignoring, or denying, problems does not make them go away. Whether or not the message is welcome, the enormous power of science and technology means we can only go forward if future generations are to experience the levels of human well-being and benign environmental conditions we enjoy today.

There is no going back. The past is a largely imagined, and irretrievable country.

Peter C. Doherty, Laureate Professor, The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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SCIENCE, NOT SILENCE

The March for Science is a celebration of our passion for science and a call to support and safeguard the scientific community. Recent policy changes have caused heightened worry among scientists, and the incredible and immediate outpouring of support has made clear that these concerns are also shared by hundreds of thousands of people around the world. The mischaracterization of science as a partisan issue, which has given policymakers permission to reject overwhelming evidence, is a critical and urgent matter. It is time for people who support scientific research and evidence-based policies to take a public stand and be counted.

ON APRIL 22, 2017, WE WALK OUT OF THE LAB AND INTO THE STREETS.

We are scientists and science enthusiasts. We come from all races, all religions, all gender identities, all sexual orientations, all abilities, all socioeconomic backgrounds, all political perspectives, and all nationalities. Our diversity is our greatest strength: a wealth of opinions, perspectives, and ideas is critical for the scientific process. What unites us is a love of science, and an insatiable curiosity. We all recognize that science is everywhere and affects everyone.

Science is often an arduous process, but it is also thrilling. A universal human curiosity and dogged persistence is the greatest hope for the future. This movement cannot and will not end with a march. Our plans for policy change and community outreach will start with marches worldwide and a teach-in at the National Mall, but it is imperative that we continue to celebrate and defend science at all levels – from local schools to federal agencies – throughout the world.

MARCH WITH US

The March for Science is an international movement, led by organizers distributed around the globe. This movement is taking place because of the simultaneous realization by thousands of  scientists, and science enthusiasts that that staying silent is no longer an option.  There are marches being planned across the United States and internationally.

We encourage everyone to follow to local organizers to stay updated, and reach out if you want to help!

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All our food is ‘genetically modified’ in some way – where do you draw the line?

The Conversation

James Borrell, Queen Mary University of London

In the past week you’ve probably eaten crops that wouldn’t exist in nature, or that have evolved extra genes to reach freakish sizes. You’ve probably eaten “cloned” food and you may have even eaten plants whose ancestors were once deliberately blasted with radiation. And you could have bought all this without leaving the “organic” section of your local supermarket.

Anti-GM dogma is obscuring the real debate over what level of genetic manipulation society deems acceptable. Genetically-modified food is often regarded as something you’re either for or against, with no real middle ground.

Yet it is misleading to consider GM technology a binary decision, and blanket bans like those in many European countries are only likely to further stifle debate. After all, very little of our food is truly “natural” and even the most basic crops are the result of some form of human manipulation.

Between organic foods and tobacco engineered to glow in the dark lie a broad spectrum of “modifications” worthy of consideration. All of these different technologies are sometimes lumped together under “GM”. But where would you draw the line?

1. (Un)natural selection

Think of carrots, corn or watermelons – all foods you might eat without much consideration. Yet when compared to their wild ancestors, even the “organic” varieties are almost unrecognisable.

Domestication generally involves selecting for beneficial traits, such as high yield. Over time, many generations of selection can substantially alter a plant’s genetic makeup. Man-made selection is capable of generating forms that are extremely unlikely to occur in nature.

Modern watermelons (right) look very different to their 17th-century ancestors (left). Christies/Prathyush Thomas, CC BY

2. Genome duplications

Unknowing selection by our ancestors also involved a genetic process we only discovered relatively recently. Whereas humans have half a set of chromosomes (structures that package and organise your genetic information) from each parent, some organisms can have two or more complete duplicate sets of chromosomes. This “polyploidy” is widespread in plants and often results in exaggerated traits such as fruit size, thought to be the result of multiple gene copies.

Without realising, many crops have been unintentionally bred to a higher level of ploidy (entirely naturally) as things like large fruit or vigorous growth are often desirable. Ginger and apples are triploid for example, while potatoes and cabbage are tetraploid. Some strawberry varieties are even octoploid, meaning they have eight sets of chromosomes compared to just two in humans.

3. Plant cloning

It’s a word that tends to conjure up some discomfort – no one really wants to eat “cloned” food. Yet asexual reproduction is the core strategy for many plants in nature, and farmers have utilised it for centuries to perfect their crops.

Once a plant with desirable characteristics is found – a particularly tasty and durable banana, for instance – cloning allows us to grow identical replicates. This could be entirely natural with a cutting or runner, or artificially-induced with plant hormones. Domestic bananas have long since lost the seeds that allowed their wild ancestors to reproduce – if you eat a banana today, you’re eating a clone.

Each banana plant is a genetic clone of a previous generation.
Ian Ransley, CC BY

4. Induced mutations

Selection – both human and natural – operates on genetic variation within a species. If a trait or characteristic never occurs, then it cannot be selected for. In order to generate greater variation for conventional breeding, scientists in the 1920s began to expose seeds to chemicals or radiation.

Unlike more modern GM technologies, this “mutational breeding” is largely untargeted and generates mutations at random. Most will be useless, but some will be desirable. More than 1,800 cultivars of crop and ornamental plants including varieties of wheat, rice, cotton and peanuts have been developed and released in more than 50 countries. Mutational breeding is credited for spurring the “green revolution” in the 20th century.

Many common foods such as red grapefruits and varieties of pasta wheat are a result of this approach and, surprisingly, these can still be sold as certified “organic”.

‘Golden Promise’, a mutant barley made with radiation, is used in
some premium whiskeys. 
Chetty Thomas/shutterstock

5. GM screening

GM technology doesn’t have to involve any direct manipulation of plants or species. It can be instead used to screen for traits such as disease susceptibility or to identify which “natural” cross is likely to produce the greatest yield or best outcome.

Genetic technology has allowed researchers to identify in advance which ash trees are likely to be susceptible to ash dieback disease, for instance. Future forests could be grown from these resistant trees. We might call this “genomics-informed” human selection.

6. Cisgenic and transgenic

This is what most people mean when they refer to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) – genes being artificially inserted into a different plant to improve yield, tolerance to heat or drought, to produce better drugs or even to add a vitamin. Under conventional breeding, such changes might take decades. Added genes provide a shortcut.

Cisgenic simply means the gene inserted (or moved, or duplicated) comes from the same or a very closely related species. Inserting genes from unrelated species (transgenic) is substantially more challenging – this is the only technique in our spectrum of GM technology that can produce an organism that could not occur naturally. Yet the case for it might still be compelling.

Campaigns like these are aimed at cis- and transgenic crops. But what about the other forms of GM food? Alexis Baden-Mayer, CC BY

Since the 1990s several crops have been engineered with a gene from the soil bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis. This bacteria gives “Bt corn” and other engineered crops resistance to certain pests, and acts as an appealing alternative to pesticide use.

This technology remains the most controversial as there are concerns that resistance genes could “escape” and jump to other species, or be unfit for human consumption. While unlikely – many fail safe approaches are designed to prevent this – it is of course possible.

Where do you stand?

All of these methods continue to be used. Even transgenic crops are now widely cultivated around the world, and have been for more than a decade. They are closely scrutinised and rightly so, but the promise of this technology means that it surely deserves improved scientific literacy among the public if it is to reach it’s full potential.

And let’s be clear, with global population set to hit nine billion by 2050 and the increasingly greater strain on the environment, GMOs have the potential to improve health, increase yields and reduce our impact. However uncomfortable they might make us, they deserve a sensible and informed debate.

The ConversationJames Borrell, PhD student in Conservation Genetics, Queen Mary University of London

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

 

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Should scientists engage with pseudo-science or anti-science?

The Conversation

Rod Lamberts, Australian National University and Will J Grant, Australian National University

The ABC’s flagship science journalism TV programme, Catalyst, has riled the scientific community once again. And, in a similar vein to Catalyst’s controversial 2013 report on the link between statins, cholesterol and heart disease, it has now turned its quasi-scientific attention to a supposed new peril.

Its “Wi-Fried?” segment last week raised concerns about the ever-increasing “electronic air pollution” that surrounds us in our daily lives, exploiting a number of age-old, fear-inspiring tropes.

There are already plenty of robust critiques of the arguments and evidence, so exploring where they got the science wrong is not our goal.

Instead, we’re interested in using the segment as inspiration to revisit an ongoing question about scientists’ engagement with the public: how should the scientific community respond to issues like this?

Should scientists dive in and engage head-on, appearing face-to-face with those they believe do science a disservice? Should they shun such engagement and redress bad science after the fact in other forums? Or should they disengage entirely and let the story run its course?

There are many of examples of what scientists could do, but to keep it simple we focus here just on the responses to “Wi-Fried” by two eminent Professors, Simon Chapman and Bernard Stewart, both of whom declined to be a part of the ABC segment, and use this case to consider what scientists should do.

Just say no

In an interview about their decision to not participate, Chapman and Stewart independently expressed concerns about the evidence, tone and balance in the “Wi-Fried” segment. According to Chapman it “contained many ‘simply wrong’ claims that would make viewers unnecessarily afraid”.

Stewart labelled the episode “scientifically bankrupt” and “without scientific merit”. He added:

I think the tone of the reporting was wrong, I think that the reporter did not fairly draw on both sides, and I use the word “sides” here reluctantly.

Indeed, in situations like this, many suggest that by appearing in the media alongside people who represent fringe thinkers and bad science, respected experts lend them unwarranted credibility and legitimacy.

Continuing with this logic, association with such a topic would mean implicitly endorsing poor science and bad reasoning, and contribute to an un-evidenced escalation of public fears.

But is it really that straightforward?

The concerns Chapman and Stewart expressed about the show could equally be used to argue that experts in their position should have agreed to be interviewed, if only to present a scientifically sound position to counter questionable claims.

In this line, you could easily argue it’s better for experts to appear whenever and wherever spurious claims are raised, the better to immediately refute and dismiss them.

On the other hand, if scientific experts refuse to engage with “scientifically bankrupt” arguments, this could send a more potent message: that the fringe claims are irrelevant, not even worth wasting the time to refute. So this would mean they shouldn’t engage with this kind of popular science story.

On the third hand, their refusal to engage could be re-framed to characterise the experts as remote, arrogant or even afraid, casting doubt on the veracity of the scientific position. So to avoid this impression, experts should engage.

But wait, there’s more.

Participation in these kinds of popular science shows could also tarnish the reputation of the expert. But not appearing means missing the opportunity to thwart the potential harm caused by fringe, false or non-scientific claims.

And what about an expert’s obligation to defend their science, to set the record straight, and to help ensure people are not mislead by poor evidence and shonky reasoning? Is this best done by engaging directly with dubious media offerings like “Wi-Fried”, or should relevant experts find other venues?

Should scientists engage anti-science?

Well, this depends on what they think they might achieve. And if one thing stands out in all the to-ing and fro-ing over what scientists should do in such cases, it’s this: the majority of proponents both for and against getting involved seem convinced that popular representations of science will change people’s behaviour.

But there is rarely any hard evidence presented in the myriad “scientists should” arguments out there. Sticking with the Catalyst example, there is really only one, far-from-convincing, study from 2013 suggesting the show has such influence.

If you really want to make a robust, evidence-based decision about what experts should do in these situations, don’t start with the science being discussed. In the case of Catalyst, you’d start with research on the show’s relationship with its audience(s).

  • What kinds of people watch Catalyst?
  • Why do they watch it?
  • To what extent are their attitudes influenced by the show?
  • If their attitudes are actually influenced, how long does this influence last?
  • If this influence does last, does it lead people to change their behaviours accordingly?

Of course, we applaud the motives of people who are driven to set the scientific record straight, and especially by those who are genuinely concerned about public welfare.

But to simply assume, without solid evidence, that programmes like Catalyst push people into harmful behaviour changes is misguided at best. At worst, it’s actually bad science.

The ConversationRod Lamberts, Deputy Director, Australian National Centre for Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University and Will J Grant, Researcher / Lecturer, Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

 

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Why would anyone believe the Earth is flat?

The Conversation

Peter Ellerton, The University of Queensland

Belief in a flat Earth seems a bit like the attempt to eradicate polio – just when you think it’s gone, a pocket of resistance appears. But the “flat Earthers” have always been with us; it’s just that they usually operate under the radar of public awareness.

Now the rapper B.o.B has given the idea prominence through his tweets and the release of his single Flatline, in which he not only says the Earth is flat, but mixes in a slew of other weird and wonderful ideas.

These include the notions that the world is controlled by lizard people, that certain celebrities are cloned, that Freemasons manipulate our lives, that the sun revolves around the Earth and that the Illuminati control the new world order. Not bad for one song.

Even ignoring that these ideas are inconsistent (are we run by lizards, the Freemansons or the Illuminati?), what would inspire such a plethora of delusions? The answer is both straightforward, in that it is reasonably clear in psychological terms, and problematic, in that it can be hard to fix.

Making our own narratives

Humans are, above all things, story-telling animals. It is impossible to live our lives without constructing narratives. I could not present a word pair such as (cage, bird) without you joining them in a narrative or image. Same with (guitar, hand) or (river, bridge). Even when we read seemingly unrelated word pairs such as (pensioner, wardrobe), our brains actively try to match the two (and you’re still doing it).

The stories that define us as a culture, a group or as a species are often complex and multifaceted. They speak of many things, including creation, nature, community and progress.

We create stories for two reasons. The first is to provide explanatory power, to make causal sense of the world around us and help navigate through the landscapes of our lives. The second reason is to give us meaning and purpose.

Not only do we understand our world through stories, we understand our place in it. The stories can be religious, cultural or scientific, but serve the same purpose.

Our stories make sense of the world.
The Elders/flickr

Scientific narratives

In science, our stories are developed over time and build on the work of others. The narrative of evolution, for example, provides breathtaking explanatory power. Without it, the world is simply a kaleidoscope of form and colour. With it, each organism has function and purpose.

As the Ukrainian-American geneticist and evolutionist Theodosius Dobzhansky said in his famous essay:

Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.

Through evolution, we have developed an understanding of how we fit into the scheme of life, and the vast and deep history of our planet. For many of us, this knowledge provides meaning and an appreciation of the fact of our existence.

Similarly, the story of our solar system’s formation is rich and compelling, and includes the explanation for why the Earth is, in fact, more or less spherical.

So why would someone reject all this?

One reason might be that accepting mainstream scientific findings necessitates rejecting an existing narrative. Such is the case for evolution within fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible.

For the literally religious, accepting evolution necessitates rejecting their world view. It is not about weighing scientific evidence, it is about maintaining the coherence and integrity of their narrative. The desperate and unsuccessful search for evidence to contradict evolution by young Earth creationists is a manifestation of this attempt at ideological purification.

Another reason to reject scientific narratives is that we feel we do not have meaning within them, or we do not belong to the community that created them.

As I’ve said elsewhere concerning conspiracy theories, in a world in which there is so much knowledge, and in which we individually hold so little of it, it is sometimes difficult to see ourselves as significant.

What’s more, science, it turns out, is hard. So if we want to own this narrative, it might take a bit of work.

Freedom from rationality

It is therefore tempting to find a way of thinking about the world that both dismisses the necessity of coming to grips with science, and restores us to a privileged social position.

Rejecting science and embracing an alternative view, such as the Earth being flat, moves the individual from the periphery of knowledge and understanding to a privileged position among those who know the “truth”.

In BoB’s lyrics, he calls himself “free thinking”. In this phrasing we see a glimpse of the warrant he gives himself to reject science, considering it a “cult”.

He appeals instead to his common sense to establish that the Earth must be flat. The appeal to common sense is a characteristic way of claiming to be rational while denying the collective rationality of the scientific community (and a typical argument in climate denial).

It’s also about recapturing a feeling of independence and control. We know from research that there is a correlation between feeling a lack of control in your life and belief in conspiracy theories.

If we can rise above the tide of mainstream thinking and find a place from which we can hold a unique and controversial view, we might hope to be more significant and find a purpose to which we can lend our talents.

Coming back from the edge

So how could we engage someone with such beliefs, with view to changing their minds? That’s no easy task, but two things are important.

The first is to have both the facts and their means of verification at hand – after all, you need something to point to. Sometimes, if the narrative is weak or in tension, that might do the job.

The second thing, because facts are often not enough, is to understand the style and depth of the narrative an individual has developed, and the reasons it’s developed as it has. It’s only from that point that progress can be made against otherwise intractable opposition to collective wisdom.

But why bother? Why not let rappers rap, preachers preach and deniers deny? It might seem that we are just dealing with a fringe on the edge of the rational (or literal) world. But, of course, in the case of things such as vaccination and climate change, the consequences of inaction against these views are potentially damaging.

Either way, we should at least stand up for knowledge that has been hard won through collective endeavours over generations and individual lives dedicated to its pursuit.

Because if all views are equal then all views are worthless, and that’s something none of us should accept.

The ConversationPeter Ellerton, Lecturer in Critical Thinking, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

 

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Denialism

Denialism is a person’s choice to deny certain particular facts.  It is an essentially irrational belief where the person substitutes his or her personal opinion for established knowledge. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of denialism is a failure to recognise the distinction between opinions and facts.

Denialism should not be confused with modern scientific skepticism, which is the challenging of beliefs that are unscientific, irrational or based on insufficient evidence.  Instead of denying facts, modern skeptics test claims by analysing whether they are supported by adequate empirical evidence.

The philosophical skepticism of the Sophists and Pyrrhonists in ancient Greece (which was quite different to modern skepticism) consisted of doubting whether there can be any knowledge or facts at all, rather than denying particular facts.

Science denialism is the rejection of basic facts and concepts that are undisputed, well-supported parts of the scientific consensus on a subject, in favour of radical and controversial opinions of an unscientific nature. For example, the term climate change denialist is applied to people who argue against the scientific consensus that the global warming of planet Earth is a real and occurring event primarily caused by human activity. 

The term evolution denialist or ‘creationist’ is applied to people who argue against the fact that life on Earth has evolved from earlier forms, instead of having been created by a supernatural being in its current form.

Other instances include Holocaust denialism, AIDS denialism and vaccination denialism.  The various forms of denialism present the common feature of the person rejecting overwhelming evidence, often with attempts to deny the existence of a scientific consensus or alternatively to allege a conspiracy theory to fake or conceal the evidence. Denialism is commonly one of the foundations of quackery and other varieties of woo.

The motivations and causes of denialism include irrationality, religion and self-interest (political, economic or financial), beliefs in conspiracy theories or even defence mechanisms meant to protect the psyche of the denialist against mentally disturbing facts and ideas.

 

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What has science ever done for us? The Knowledge Wars, reviewed

The Conversation

Will J Grant, Australian National University

The deadbeat boyfriend at the centre of Janet Jackson’s 1986 hit What Have You Done For Me Lately used to take Janet out to dinner almost every night. He used to do a lot of nice stuff for her. But – as the title asks – what had he done for her lately?

Like Janet, many people ask the same question of science.

Sure, since the 16th century, science has given us electricity and anaesthetics, the internet and statins, the jumbo jet, vaccines and good anti-cancer drugs, the washing machine and the automobile. But what has it done for us lately?

In fact, for many people, what science has done for us lately hasn’t been dancin’ till one thought one would lose one’s breath. Rather, it has delivered emotionally-charged fights over issues such as vaccination, whether everyone should be taking statins, anthropogenic climate change, genetically modified foods, wind farms and high-tension power lines.

Indeed, while most of us are happy with most of the products of science – not least our iPods, white goods and light bulbs – when it comes to some of the more contentious issues of science we’re not such a happy bunch.

You only have to look at comment threads on this site on articles about these topics to see just such unhappiness and disgruntlement. In such discussions, science isn’t a benign tool for understanding the natural world, but a villain intent on unleashing industries and technologies we don’t want, or forcing us to give up our SUVs or eat our broccoli.

In this sort of world you can understand why, when considering the state of things, many scientists have taken on slightly exasperated air.

Warts and all

Science is under attack from some quarters. 
Melbourne University Press

And so Nobel Laureate and National Living Treasure Peter Doherty has stepped into this breach to make the case for science. His new book, The Knowledge Wars, rests on the argument that we are in the midst “of a potential deadly conflict between the new knowledge based in science and the established power”.

That is, while science has often been in conflict with established dogma – from Charles Darwin to Barry Marshall and Robin Warren – for the first time in a long time science finds itself pitted against powerful economic and political actors.

In this space, Doherty’s work seeks to provide a practical discussion of the nature of modern science with the hope that we can all take on a more evidence-based view of the world.

Thankfully, this isn’t a ra-ra hagiography that just drums into us that science is the best thing that’s ever happened to us since our ancestors discovered the paleo diet (though there is some of that).

Rather, Doherty seeks to explore how science works in modern times, warts and all. This means instead of a recitation of a high school definition of science, Doherty provides a nuanced, thoughtful discussion of the limits of peer review; the economics of publishing; the scientific culture of critique; fraud, errors and outright criminality in scientific work; and the nature of modern data collection.

This makes it a valuable “behind the scenes” examination of what actually happens in modern science.

Renaissance again

The goal in much of this is not to directly convince those who, for example, reject the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s position on climate change, but to provide ammunition to those of us who find ourselves stuck in a conversation with such people.

We’ve all heard lines about “global conspiracies of scientists”. Yet no one who has a passing understanding of how science works could imagine getting a global community to agree on anything remotely doubtful.

Doherty’s central target (very much in keeping with the history of science, really) is blind acceptance of dogma based on the pronouncements of authority. Here he connects centuries of science from Galileo and Copernicus to Charles Darwin, Richard Feynmann, Barry Marshall and Robin Warren.

We might even point to an earlier trajectory of empirically minded iconoclasts, from Prince Henry the Navigator to Heraclitus the Paradoxographer. Importantly, though those who reject the idea of anthropogenic climate change might point to such iconoclasts as rejecting scientific dogma, Doherty very much highlights such revolutionary work as part and parcel of the process of science. For him, the solution to any of the ills of science is more science.

At times The Knowledge Wars feels like a Wikipedia binge, ranging widely and wildly through invention and events of the last 500 years (although, to be fair, that’s often how I spend my Saturday nights). And, perhaps more fundamentally, it sorely misses a nuanced take on the economic sociology and history underpinning that period. For example, although central to much of scientific and social history of the last half millennium, “capitalism” doesn’t make it to the index.

But the bigger lament I have after reading The Knowledge Wars is one perhaps I share with Doherty. Modern science began with the birth of Renaissance men; with individuals who understood that wise governance requires an embrace of statecraft as well as high art and the latest advances in science.

Yet now, the very idea of Renaissance men and women seems anathema, a foolish dream that could never happen in this crazy mixed up world we now live in. But is that really so foolish?


The Knowledge Wars by Peter Doherty is published by Melbourne University Press and is available for A$29.99 in paperback and A$19.99 in ebook.

The ConversationWill J Grant is Researcher / Lecturer, Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.
 

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Dumb or dumber? Jim Carrey’s anti-vax antics expose the tactics of internet cranks

The Conversation

Michael J. I. Brown, Monash University and Geraint Lewis, University of Sydney

Comedian Jim Carrey flew his anti-vaccination colours on Twitter last week, railing against new Californian laws designed to reduce the number of unvaccinated children in public schools.

“California Gov says yes to poisoning more children with mercury and aluminum in mandatory vaccines. This corporate fascist must be stopped.”

Along the way, Carrey has provided some excellent examples of the tactics used by online cranks, such as emotional escalation, errors of omission, dismissing experts and proclaiming to support science while simultaneously undermining it.

It is by teasing out these crank tactics that we can see Carrey’s tweets for what they are: well-intentioned but misguided attacks against a lifesaving practice that has been proven time and again to be safe and effective according to our very best scientific practices.

Emotional escalation

Carrey’s tweets are notable for his use of CAPSLOCK, the typed equivalent of shouting.

“A trillion dollars buys a lot of expert opinions. Will it buy you? TOXIN FREE VACCINES, A REASONABLE REQUEST!

Emotional escalation, including yelling and insults, tend to polarise debates. Uncivil comments can also adversely impact how people interpret facts they have previously read.

Carrey’s anti-vaccination tweets also included photos of autistic boys, further escalating emotions. We feel sympathy for the boys and their families, but this is a poor substitute for statistical studies, which haven’t found any connection between vaccines and autism.

Carrey’s use of photos of autistic boys may also have backfired. One photo showed Alex Echols, who suffers from Tuberous Sclerosis, a genetic disorder often leads to autism. Echols’ autism has nothing to do with vaccines, yet he was initially used to emotionally bolster Carrey’s arguments (Carrey has since apologised).

Mercury matters

Ideas touted by cranks are often superficially true, yet misleading. A splendid example is:

“They say mercury in fish is dangerous but forcing all of our children to be injected with mercury in thimerosol is no risk. Make sense?”

This contains an error of omission, as it actually refers to two different mercury containing compounds. Methylmercury accumulates in animals and is dangerous when ingested. Thimerosal was once a common preservative in vaccines, and breaks down into ethylmercury, which is rapidly removed from the body.

Does Carrey’s tweet “make sense?” No.

I’m pro-science

Historian of science Michael Gordin succinctly notes:

“No one in the history of the world has ever self-identified as a pseudoscientist. There is no person who wakes up in the morning and thinks to himself, ‘I’ll just head into my pseudolaboratory and perform some pseudoexperiments to try to confirm my pseudotheories with pseudofacts.'”

Cranks often proclaim their love of science while simultaneously attacking it. Carrey tweeted:

“I repeat! I AM PRO-VACCINE/ANTI-NEUROTOXIN, as is Robert Kennedy Jr. Please read the following article and book http://bit.ly/1GLSpHf

Carrey claims to be pro-vaccine while credulously repeating dangerous myths about their risks. He lacks expertise to evaluate studies of the efficacy and risks of vaccines (which often use similar scientific techniques), but has reached strong yet contrary opinions on these topics. How can this be reasonable?

The tactic of proclaiming support for science while simultaneously undermining it isn’t restricted to comedians. The Australian newspaper has claimed it “supports global action on climate change based on the science,” but often repeats stories sourced from the internet that reject peer-reviewed climate science.

Dismissing experts

So how does Carrey dismiss the work of thousands of medical researchers from around the globe? Very easily. Like many internet cranks, he makes unfounded accusations of scientific organisations being corrupt:

“The CDC can’t solve a problem they helped start. It’s too risky to admit they have been wrong about mercury/thimerasol. They are corrupt.”

This is a very common tactic for dismissing broad swathes of evidence. Some climate contrarians believe scientists are engaged in criminal activity.

Such claims get into conspiracy theory territory, particularly as independent groups of scientists scattered across the globe get comparable results. For example, the American Berkeley Earth team – which started off sympathetic to climate change sceptics – finds very similar temperature rise across Australia as Bureau of Meteorology scientists.

Even sympathetic media generally tone down bloggers’ claims of criminal activity. That said, it is curious that innocent activities such as data processing and analysis are sometimes referred to as (more ominous sounding) data manipulation.

A less severe variant of the corruption tactic is claiming experts have a conflict of interest, as they are paid to undertake their work. Of course, this allows one to dismiss evidence from almost any professional – be that a doctor, lawyer, psychologist or scientist – leaving only courageous internet amateurs.

Popularity

Why is anyone paying attention to Carrey when it comes to vaccines? The answer is celebrity. He is a successful actor, with almost 15 million followers on Twitter. If he says something controversial, millions of people immediately know about it.

Crank ideas, which have been rejected by the scientific community, only remain alive while they have support from the public, celebrities, millionaires or politicians. Without popularity, crank ideas wither and die.

Cranks and their supporters know they must remain popular to survive, and game the system. Cranks often badge themselves as “coalitions”, “institutes”, “networks” and “alliances.” Cranks can buy social media followers or use “follow back” accounts to give the appearance of significant support. Websites often contain myriad links to fellow cranks, which may be an attempt to game search engine rankings. So cranks may appear more significant to the public and media than they truly are.

Of course, to have celebrity support is incredibly helpful to cranks. Along with Carrey, Bill Maher, Robert F Kennedy Jr. and Jenny McCarthy have promoted the anti-vaccination cause. They have helped keep this cause alive, even though it’s at odds with medical research.

Carrey almost certainly means well. But, like many internet cranks, he doesn’t have the expertise to distinguish scientific fact from dangerous myth. The recent death of a woman from measles and the Disneyland measles outbreak highlight just how dangerous such myths can be.


Michael J. I. Brown is Associate professor at Monash UniversityGeraint Lewis is Professor of Astrophysics at University of Sydney.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Mind Body Spin-it Festival 2015

Victorian Skeptics

by Mal Vickers

I love the Mind Body Spirit Festival – I really do. But I don’t love having to part with the (grrrr…..) twenty dollars just to get in. My partner tried her hand at The Secret or the power of positive thinking and attempted to get in for nothing, but the security guard shattered her confidence.

Clear Thinking Clear Thinking

Luckily an essential oil called Confidence was readily available from the nearby Pro-Oils stand. This place made it all worthwhile. I happened to find a bottle of Clear Thinking – perfect for a Skeptic like me. I took one long, deep sniff, right to the bottom of my lungs. Somehow my world appeared better, sharper, colours were more vivid, my mind cleared, my thoughts were more focused, yes… I just inhaled a bunch of liquid herbs. You too can buy a 12ml bottle of Clear Thinking on Show special for…

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