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

The Conversation

File 20170713 19681 1ey4qzl
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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The rise of a conspiracy candidate

The Conversation

Lauren Griffin, University of Florida

The political and social climate in the United States has become increasingly fertile ground for conspiracy theories. Leading the charge is Donald Trump, a candidate who has promoted a laundry list of factually questionable theories, ranging from the idea that Antonin Scalia’s death may have been the result of foul play to his bizarre relationship with the birther movement, which questions President Obama’s birthplace.

Conspiracy theories are nothing new, of course. From 12th-century anti-Semitic conspiracies to modern moon landing hoaxers, the rumor that people are being misled by groups of elites with ulterior motives has been swirling for centuries.

To be fair, people on all sides of the political spectrum can fall prey to these alluring theories. One study, in fact, suggests that the type of thinking that is often associated with political extremism – a desire for simple solutions to complex problems – is also associated with a belief in conspiracy theories.

The problem is that conspiracy theories are dangerous.

Research suggests that exposure to these unorthodox ideas can influence how we see the world. For instance, in one experiment, participants who were shown a video that suggested that climate change is a hoax later expressed less confidence in the scientific consensus that climate change is real. Conspiracy theories can erode what we think we know about the world by promoting arguments based on poor evidence, evidence that’s been debunked or no evidence whatsoever. They can even be used to vilify entire groups of people and justify their mistreatment.

Social scientists have long been interested in conspiracy theories. Their research can help explain Trump’s rise – and why he seems so eager to embrace just about every conspiracy theory he’s ever heard.

Living in a world that can’t be explained

One school of thought argues that the rise of conspiracy theories is an inevitable result of our increasingly complex and globalized society.

The famous sociologist Max Weber argued that modern society was characterized by rationalization, with systems like the global economy humming along seemingly on their own, driven by the rules of commerce. These systems are complicated and opaque, and even experts struggle to fully explain them. They’re also dehumanized; there is no real answer to the question, “Who’s in charge of the global economy?” The result is a state of anxiety where people feel as though their lives are being pulled along by forces beyond their control – stock markets, globalization and political parties that seem unresponsive to their needs.

One of the core facets of enlightened thought is that science can help us better understand how the world works. But not even science can save us from this anxiety about an increasingly complicated world. Increasingly specialized and technical, primary research is difficult for nonscientists to work through. Although Americans generally hold science in high regard, perceived doubt and disagreement between scientists can encourage people to become uncertain about issues that experts agree on.

Now, in fairness, science is a process of contention and continual revision. But modern media take these lab-room discussions and pump them out more than ever before. Things that are generally “settled” among scientists no longer seem like they are. Think again about how climate change is covered in the media, with a climate scientist on one side of the screen and a denier on the other. As these conflicts play out in full public view, the public becomes less certain about the truth.

For many people, then, science seems like it can no longer explain what’s going on in the world.

How conspiracies lead to scapegoating

Conspiracy theories are our attempt to make sense of these complex world systems. They fill the gaps where personal experience and science have failed us. Capitalizing on feelings of alienation and anxiety, they – and the politicians who promote them – create what historian Richard Hofstadter famously called “the paranoid style” of politics. This style of politicking encourages people to believe that corrupt, shady elites and dark forces are conspiring to disenfranchise the masses.

The paranoid style and the proliferation of conspiracy theories are problematic because they make thoughtful deliberation over public issues impossible: Political opponents are not even talking about the same set of facts. But they become decidedly dangerous when combined with a process described by literary critic and philosopher Kenneth Burke as scapegoating.

Burke argues that scapegoating begins when people stop identifying with established social structures – like governments or political parties – leading to a sense of disorder within society. This disorder causes people anxiety and the sense they can no longer control their own lives. They feel guilty about their loss of place in the world and search for a way to alleviate that guilt.

The scapegoat provides that relief.

Politicians who scapegoat will identify political or social groups within societyracial or religious minorities, for instance – and spin a new story that places the blame for society’s ills on these minorities.

Unfortunately, this can have the effect of making those in the majority feel empowered.

A conspiracy candidate is born

Communications scholar Jaclyn Howell argues that the birther movement, which originated in articles on conservative websites in 2008 and was publicly promoted by Donald Trump in 2011, is a prime example of the scapegoating process in action.

Birthers, Howell argues, faced a loss of economic status during the 2008 financial crash, which created a sense of fear and guilt. This discomfort led them “to explain all of the nation’s sins [and thus the social disorder of the times] by making the ‘foreign-born’ president the scapegoat.”

During the current campaign, we see scapegoating playing out again as Trump calls immigrants criminals, says first-generation Americans can’t serve as unbiased judges, says “there’s no way to tell” whether Syrian refugees are potential terrorists and says Black Lives Matter activists are encouraging violence against law enforcement officers. Fingering these groups not only gives disenfranchised Americans someone to blame, it also empowers them by promising to punish these “others.”

In a sense, then, the success of candidates like Trump is the logical extension of the paranoid style and scapegoating. Scholarship suggests that people who feel close to their communities and feel that these communities are threatened are more likely to buy into conspiracy theories. Likewise, people with extreme political views are more susceptible to conspiratorial beliefs.

Trump not only embraces many conspiracy theories – from the idea that Chair of the Federal Reserve Janet Yellen is keeping interest rates low at Obama’s request to claims that Hillary Clinton is planning on rigging the election – but he also presents his own radically simplified and anti-factual worldview to his supporters. He clarifies problems and promises to only tell the truth (“I will present the facts plainly and honestly,” he said in his acceptance speech), while at the same time exposing the liars and thieves and punishing them (hence the calls to imprison Hillary Clinton).

Claiming he is an arbiter of truth gives him permission to spread misinformation, whether it’s telling Americans that the Obama administration is covering up the “real” unemployment rate or assuring voters that Muslims cheered on September 11.

The fact that his claims are seldom truthful (PolitiFact ranked a whopping 54 percent of his statements as “False” or “Pants on Fire”) is beside the point.

Meanwhile, his campaign surrogates actively encourage people to accept their feelings as facts (Newt Gingrich famously said in an interview that “The average American does not think crime is down, does not think they are safer,” despite myriad statistics showing crime rates are down). He continues to hint that something very concerning is going on with Hillary Clinton’s health.

In an environment where people are mistrustful of expertise and knowledge, Donald Trump can easily thrive. Many feel insecure due to economic and social changes in society; many are seeking a narrative that makes sense of the world.

And they are particularly fond of narratives that not only validate their sense of powerlessness, but promise to correct it.

The ConversationLauren Griffin, Adjunct Associate of Sociology, University of Florida

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

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NHMRC fluoride paper: relax, Australian citizens, your pineal glands are safe

The Conversation

Michael Vagg, Deakin University

When not being forced to waste their time and formidable expertise researching furphies like wind turbine syndrome or homeopathy, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) can get on with producing exemplary public health statements like their newest one on water fluoridation.

Begun in 2014 in response to this sort of conspiracy-mongering, the NHMRC has collected an overwhelming weight of evidence in support of the safety and benefit of adding tiny amounts of fluoride to drinking water supplies.

This document is a draft released for public comment. I would love to be able to read the public submissions they are going to get. None of the favoured conspiracy claims are supported.

It most emphatically did not find any evidence that fluoride lowers IQ, as suggested by a badly done and even more badly reported paper from 2012.

Neither did it find any support for the idea that fluoride at levels obtained by current fluoridation practices caused significant dental fluorosis, such as brittle or discoloured teeth from excessive fluoride being incorporated into teeth.

Still less was there any support for fluoride acting as a mind control agent!

The draft paper sets out in excellent prose the value of its work and how it has been done. It is easy to understand and reading through it, I was struck by how well the considerable scientific grunt work had been made to sound easy and logical. In particular, the couple of pages the authors have devoted to their methodology is outstandingly clear and easily understood.

Sections are also included on the ethics and cost-effectiveness of water fluoridation, distilled into useful factoids such as:

  • For every A$1 spent on fluoridation, A$7-18 is saved in dental treatment costs
  • Over the last 25 years in Victoria, around A$1 billion dollars has been saved in treatment costs and reduced absenteeism
  • Stopping water fluoridation would increase health inequality in the nation as a whole.

I would recommend the NHMRC fluoride paper as a public document for anyone with an interest in the issue, or indeed as a basic study of how to do public health policy. Most people I suspect will just go about their lives secure in the knowledge that sensible, reasonable public health professionals are making good decisions in the national interest.

Or at least, that’s what we would be thinking given that we are apparently docile and obedient from all the fluoride accumulating in our pineal glands…

The ConversationMichael Vagg, Clinical Senior Lecturer at Deakin University School of Medicine & Pain Specialist, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 

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The Fallacy of Faulty Risk Assessment

by Tim Harding

(An edited version of this essay was published in The Skeptic magazine, September 2016, Vol 36 No 3)

Australian Skeptics have tackled many false beliefs over the years, often in co-operation with other organisations.  We have had some successes – for instance, belief in homeopathy finally seems to be on the wane.  Nevertheless, false beliefs about vaccination and fluoridation just won’t lie down and die – despite concerted campaigns by medical practitioners, dentists, governments and more recently the media.  Why are these beliefs so immune to evidence and arguments?

There are several possible explanations for the persistence of these false beliefs.  One is denialism – the rejection of established facts in favour of personal opinions.  Closely related are conspiracy theories, which typically allege that facts have been suppressed or fabricated by ‘the powers that be’, in an attempt by denialists to explain the discrepancies between their opinions and the findings of science.  A third possibility is an error of reasoning or fallacy known as Faulty Risk Assessment, which is the topic of this article.

Before going on to discuss vaccination and fluoridation in terms of this fallacy, I would like to talk about risk and risk assessment in general.

What is risk assessment?

Hardly anything we do in life is risk-free. Whenever we travel in a car or even walk along a footpath, most people are aware that there is a small but finite risk of being injured or killed.  Yet this risk does not keep us away from roads.  We intuitively make an informal risk assessment that the level of this risk is acceptable in the circumstances.

In more formal terms, ‘risk’ may be defined as the probability or likelihood of something bad happening multiplied by the resulting cost/benefit ratio if it does happen.  Risk analysis is the process of discovering what risks are associated with a particular hazard, including the mechanisms that cause the hazard, then estimating the likelihood that the hazard will occur and the consequences if it does occur.

Risk assessment is the determination of the acceptability of risk using two dimensions of measurement – the likelihood of an adverse event occurring; and the severity of the consequences if it does occur, as illustrated in the diagram below.  (This two-dimensional risk assessment is a conceptually useful way of ranking risks, even if one or both of the dimensions cannot be measured quantitatively).

risk-diagram

By way of illustration, the likelihood of something bad happening could be very low, but the consequences could be unacceptably high – enough to justify preventative action.  Conversely, the likelihood of an event could be higher, but the consequences could low enough to justify ‘taking the risk’.

In assessing the consequences, consideration needs to be given to the size of the population likely to be affected, and the severity of the impact on those affected.  This will provide an indication of the aggregate effect of an adverse event.  For example, ‘high’ consequences might include significant harm to a small group of affected individuals, or moderate harm to a large number of individuals.

A fallacy is committed when a person either focuses on the risks of an activity and ignores its benefits; and/or takes account one dimension of risk assessment and overlooks the other dimension.

To give a practical example of a one-dimensional risk assessment, the desalination plant to augment Melbourne’s water supply has been called a ‘white elephant’ by some people, because it has not been needed since the last drought broke in March 2010.  But this criticism ignores the catastrophic consequences that could have occurred had the drought not broken.  In June 2009, Melbourne’s water storages fell to 25.5% of capacity, the lowest level since the huge Thomson Dam began filling in 1984.  This downward trend could have continued at that time, and could well be repeated during the inevitable next drought.

wonthaggi

Melbourne’s desalination plant at Wonthaggi

No responsible government could afford to ‘take the risk’ of a major city of more than four million people running out of water.  People in temperate climates can survive without electricity or gas, but are likely to die of thirst in less than a week without water, not to mention the hygiene crisis that would occur without washing or toilet flushing.  The failure to safeguard the water supply of a major city is one of the most serious derelictions of government responsibility imaginable.

Turning now to the anti-vaccination and anti-fluoridation movements, they both commit the fallacy of Faulty Risk Assessment.  They focus on the very tiny likelihood of adverse side effects without considering the major benefits to public health from vaccination and the fluoridation of public water supplies, and the potentially severe consequences of not vaccinating or fluoridating.

Vaccination risks

The benefits of vaccination far outweigh its risks for all of the diseases where vaccines are available.  This includes influenza, pertussis (whooping cough), measles and tetanus – not to mention the terrible diseases that vaccination has eradicated from Australia such as smallpox, polio, diphtheria and tuberculosis.

As fellow skeptic Dr. Rachael Dunlop puts it:  ‘In many ways, vaccines are a victim of their own success, leading us to forget just how debilitating preventable diseases can be – not seeing kids in calipers or hospital wards full of iron lungs means we forget just how serious these diseases can be.’

No adult or teenager has ever died or become seriously ill in Australia from the side effects of vaccination; yet large numbers of people have died from the lack of vaccination.  The notorious Wakefield allegation in 1998 of a link between vaccination and autism has been discredited, retracted and found to be fraudulent.  Further evidence comes from a recently published exhaustive review examining 12,000 research articles covering eight different vaccines which also concluded there is no link between vaccines and autism.

According to Professor C Raina MacIntyre of UNSW, ‘Influenza virus is a serious infection, which causes 1,500 to 3,500 deaths in Australia each year.  Death occurs from direct viral effects (such as viral pneumonia) or from complications such as bacterial pneumonia and other secondary bacterial infections. In people with underlying coronary artery disease, influenza may also precipitate heart attacks, which flu vaccine may prevent.’

In 2010, increased rates of high fever and febrile convulsions were reported in children under 5 years of age after they were vaccinated with the Fluvax vaccine.  This vaccine has not been registered for use in this age group since late 2010 and therefore should not be given to children under 5 years of age. The available data indicate that there is a very low risk of fever, which is usually mild and transient, following vaccination with the other vaccine brands.  Any of these other vaccines can be used in children aged 6 months and older.

Australia was declared measles-free in 2005 by the World Health Organization (WHO) – before we stopped being so vigilant about vaccinating and outbreaks began to reappear.  The impact of vaccine complacency can be observed in the 2015 measles epidemic in Wales where there were over 800 cases and one death, and many people presenting were of the age who missed out on MMR vaccination following the Wakefield scare.

After the link to autism was disproven, many anti-vaxers shifted the blame to thiomersal, a mercury-containing component of relatively low toxicity to humans.  Small amounts of thiomersal were used as a preservative in some vaccines, but not the MMR vaccine.  Thiomersal was removed from all scheduled childhood vaccines in 2000.

In terms of risk assessment, Dr. Dunlop has pointed out that no vaccine is 100% effective and vaccines are not an absolute guarantee against infection. So while it’s still possible to get the disease you’ve been vaccinated against, disease severity and duration will be reduced.  Those who are vaccinated have fewer complications than people who aren’t.  With pertussis (whooping cough), for example, severe complications such as pneumonia and encephalitis (brain inflammation) occur almost exclusively in the unvaccinated.  So since the majority of the population is vaccinated, it follows that most people who get a particular disease will be vaccinated, but critically, they will suffer fewer complications and long-term effects than those who are completely unprotected.

Fluoridation risks

Public water fluoridation is the adjustment of the natural levels of fluoride in drinking water to a level that helps protect teeth against decay.  In many (but not all) parts of Australia, reticulated drinking water has been fluoridated since the early 1960s.

The benefits of fluoridation are well documented.  In November 2007, the NHMRC completed a review of the latest scientific evidence in relation to fluoride and health.  Based on this review, the NHMRC recommended community water fluoridation programs as the most effective and socially equitable community measure for protecting the population from tooth decay.  The scientific and medical support for the benefits of fluoridation certainly outweighs the claims of the vocal minority against it.

Fluoridation opponents over the years have claimed that putting fluoride in water causes health problems, is too expensive and is a form of mass medication.  Some conspiracy theorists go as far as to suggest that fluoridation is a communist plot to lower children’s IQ.  Yet, there is no evidence of any adverse health effects from the fluoridation of water at the recommended levels.  The only possible risk is from over-dosing water supplies as a result of automated equipment failure, but there is inline testing of fluoride levels with automated water shutoffs in the remote event of overdosing.  Any overdose would need to be massive to have any adverse effect on health.  The probability of such a massive overdose is extremely low.

Tooth decay remains a significant problem. In Victoria, for instance, more than 4,400 children under 10, including 197 two-year-olds and 828 four-year-olds, required general anaesthetic in hospital for the treatment of dental decay during 2009-10.  Indeed, 95% of all preventable dental admissions to hospital for children up to nine years old in Victoria are due to dental decay. Children under ten in non-optimally fluoridated areas are twice as likely to require a general anaesthetic for treatment of dental decay as children in optimally fluoridated areas.

As fellow skeptic and pain management specialist Dr. Michael Vagg has said, “The risks of general anaesthesia for multiple tooth extractions are not to be idly contemplated for children, and far outweigh the virtually non-existent risk from fluoridation.”  So in terms of risk assessment, the risks from not fluoridating water supplies are far greater than the risks of fluoridating.

Implications for skeptical activism

Anti-vaxers and anti-fluoridationists who are motivated by denialism and conspiracy theories tend to believe whatever they want to believe, and dogmatically so.  Thus evidence and arguments are unlikely to have much influence on them.

But not all anti-vaxxers and anti-fluoridationists fall into this category.  Some may have been misled by false information, and thus could possibly be open to persuasion if the correct information is provided.

Others might even be aware of the correct information, but are assessing the risks fallaciously in the ways I have described in this article.  Their errors are not ones of fact, but errors of reasoning.  They too might be open to persuasion if education about sound risk assessment is provided.

I hope that analysing the false beliefs about vaccination and fluoridation from the perspective of the Faulty Risk Assessment Fallacy has provided yet another weapon in the skeptical armoury against these false beliefs.

References

Rachael Dunlop (2015) Six myths about vaccination – and why they’re wrong. The Conversation, Parkville.

C Raina MacIntyre (2016) Thinking about getting the 2016 flu vaccine? Here’s what you need to know. The Conversation, Parkville.

Mike Morgan (2012) How fluoride in water helps prevent tooth decay.  The Conversation, Parkville.

Michael Vagg (2013) Fluoride conspiracies + activism = harm to children. The Conversation, Parkville.

 Government of Victoria (2014) Victorian Guide to Regulation. Department of Treasury and Finance, Melbourne.

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Please don’t explain: Hanson 2.0 and the war on experts

The Conversation

Patrick Stokes, Deakin University

Along with Aqua’s “Barbie Girl,” Pauline Hanson has long stood as a grim reminder that the second half of the 1990s was much worse than the first half. And now, 18 years later, Hanson finds herself back in Canberra.

Hanson’s racist agenda will be a stain on the Senate just as surely as the views she represents are a stain on Australia itself. For that reason alone, her return is a cause for dismay. But it is not the only cause.

Both Hanson herself and her wider party have a vocal sideline in science denialism: the view that expert consensus on various topics is corrupted and unreliable.

Hanson has pushed the myth that vaccination causes autism, and wants a royal commission into the “corruption” of climate science, declaring that “Climate change should not be about making money for a lot of people and giving scientists money”.

At the time of writing, it’s quite possible Malcolm Roberts, who has the number two slot on the One Nation Senate ticket in Queensland, will be joining Hanson in Canberra. Roberts is a project leader of the Galileo Movement, a lobby group who deny anthropogenic climate change and insist the global scientific community and governments are corruptly hiding the truth from their publics.

Conspiracism in public life

This might seem small beer next to the potentially disastrous effects a Hansonite revival might have on Australia’s pluralist and multicultural society.

But remember: Hanson had an outsized impact on Australian politics in the 90s precisely because she gave voice to views that resonated with much of the electorate and, unlike other politicians, wasn’t quite canny enough to reach for the dog whistle. In openly using phrases like “swamped with Asians,” Hanson shifted the Overton Window until the political establishment found the only way her views could be contained was by absorbing them.

Enter Roberts, a man who honestly believes a “tight-knit cabal” made up of “some of the major banking families in the world” are advancing corrupted climate science with the aim of global domination. Such language has some very dark associations in the history of conspiracy theory. Hence Andrew Bolt disassociated himself from the Galileo Movement for peddling a view that “smacks too much of the Jewish world conspiracy theorising I’ve always loathed.”

One might think that if even an arch-denialist like Bolt can’t abide views like Roberts’, One Nation’s climate conspiracism will end up either repudiated or ignored. But then, nobody in 1996 thought “swamped with Asians” rhetoric would have such an impact on the Australian polity either.

‘Post-truth politics’?

Besides, this has been a good season globally for political expertise bashing. Perhaps the new One Nation senators will find that, in another echo of the Howard years, the times will suit them.

In the lead-up to the UK’s referendum on leaving the European Union, Tory MP and leading Leave campaigner Michael Gove declared “people in this country have had enough of experts”. Gove is now in the running to become the Prime Minister who will preside over the UK’s divorce from the EU – and quite possibly, the breakup of the United Kingdom itself.

Michael Gove says people have had enough of experts. Paul Clarke/Wikimedia Commons

Should Gove get the gig, his counterpart across the pond come January 2017 may well be one Donald Trump, a man who believes climate change is a hoax and that vaccines cause autism (and has given voice to suspicions that Obama wasn’t born in the US and that Ted Cruz’ father was involved the Kennedy assassination).

And of course, denialism won’t be a novelty in Canberra either. Denis Jensen won’t be there when Senator Hanson arrives, but his colleague George Christiansen will be. David Leyonhjelm may no longer grace the Senate crossbenches, but thanks to him we’ll still be paying for a Commissioner to investigate Wind Turbine Syndrome complaints despite the lack of evidence for any such condition. And lest this be dismissed as a mere lefty rant, we should also note the Greens’ stance on genetically modified organisms.

All of this might be ascribed to “post-truth politics,” the condition in which political discourse is no longer constrained by norms of truth-telling. But simply insisting people tell the truth – hardly an outrageous demand – won’t help with this specific problem. To invoke the philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s ingenious distinction, post-truth politics is not fundamentally about lies, but bullshit. The liar knows the truth, and cares about it enough to conceal it. The bullshitter, by contrast, doesn’t care (and may not know) if what they say is true; they just care that you believe it. Trump, it seems fair to say, is a bullshitter. Much of the Gove-Johnson-Farage Brexit campaign was certainly built on bullshit.

But science denialists are not, or at least not necessarily, liars or bullshitters. Their beliefs are sincere. And they are shared by a great many people, who by definition won’t be persuaded by simple appeals to expert opinion because the authority of expert opinion is precisely what they deny. How should we respond to this?

Naïve Reason won’t save us

One disastrous answer would be to retreat into a naïve conception of capital-r Reason as some sort of panacea. Surprisingly smart people end up plumping for such a view. Consider this bit of utopianism from Neil deGrasse Tyson:

Even if Tyson’s being tongue-in-cheek here, this is emblematic of a fairly widespread view that if we just consult The Facts, and then simply apply the infallible techniques of Reason to these Facts, it becomes blindingly obvious precisely What Is To Be Done. This view is only slightly less naïve, and barely less self-congratulatory, than those it opposes.

You sometimes come across people who want to insist that battles over science denialism represent a conflict between “reality” and “ideology.” But there’s no direct access to “reality” – all knowledge is mediated through our existing concepts, language, and so on – and so, arguably, no non-ideological access to it either. Human knowledge doesn’t drop from the sky fully-formed and transparently validated by some infallible faculty of Reason. It’s always filtered through language, culture, politics, history, and the foibles of psychology. Producing knowledge is something humans do – and that means power relations are involved.

Distributed knowledge and trust

While anti-intellectualism and suspicion of expertise is nothing new, the problem is amplified by the very advances that make modern life what it is. Put crudely, we now know so much that nobody can know it all for themselves, and so we have to rely more and more on other people to know things for us.

Under such conditions of distributed knowledge, trust becomes ever more important. You can’t be an expert in everything, and so you have to take more and more on trust. Is human activity warming the climate? Does the MMR vaccine cause autism? Would Brexit tank the UK’s economy? These are not questions you or I can answer, assuming you or I aren’t researchers working in the relevant fields. So we have to defer to the relevant communities of experts – and that’s a problem if you’re not good with trust or deference.

The physicist Brian Cox recently said of Gove’s expertise remark that it represents the way “back to the cave.” If that’s a fate we want to avoid, we’re stuck with distributed knowledge, and the reliance on others it involves.

That being so, we need to enhance trust in the knowledge-generating social structures we depend upon. Of course, a certain proportion of people are always going to insist that scientists are secretly lying to us for profit or that doctors are incompetent or evil. The paranoid style, as Richard Hofstadter called it, will always be with us. And there will always be demagogues willing to exploit that paranoia, to turn expertise into an us-and-them conflict, or to feed resentment and flatter egos by telling people they know better than their GP or climatologists.

But such views can only gain broader traction if people are alienated from those sources of knowledge, if they see them as disconnected from and perhaps even hostile to their own lives and interests.

Technical knowledge is predominantly produced by universities, and utilised by a political class. These are institutions that are much harder to trust if university is a place that nobody like you goes to, or if nobody in the political class sounds like you. It’s much easier to see “government” as some sort of malign, alien force if you have no investment in its processes or hope of benefiting from them. Equally, when “government” means your friends and family who work in public service rather than a distant and abstract locus of force and authority, pervasive suspicion becomes harder to maintain.

Expertise denial has become a deeply corrosive feature of modern political society. It needs to be called out wherever it appears. But we also need to think about how we reduce people’s disconnection from the sources of epistemic authority. That is a far more wickedly difficult problem. It’s one we’ll still be dealing with long after Hanson’s second fifteen minutes are over. But we can’t wait until then to start.

The ConversationPatrick Stokes, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, Deakin University

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

 

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A Skeptic’s Guide to Conspiracy Theories

Victorian Skeptics

This article first appeared as a Vic Skeptics discussion pamphlet.
The full range of our discussion pamphlets (and a lot more) can be downloaded from our USEFUL INFO page.

A Skeptic’s Guide to

by Peter Barrett, Canberra Skeptics (2016 edit by Ken Greatorex)

Test 1: Is the argument factually correct?

It’s remarkable how many conspiracy theories are based on arguments which are simply factually incorrect. If you’re presented with a conspiracy theory argument, check the facts.

[Sites such as

http://www.snopes.com/

http://urbanlegends.about.com/

https://www.truthorfiction.com/

are useful here.]

Many incorrect arguments are repeated in ignorance. But there are also some people who knowingly repeat conspiracy arguments they know are wrong.

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Rumours that GM mosquitoes may inadvertently have caused Brazil’s epidemic could potentially cost lives

By Mark Lynas. First published in the Guardian, 4 February 2016

Conspiracy theories are not unlike viruses. Mostly they circulate harmlessly on the fringes of society, but every now and then a mutation for increased transmissibility can lead to a mainstream outbreak with seriously damaging consequences in the real world.

It’s ironic then that a conspiracy theory about a real virus – the Zika epidemic currently affecting Brazil – is currently exhibiting just such break-out behaviour. The first outing I can find came via an obscure post on Reddit on 25 January. The location should have rung warning bells: it was in a sub-Reddit category titled “conspiracies”, sandwiched between 9/11 truther rants, and was written anonymously under the giveaway pseudonym “redditsucksatbanning”.

It alleged that the UK-based small company Oxitec, which began releasing genetically engineered male-sterile mosquitoes in 2011 in north-eastern Brazil in order to combat dengue disease, may have inadvertently caused the Zika outbreak. Oxitec’s approach involves releasing non-biting males – which have been genetically engineered to carry a gene that is lethal to their offspring – to mate with wild females.

For the full story, please see the Guardian.

 

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Fluoride conspiracies + activism = harm to children

The Conversation

By Michael Vagg, Barwon Health, 2 September 2013.

I’ve discussed in an earlier piece the origins of fluoride conspiracy theory in post-war Europe. Other articles on The Conversation have set out the science behind our understanding that optimising levels of fluoride in drinking water is a safe and effective intervention (albeit one with a modest effect size) for the good of public health.

What I didn’t put into that earlier piece was a few personal anecdotes. The SMH article was completely consistent with them, so I might as well add my bit of anecdotal colour to the debate.

The region where I live has been one of the last in Victoria to add fluoride. This has partly been for logistical reasons, but also because the region is home to one of the better organised and more vociferous anti-fluoridation groups. In fact, my Letters to the Editor of the local paper pointing out the numerous factual errors of these groups ended up getting me personal nasty replies from the Editor herself, along with solemn and binding commitments on her behalf never to publish my ill-formed opinions again.

As a Pain Specialist, many of my colleagues are anaesthetists, and they have for years never looked forward to the paediatric dental lists here. So many children getting general anaesthesia for multiple extractions due to decay. The children wake up dazed, in pain, crying, vomiting and bleeding. Even though they bounce back pretty quickly afterwards, it’s not a very rewarding job to do. Anaesthetic trainees rotating down from big city hospitals where they rarely see such lists are about the only ones who benefit from such a cavalcade of needless misery. The risks of general anaesthesia are not to be idly contemplated for children, and far outweigh the virtually nonexistent risk from fluoridation.

Since fluoridation was introduced to Geelong in 2009, my colleagues are much happier, as severe dental abscesses requiring tricky anaesthetic techniques are much less common, and tend to mainly come from areas in the region which still aren’t fluoridated. A quick chat with one of our local dentists confirmed they had the same belief. The rate of kids needing GAs for dental work is approaching that of their metropolitan counterparts, though the list remains disappointingly long.

The other anecdote I wanted to share was that one of my colleagues who had worked in Europe for a few years went away with 3 children under the age of 6, who were the same age and social demographic as our own children. When they returned from living in a non-fluoridated European city 3 years later, 2 of his 3 children had needed dental treatment under GA and all 3 had fillings compared to none of any of their peers in our social circle who stayed in Australia. That’s a nice little case-control study right there, as if any further anecdotal evidence was needed to add to the overwhelming scientific evidence for fluoride optimisation.

So again, please don’t buy into fluoride conspiracy-mongering. Let’s not voluntarily give up the advantages of access to first-world public health measures because of manufactured scare campaigns. Maybe many anti-fluoride activists are sincere and reasonable people at heart. They certainly seem to hold their views with conviction. It’s just that on this issue, they couldn’t be more demonstrably wrong. The consequences of their misguided support for non-fluoridation are causing direct and measurable harm to children who deserve better than wilful ignorance and ersatz health consciousness.

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The Scientific Conspiracy Fallacy

by Tim Harding

The 2013 National Australian Skeptics Convention was held from 22 to 24 November in Canberra.  The theme was Science, Skepticism and Conspiracy Theories.  We understand the connection between science and skepticism, but where do conspiracy theories fit in?

You may have noticed that irrational beliefs such as anti-vaccination, anti-fluoridation, anti-GM foods and pro-UFOs are often associated with conspiracy theories allegedly involving scientists.

The late Christopher Hitchens described conspiracy theories as “the exhaust fumes of democracy” – the unavoidable result of a large amount of information circulating among a large number of people.  Conspiracy theories appear to make sense of a world that is otherwise confusing.[1]  They do so in an appealingly simple way – by dividing the world into bad guys versus good guys. They also enable people to believe whatever they want to believe, without the bothersome burden of conclusive evidence.

The Scientific Conspiracy Fallacy takes roughly the following form:

   Premise 1: I hold a certain belief.

   Premise 2: The scientific evidence is inconsistent with my belief.

   Conclusion: Therefore, the scientists are conspiring with the Big Bad Government/CIA/NASA/Big Pharma (choose whichever is convenient) to fake the evidence and undermine my belief.

It is a tall order to argue that the whole of science is genuinely mistaken. That is a debate that even the conspiracy theorists know they probably can’t win. So the most convenient explanation for the inconsistency is that scientists are engaged in a conspiracy to fake the evidence in specific cases.

In informal logic, many fallacies can be demonstrated by citing a counter-example.  In this case, a possible alternative explanation for the inconsistency is simply that the scientific evidence is right and the conspiracy theorist’s belief is wrong.  The notion that scientists are regularly engaged in conspiracies is implausible, because amongst other things, published scientific papers are required to explain the experimental methods used so that the experiments can be repeated and tested by anybody.  And as Prof. Lawrence Krauss has said, “scientists become famous by proving their colleagues wrong”.[2]

Endnotes 

[1] Van der Linden (2013) Why People Believe in Conspiracy Theories.  Scientific American 18 August, 2013. 

[2] ABC1 TV program ‘Q&A – A Show About Nothing ‘ Transcript 18 February, 2013. http://www.abc.net.au/tv/qanda/txt/s3687812.htm

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