Tag Archives: conspiracy theory

Whose word should you respect in any debate on science?

The Conversation

Peter Ellerton, The University of Queensland

The motto of the Royal Society, Britain’s and perhaps the world’s oldest scientific society, is “nullius in verba” which it says translates as “take nobody’s word for it”.

This is a rejection of the idea that truth can be sought through authority. It is a call to turn to experimentation and direct engagement with the physical world to discover truth. A noble sentiment indeed.

It’s also one of the key arguments used by deniers of climate science in attempts to refute both that the world is warming and that this warming is a result of human activity (anthropogenic global warming, or AGW).

This is a common approach, exemplified by Australian Senator Malcolm Roberts in his many interviews on the subject.

Malcolm Roberts misunderstanding the role of authority in science.

It gives deniers an excuse to reject the overwhelming endorsement of science organisations around the world, including the Royal Society itself, and academies of science from more than 80 other countries, that AGW is a reality.

The argument is simple, and goes a bit like this. Science does not work by appeal to authority, but rather by the acquisition of experimentally verifiable evidence. Appeals to scientific bodies are appeals to authority, so should be rejected.

The contradiction here is that the Royal Society is saying the planet is warming through human activity, but its motto seems to suggest we should not listen to it (or any other group). How can this contradiction be resolved?

Rebellion against authority

It is important to understand that the Royal Society was formed in 1660 in the shadow of a millennium of near-absolute church authority, including the general acceptance of Aristotelian natural philosophy.

Aristotle’s views went unquestioned for centuries. Shutterstock/thelefty

The rebellion against this authority was also a celebration of the freedom to elevate the credibility of scientific exploration over that of church teachings and other accepted dogma.

Importantly, the authority to which the Royal Society’s motto alludes was a non-scientific one. The motto represents the superiority of verifiable empirical claims over claims driven by religious or political ideology. No motto could better represent the optimism of the times.

It is also important to understand that much of the science then undertaken was rather crude by modern standards and, by its reliance on very basic technology, was verifiable by individuals, or at least small groups of individuals.

Modern science

The science of the 21st century is in most areas far too complex to be understood, let alone experimentally verified, by any one person. Science is now a vast collaborative web of information characterised by the dynamic interplay and testing of ideas on a global scale.

The sharing of experimental results and the collective scrutiny of ideas forge deep and complex understandings. Teams of scientists from a range of specialities are often required to interpret and use this knowledge.

The suggestion that a subject as complex as global warming, for example, could be verified by a single person, untrained and untutored in the norms of scientific inquiry, betrays a staggering ignorance about the nature of modern science.

It is also arrogant in its assumption that something not immediately obvious to oneself cannot be the case.

Engineers clean mirror with carbon dioxide snow. NASA/Chris Gunn

The non-fallacy of appealing to authority

It’s also worth pointing out that the recourse to authority is often presented as a fallacy of reasoning, the so-called “appeal to authority” fallacy.

But this is not the case. The fallacy would be more correctly named the “appeal to false authority” – for example when celebrities who are famous for their sporting or entertainment achievements are cited in support of a particular medical treatment.

Appeals to appropriate authorities, such as experts in their fields, are one of the glues that hold our technological society together. We go to our doctor for her expertise and we are happy to take her advice without the insistence that the efficacy of potential treatments be demonstrated to us there and then.

Engineers build impressively tall buildings, pilots fly incredibly complex machines, and business experts advise on financial markets. All this expertise is confidently assimilated into our lives because we recognise its value and legitimacy.

It is not fallacious reasoning to accept expert advice. We rely on the authority of experts for quality control in many areas, including the peer-review process of science and other academic disciplines.

Assuming that the motto of the Royal Society suggests we should not listen to the collective wisdom of scientists because science is not about respecting expertise is simply indefensible.

Experts advise

In fact, the role of many such societies in the 17th and 18th centuries was to act as a conduit between scientists and governments for the provision of expert advice.

If legitimate authorities are not to be consulted, presumably there is no point in having scientists around at all, as each person would need to verify any claim on their own terms and with their own resources. That would mean a speedy decline into very dark times indeed.

Deniers of climate science such as Senator Roberts are among those most in violation of the creed “nullius in verba”. Their continued insistence on “empirical evidence” while simultaneously rejecting it (usually through invoking some conspiracy theory) suggests an immature rationality at best, and outright duplicity at worst.

Their refusal to accept empirically verified evidence because it goes against their existing beliefs is the very stuff against which the Royal Society rebelled.

They may have a voice, but they have no authority in this debate.

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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One Nation, Climate Denial and those Jewish Bankers

The Conversation

Clive Hamilton, Charles Sturt University

Malcolm Roberts, the Queensland One Nation candidate who seems set to be elected to the Senate, sees the world through the eyes of the archetypal conspiracist. Dark forces move with malign intent behind world events.

Climate science is a conspiracy cooked up by a secretive alliance of leading scientists and scientific bodies, including the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology that function as the Australian arms of a wider global plot centred on the UN and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Roberts has a background in the mining industry and serves as the project manager of the Galileo Movement, the central denialist organisation in Australia. Its patron is broadcaster Alan Jones, and its panel of advisers is stacked with all of the usual suspects – Gina Reinhart favourite Ian Plimer, blogger Jo Nova, monarchist David Flint and even Lord Monckton. It claims the Sydney PR company Jackson Wells as its media adviser. Jackson Wells lists “reputation management” among its core services.

In a rambling “personal declaration of interests” Roberts discloses that his daughter’s horse Clancy eats only renewable foods and that his working methods “are based on understanding the Laws of Nature … and understanding the Human Condition.”

His work shows all the signs of what psychologists call conspiracist ideation, defined by Stephan Lewandowsky et al. as “the attempt to explain a significant political or social event as a secret plot by powerful individuals or organizations. The presumed conspirators are typically perceived as virtually omnipotent …”

Elders of Zion

Roberts is interesting because he bells the cat of climate denial. As Patrick Stokes has pointed out, he believes that behind the scientific conspiracy is a secret ring of international banking families. Speaking on behalf of the Galileo Movement, in 2012 Roberts told the Sydney Morning Herald that climate change science had been captured by “some of the major banking families in the world” who form a “tight-knit cabal”.

If that sounds like the toxic far-right claim about the global ambition of Jewish bankers then it is. Roberts seems to share the worldview of those who see the world’s political leaders as, in the words of one group, the puppets of “the Money Master — the Jew — sick, neurotic, carnal, haters of Christ”.

In a bizarre 135-page document titled “Why? Motives Driving Climate Fraud”, Roberts argues that international bankers are secretly pursuing their agenda of global control through environmentalism. He singles out the Rothschilds (of course), Goldman Sachs, the Rockefellers and the Warburg family.

Roberts’ embrace of the Jewish banker conspiracy has proven too much for fellow climate science denier Andrew Bolt, who in 2012 asked Roberts to name the banking families in question. Bolt did not publish Roberts’ response but did publish his reply:

“Two of the three most prominent and current banking families you’ve mentioned are Jewish, and the third is sometimes falsely assumed to be. Yes, this smacks too much of the Jewish world conspiracy theorising I’ve always loathed.”

Bolt asked that his name be removed as an adviser to the Galileo Movement.

I almost prefaced the last sentence with the words “to his credit”, but why should we congratulate a man for choosing to reject one mad conspiracy theory when he has devoted years of his life fostering another?

While Andrew Bolt may “despise” Jewish world conspiracy theories, there is nothing inconsistent in Roberts’ position if you are prone to conspiracist ideation.

If you believe climate science is a giant conspiracy drawing together the world’s leading climate scientists, along with the IPCC, various scientific academies, environmental organisations and governments around the world – as Andrew Bolt does, along with championing the weirdest of the New World Order conspiracy theorists, Christopher Monckton – it is natural then to ask who or what lies behind and organises this conspiracy to deceive and what their ultimate objective might be?

Settling on Jewish bankers, known to be bent on world domination, makes sense.

Hanson world in Canberra

The global plot promoted by Malcolm Roberts is not some kind of outlier in Hanson world. As Robert Manne pointed out in 1998, Hanson’s statement of her worldview, set out in her tome The Truth, spells out with breath-taking candour every crazed far-right belief in the “New World Order”. It makes Roberts’ more recent statements appear positively restrained.

So the fringe has found its way to the centre, and with powerful support. Among many like-minded others, Maurice Newman, once a senior business adviser to Tony Abbott, is given free rein to espouse his froth-at-the-mouth conspiracy theories on the pages of The Australian, which more and more resembles that other Murdoch outlet for paranoia, Fox News.

And there can be no doubt that Roberts’ views will be welcomed by a significant minority of Coalition parliamentarians who support Hanson’s call for an inquiry into the “corrupt” Bureau of Meteorology and for the teaching of climate denial in schools.

And we laugh at Donald Trump.

The ConversationClive Hamilton, Professor of Public Ethics, Centre For Applied Philosophy & Public Ethics (CAPPE), Charles Sturt University

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

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Senator, You’re No Socrates

The Conversation

Patrick Stokes, Deakin University

In ‘The Clouds,’ Aristophanes depicts Socrates as a sophist, suspended in a basket to enable him to study the skies.
Joannes Sambucus, 1564

So, we all knew Malcolm Roberts, former project leader of the climate denialist Galileo Movement turned One Nation politician, would make an ‘interesting’ first speech to the Senate. If you’ve been following Senator Roberts’ career, most of what he said was more or less predictable. The UN (“unelected swill” – take a bow, PJK), the IMF and the EU are monstrous socialist behemoths with a “frightening agenda,” climate change is a “scam,” the “tight-knit international banking sector” (a dangerous phrase given Roberts’ history of discussing international “banking families”) are “One of the greatest threats to our liberty and life as we know it.”

It may be startling to hear this in one concentrated burst, from a senator, last thing on a Tuesday afternoon, but if you’re familiar with the more conspiratorial corners of the internet this was all fairly pedestrian stuff.

What was more surprising, at least in passing, was Roberts comparing himself to Socrates:

Like Socrates, I love asking questions to get to the truth.

A Socratic questioner in the Senate! The gadfly of Athens, who cheerfully punctured the delusions of the comfortable and reduced them to frozen bewilderment with just a few cheerfully framed questions like some Attic Columbo, has apparently taken up residence in the red chamber. This should be a golden age for rational inquiry, right?

Right?

Epistemic revolt

The choice of Socrates, like that of Galileo, is no accident. Both fit neatly into a heroic “one brave man against the Establishment” narrative of scientific progress that climate denialists like to identify with. Both eventually changed the trajectory of human knowledge. But along the way, both suffered persecution. Galileo was made to recant his “heretical” heliocentrism under threat of torture and spent his last years under house arrest. Socrates, charged with impiety and corrupting the youth and denounced in court by one Meletus, was put to death. Of course that’s not nearly as rough as the brutal suppression of Malcolm Roberts, who has been cruelly oppressed with a three year Senate seat and a guest slot on Q&A. But you get the idea.

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Most importantly, both Socrates and Galileo function here as emblems of a kind of epistemic individualism. They’re ciphers for a view of knowledge generation as a contest between self-sufficient individual thinkers and a faceless, mediocre ‘they,’ instead of a collective and social process governed by internal disciplinary norms and standards.

Roberts doesn’t simply like asking questions – anyone can do that. No, he wants to be like Socrates: someone who refuses to accept the answers he’s given, and dismantles them with clinical, exhaustive precision. Malcolm Roberts wants to work it all out for himself, scientific community be damned. If Socrates could, why can’t he? Why can’t each of us?

Distributed knowledge

But Socrates, living at the dawn of scholarly inquiry, had the luxury of being a polymath. “Philosopher” simply means “lover of wisdom,” and early philosophers were forced to be rather promiscuous with that love. Physicist, logician, meteorologist, astronomer, chemist, ethicist, political scientist, drama critic: the Greek philosopher was all of these and more by default. The intellectual division of labour had not yet taken place, because all fields of inquiry were in their infancy.

Also well known for their skill at Invisible Basketball. Raphael

Fast forward two and a half thousand years and the situation is radically different. The sciences have long since specialised past the point where non-specialists can credibly critique scientific claims. There is now simply too much knowledge, at too great a pitch of complexity, for anyone to encompass and evaluate it all. The price we pay for our expanding depth of knowledge is that what we know is increasingly distrubuted between the increasingly specialised nodes of increasingly complex informational networks.

That fact, in turn, emphasises our mutual epistemic dependence. I rely daily on the expert competence and good will of thousands of people I never see and will never meet, from doctors to builders to engineers and lawyers – and climate scientists, who wrangle with the unimaginably complex fluid dynamics of our planet.

So what do you if you find yourself up against a network of specialist knowledge that disagrees with your core beliefs? Do you simply accept that you’re not in a position to assess their claims and rely, as we all must, on others? Do you, acknowledging your limitations, defer to the experts?

If you’re Socrates today, then yes, you probably do. The true genius of Socrates as Plato presents him that he understands his limitations better than anyone around him:

And is not this the most reprehensible form of ignorance, that of thinking one knows what one does not know? Perhaps, gentlemen, in this matter also I differ from other men in this way, and if I were to say that I am wiser in anything, it would be in this, that not knowing very much about the other world, I do not think I know. (Apology 29b)

Dismissing expertise

But deferring to those who know better is not the sort of Socrates Malcolm Roberts wants to be. If you want to be a Roberts-style Socrates, instead of conceding your ignorance, you cling to some foundational bit of putative knowledge that allows you to dismiss anything else that’s said, like so:

It is basic. The sun warms the earth’s surface. The surface, by contact, warms the moving, circulating atmosphere. That means the atmosphere cools the surface. How then can the atmosphere warm it? It cannot. That is why their computer models are wrong.

This is a familiar move to anyone who’s ever watched a 9/11 truther at work. While “jet fuel can’t melt steel beams!” has become a punchline, in some ways it’s the perfect battle-cry for epistemic rebellion. It asserts that if you just cling to some basic fact or model, you can use it to reject more complicated scenarios or models that seem to contradict that fact.

Jim Benton/Knowyourmeme.com

That move levels the playing field and hands power back to the disputant. Your advanced study of engineering or climatology, be it ever so impressive, can’t override my high school physics or chemistry. My understanding of how physical reality works is simple, graspable, and therefore true; yours is complex, counterintuitive, esoteric, and thus utterly suspect. I’m Plato’s Socrates: earthy, self-sufficient and impervious to sophistry; you, by contrast, are Aristophanes’ Socrates, vain and unworldly, suspended in your balloon far above the healthy common sense of the demos, investing the clouds with your obsessions.

Auxiliary Accusations

This leaves our would-be Socrates with the awkward fact that all those experts still disagree with him. How do you respond in the face of such disconfirmatory data? You could abandon your hypothesis, or you could deploy what Imre Lakatos called an ‘auxiliary hypothesis’ to defend it.

In Roberts’ case, as with many conspiracy theorists, this auxiliary hypothesis takes the form of a scattergun accusation. Climate science isn’t just mistaken, or even just inept, but “fraudulent.” Roberts is quite prepared to accuse thousands of people whose lives he knows nothing about of conscious and systemic corruption rather than admit he might be wrong.

From within Roberts’ rather Manichean worldview, that might seem to make a certain kind of sense: the forces of freedom are fighting an apocalyptic battle against the forces of repression. The enemy is positively evil, with its cooked climate data and insidious agendas and overtaxed bread. There is no need to spare the feelings of a foe so wicked. Those greedy bastards knew exactly what they were doing when they signed up for Socialist Climate Data Manipulation Studies in O-Week.

For anyone who claims to care about the quest for knowledge like Socrates did, the moral recklessness of such an accusation, from someone in such a position of power, should be cause for alarm. And when you’re trying to destroy the reputation of researchers because their message doesn’t suit your free-market pieties, you might just be more Meletus than Socrates.

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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How fluoride in water helps prevent tooth decay

The Conversation

Mike Morgan, University of Melbourne

The most effective way to prevent tooth decay is delivered to most Australian homes every day through their water pipes. It is, of course, fluoride distributed via the water supply.

Dental decay occurs when acid destroys or demineralises the outer surface of the tooth – the enamel. Bacteria in the mouth from food and drinks containing sugar produces acid and fluoride repairs demineralisation before it becomes permanent. It does this by encouraging remineralisation or repair of the enamel surface. Fluoride also helps strengthen the mineral structure of developing teeth.

Fluoride is a naturally occurring compound found in plants and rocks and, in very low levels, in almost all fresh water. Sometimes, fluoride is found naturally in the water supplies of Australian communities at exactly the level recommended to reduce dental decay, but this is rare and happens by chance.

Community water fluoridation is the adjustment of fluoride in drinking water to a level that helps protect teeth against decay. Drinking water in many parts of Australia has been fluoridated since the early 1960s.

Fluoride helps strengthen the mineral structure of developing teeth.
Jens Gyldenkærne Clausen

Although widely accepted and applauded as a crucial public health policy, fluoridation has attracted some vocal critics. 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 go as far as to suggest that fluoridation is a communist plot and affects children’s IQ.

Despite these claims, fluoridation is supported by many national and international organisations including the World Health Organization, World Health Assembly, World Dental Federation, Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), Australian Dental Association and the Public Health Association of Australia.

In 2006, the WHO and the International Dental Federation and the International Association for Dental Research, released a statement endorsing community water fluoridation.

And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States includes water fluoridation in its list of the top ten health initiatives of the twentieth century, alongside immunisation, compulsory seat belt wearing and smoking bans.

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.

Luc De Leeuw

The recommended level varies around Australia and depends on the annual average maximum daytime temperature. In Victoria, for instance, the maximum level of fluoride added to drinking water is one milligram per litre or one part per million as recommended by the World Health Organization.

In hotter climates where people drink more, the recommended level can drop to around 0.7 parts per million. As a comparison, the amount of fluoride in children’s toothpaste is 400 to 500 parts per million. In regular toothpaste, it’s 1,000 parts per million.

We’ve known about the role of fluoride in reducing dental decay since the early part of the twentieth century and some countries, such as the United States, have been adding it to water and toothpastes since the 1950s.

Canberra was the first Australian capital city to be fluoridated – back in 1964. Melbourne has had community water fluoridation since 1977. And other parts of Australia have had fluoridated drinking water for more than 50 years.

Joost Nelissen

Some communities in regional and rural Australia, previously without optimal water fluoridation, have recently started to receive fluoride through their drinking water as part of a program to prevent tooth decay and improve oral health. Australia has now achieved overall population coverage of 90%.

But tooth decay remains 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.

Community water fluoridation remains a vital public health activity and has a key role to play in preventing dental decay and improving oral health for all Australians. The provision of drinking water through our pipes was never more important.

The ConversationMike Morgan, Professor, Colgate Chair of Population Oral Health, Melbourne Dental School & Program Leader, Oral Health CRC, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. 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. Denialism is the a priori rejection of ideas without objective consideration.

The philosophical skepticism of the Academic Skeptics and Pyrrhonists in Classical 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, vaccination denialism, and Flat-Earthism. 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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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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Immunisation, the media and the amplification of irrational anxiety

The Conversation

Brian McNair, Queensland University of Technology

The government’s ‘no jab, no pay’ policy, which will restrict childcare benefits for those parents who refuse to have their kids immunised, may seem harsh to some. Most parents, however, will see the wisdom of a policy which puts the collective welfare of all children above the conscientious objections of a few parents.

The rate of non-immunisation of children has risen from 1% to 2% in a decade, noted Tony Abbott at a Sunday morning press conference announcing the new policy. 40,000 children are not immunised in Australia, he added, and rates of some very avoidable but potentially lethal children’s diseases such as measles and whooping cough have gone up.

That 2% put at risk the other 98%, and using the tax and benefits system to send that message is tough, but justified.

In the United States and the UK, too, immunisation rates have fallen over recent years, and diseases which once plagued our children, and were then all but wiped out by immunisation programs, have returned in significant numbers. So what has been going on? Why are so many parents refusing to take advantage of a preventive medical technology which has saved literally millions of children’s lives across the world?

One answer, if not the only one – some have deep religious objections, for example – is the news media, and their role in what we might call the amplification of irrational anxiety.

A small but significant minority of parents have come to believe, in all sincerity (and no-one doubts that they have the best interests of their children at heart) that immunisation is dangerous, and certainly riskier than the risks associated with not having their kids vaccinated.

Even though there is no solid evidence to support that belief, and plenty of evidence to support the benefits of immunisation, some parents are so anxious that they will put their own children, and more importantly, other people’s children, at heightened risk of exposure to a preventable disease which could cause disability and even death.

So where have these anxieties come from?

Back in 2004, an English doctor by the name of Andrew Wakefield published research claiming to demonstrate a link between the MMR triple vaccine (to immunise children against mumps, measles and rubella) and the onset of autism. As followers of the story will know, Wakefield’s work was subsequently discredited, and he himself struck off the medical register in the UK for his unethical research methods.

Before that happened, however, the alleged risks of MMR became a major news story in the UK and all over the world. At that time, a decade ago, the global incidence of autism had risen dramatically. Between 1996 and 2007 in the United States, for example, the reported incidence of autism rose from 0.8 per 1,000 to 5.2 – an increase of some 600%.

Similar increases were recorded in many other countries. In Australia, the first survey of the prevalence of autism did not take place until 2006 so historical data are lacking. In 2014, however, the Australian Bureau of Statistics found a 79% increase in diagnoses between 2009 and 2012. A NSW parliament report of 2013 noted that:

… the growing number of children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is an issue of concern both in Australia and overseas.

This does not mean that the actual prevalence of autism has risen, though. Rather, the public awareness of autism has risen, through movies such as Rain Man and the explosion of media visibility around the condition seen since the 1990s. Documentaries were made about autistic ‘savants’, and families where parents struggled to cope with autistic children. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time became a global publishing phenomenon, and an entire sub-genre of ‘autism lit’ emerged.

Many people, children and adults, who might hitherto have been described as ‘different’ or ‘eccentric’, or even just ‘shy’, were labelled with Asperger’s Syndrome, or some other condition on the autistic spectrum.

Through a heightened media visibility, parents, medical professionals, teachers and others involved with children were sensitised to a condition which until recently was little known and poorly understood. In other words, autism has always existed, but only recently has it been recognised and given a name. As a result, its recorded incidence has risen dramatically, not because more children are acquiring autism from one cause or another, but because more of those born with it – and autism is often a genetic condition that runs in families and mainly affects males – are being identified.

This is a positive development, because autism is very real, and heightened public awareness has led to support services being put in place for people with autism where there had been none.

Notwithstanding this context, one cannot blame parents for becoming more anxious about the causes of autism, and many quite plausible, if never substantiated, theories have circulated. Wakefield’s research, when it was published in 2004, spoke directly to that anxiety, and his hypothesis – that autism was ‘caused’ by immunisation – seemed credible to many.

In the UK, where the scare was centred, and Wakefield’s work taken very seriously by most of the media, hundreds of thousands of parents withdrew their children from the MMR program. Then-prime minister Tony Blair was asked by journalists to reveal if his baby son Leo had been vaccinated or not. He refused to answer on privacy grounds, while making clear his own absolute confidence in the safety of the vaccine.

Despite such reassurances, and the widespread scepticism which greeted Wakefield’s research amongst his medical peers from the outset, the impact of the scare was very real. Rates of immunisation fell, while the incidence of measles and other preventable diseases began to rise. Ill-founded anxiety about the dangers of immunisation ended up having very real consequences on public health.

Years after Wakefield’s work had been discredited by his peers, his theories on MMR and autism have continued to influence parents all over the world. And where he has had influence, so the incidence of the diseases targeted by the MMR vaccine have risen.

In February this year, the Sunday Times reported on the anti-immunisation advocacy of US group Generation Rescue, who were reported to “seek inspiration” from Wakefield, who now lives and works in that country. The result of this campaign:

… say experts, has been to plunge America into the first national debate since the 1970s about the safety and necessity of vaccines — and led to the return of measles, a highly contagious childhood disease judged extinct by the US government’s Centers for Disease Control (CDC) 15 years ago.

In the US, vaccination rates had fallen by 3%, amid what the article called “a mounting sense of panic”. As in the UK a decade previously, erroneous health information spread through a variety of media channels had provoked a health crisis with strong political reverberations.

Politicians faced with anxious parents were encouraged to comment and pronounce on the vaccination ‘issue’, even when ignorant of the science. Republican contenders for the 2016 presidential race – Chris Christie and Rand Paul – both declared their approval of parental exemptions from MMR vaccination.

Rigorous research into media coverage of autism and its causes has not been done in Australia, and we cannot assume that all of those ‘conscientious objectors’ to immunisation are directly influenced by the Wakefield hypothesis. But his work, and the way it was reported a decade ago and since, undoubtedly contributed to a climate of fear around the risks of vaccination, irrational in so far as it lacks foundation in scientifically validated evidence.

The government is therefore right to take strong action against parents whose irrational fears knowingly put other children at risk. It is an example of firm government in the face of myth and unreason, and should be supported by all who care about the health of our kids.

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


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