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Skepticism – philosophical or scientific?

by Tim Harding

Dictionaries often draw a distinction between the modern common meaning of skepticism, and its traditional philosophical meaning, which dates from antiquity.  The usual common dictionary definition is ‘a sceptical attitude; doubt as to the truth of something’; whereas the philosophical definition is ‘the theory that some or all types of knowledge are impossible’.  These definitions are of course quite different, and reflect the fact that the meanings of philosophical terms have drifted over the millennia.  The contemporary meaning of ‘scientific skepticism’ is different again, which I shall talk about later.

I should say at the outset that whilst I have a foot in both the scientific and philosophical camps, and although I will be writing here mainly about the less familiar philosophical skepticism, I personally support scientific skepticism over philosophical skepticism, for reasons I shall later explain.

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But why are these definitions of skepticism important? And why do we spell it with a ‘k’ instead of a ‘c’.? As an admin of a large online skeptics group (Skeptics in Australia), I am often asked such questions, so I have done a bit of investigating.

As to the first question, one of the main definitional issues I have faced is the difference between skepticism and what I call denialism.  (The second question I shall answer later). Some skeptical newbies typically do a limited amount of googling, and what they often come up with is the common dictionary definition of skepticism, rather than the lesser known scientific skepticism definition that we Australian skeptics use.  They tend to think that ‘scepticism’ (with a ‘c’) entails doubting or being skeptical of everything, including science, medicine, vaccination, biotechnology, moon landings, etc, etc.  When we scientific skeptics express a contrary view, we are sometimes then accused of ‘not being real sceptics’.  So I think definitions are important.

In my view, 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.  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.  Most real skeptics accept the findings of peer-reviewed science published in reputable scientific journals, at least for the time being, unless and until it is corrected by the scientific community.

Denialism can then give rise to conspiracy theories, as a way of trying to explain the discrepancy between scientific facts and personal opinions.  Here is the typical form of what I call the Scientific Conspiracy Fallacy:

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.

Ancient Greek Skepticism

The word ‘skeptic’ originates from the early Greek skeptikos, meaning ‘inquiring, reflective’.

The Hellenistic period covers the period of Greek and Mediterranean history between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE and the Roman victory over Greeks at the Battle of Corinth in 146 BCE.  The beginning of this period also coincides with the death of the great philosopher, logician and scientist Aristotle of Stagira (384–322 BCE).

As he had no adult heir, Alexander’s empire was divided between the families of three of his generals.  This resulted in political conflicts and civil wars, in which prominent philosophers and other intellectuals did not want to take sides, in the interests of self-preservation.  So they retreated from public life into various cloistered schools of philosophy, the main ones being the Stoics, the Epicureans, the Cynics and the Skeptics.

As I mentioned earlier, the meanings of such philosophical terms have altered over 2000 years.  These philosophical schools had different theories as to how to achieve eudaimonia, which roughly translates as the highest human good, or the fulfilment of human life.  They thought that the key to eudaimonia was to live in accordance with Nature, but they had different views as to how to achieve this.

In a nutshell, the Stoics advocated the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions.  The Epicureans regarded absence of pain or suffering as the source of happiness (not just hedonistic pleasure).   The Cynics (which means ‘dog like’) rejected conventional desires for wealth, power, health, or fame, and lived a simple life free from possessions.  Lastly, there were the Skeptics, whom I will now discuss in more detail.

During this Hellenistic period, there were actually two philosophical varieties of skepticism – the Academic Skeptics and the Pyrrhonist Skeptics.

In 266BCE, Arcesilaus became head of Platonic Academy.  The Academic Skeptics did not doubt the existence of truth in itself, only our capacities for obtaining it.  They went as far as thinking that knowledge is impossible – nothing can be known at all.  A later head of the Academy, Carneades modified this rather extreme position into thinking that ideas or notions are never true, but only probable.   He thought there are degrees of probability, hence degrees of belief, leading to degrees of justification for action.  Academic Skepticism did not really catch on, and largely died out in the first century CE, with isolated attempts at revival from time to time.

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The founder of Pyrrhonist Skepticism, Pyrrho of Elis (c.365-c.275BCE) was born in Elis on west side of the Peloponnesian Peninsula (near Olympia).  Pyrrho travelled with Alexander the Great on his exploration of the East.  He encountered the Magi in Persia and even went as far as the Gymnosophists in India, who were naked ascetic gurus –  not exactly a good image for modern skepticism.

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Pyrrho differed from the Academic Skeptics in thinking nothing can be known for certain.  He thought that their position ‘nothing can be known at all’ was dogmatic and self-contradictory, because it itself is a claim of certainty.  Pyrrho thought that the senses are easily fooled, and reason follows too easily our desires.  Therefore we should withhold assent from non-evident propositions and remain in a state of perpetual inquiry about them.  This means that we are not necessarily skeptical of ‘evident propositions’, and that at least some knowledge is possible.  This position is closer to modern skepticism than Academic Skepticism.  Indeed, Pyrrhonism became a synonym for skepticism in the 17th century CE; but we are not quite there yet.

Sextus Empiricus (c. 160 – c. 210 CE) was a Greco-Roman philosopher who promoted Pyrrhonian skepticism.  It is thought that the word ‘empirical’ comes from his name; although the Greek word empeiria also means ‘experience’.  Sextus Empiricus first questioned the validity of inductive reasoning, positing that a universal rule could not be established from an incomplete set of particular instances, thus presaging David Hume’s ‘problem of induction’ about 1500 years later.

Skeptic with a ‘k’

The Romans were great inventors and engineers, but they are not renowned for science or skepticism.  On the contrary, they are better known for being superstitious; for instance, the Roman Senate sat only on ‘auspicious days’ thought to be favoured by the gods.  They had lots of pseudoscientific beliefs that we skeptics would now regard as quackery or woo.  For example, they thought that cabbage was a cure for many illnesses; and in around 78CE, the Roman author Pliny the Elder wrote: ‘I find that a bad cold in the head clears up if the sufferer kisses a mule on the nose’.

So I cannot see any valid historical reason for us to switch from the early Greek spelling of ‘skeptic’ to the Romanised ‘sceptic’.  Yes, I know that ‘skeptic’ is the American spelling and ‘sceptic’ is the British spelling, but I don’t think that alters anything.  The most likely explanation is that the Americans adopted the spelling of the early Greeks and the British adopted that of the Romans.

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Modern philosophical skepticism

Somewhat counter intuitively, the term ‘modern philosophy’ is used to distinguish more recent philosophy from the ancient philosophy of the early Greeks and the medieval philosophy of the Christian scholastics.  Thus ‘modern philosophy’ dates from the Renaissance of the 14th to the 17th centuries, although precisely when modern philosophy started within the Renaissance period is a matter of some scholarly dispute.

The defining feature of modern philosophical skepticism is the questioning the validity of some or all types of knowledge.  So before going any further, we need to define knowledge.

The branch of philosophy dealing with the study of knowledge is called ‘epistemology’.  The ancient philosopher Plato famously defined knowledge as ‘justified true belief’, as illustrated by the Venn diagram below.  According to this definition, it is not sufficient that a belief is true to qualify as knowledge – a belief based on faith or even just a guess could happen to be true by mere coincidence.  So we need adequate justification of the truth of the belief for it to become knowledge.  Although there are a few exceptions, known as ‘Gettier problems’, this definition of knowledge is still largely accepted by modern philosophers, and will do for our purposes here.  (Epistemology is mainly about the justification of true beliefs rather than this basic definition of knowledge).

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There are also different types of knowledge that are relevant to this discussion.

A priori knowledge is knowledge that is known independently of experience.  For instance, we know that ‘all crows are birds’ without having to conduct an empirical survey of crows to investigate how many are birds and whether there are any crows that are not birds.  Crows are birds by definition – it is just impossible for there to be an animal that is a crow but is not a bird.

On the other hand, a posteriori knowledge is knowledge that is known by experience.  For instance, we only know that ‘all crows are black’ from empirical observations of crows.  It is not impossible that there is a crow that is not black, for example as a result of some genetic mutation.

The above distinction illustrates how not all knowledge needs to be empirical.  Indeed, one of the earliest modern philosophers and skeptics, Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was a French mathematician, scientist and philosopher.  (His name is where the mathematical word ‘Cartesian’ comes from).  These three interests of his were interrelated, in the sense that he had a mathematical and scientific approach to his philosophy.  Mathematics ‘delighted him because of its certainty and clarity’.  His fundamental aim was to attain philosophical truth by the use of reason and logical methods alone.  For him, the only kind of knowledge was that of which he could be certain.  His ideal of philosophy was to discover hitherto uncertain truths implied by more fundamental certain truths, in a similar manner to mathematical proofs.

Using this approach, Descartes engaged in a series of meditations to find a foundational truth of which he could be certain, and then to build on that foundation a body of implied knowledge of which he could also be certain.  He did this in a methodical way by first withholding assent from opinions which are not completely certain, that is, where there is at least some reason for doubt, such as those acquired from the senses.  Descartes concludes that one proposition of which he can be certain is ‘Cogito, ergo sum’ (which means ‘I think, therefore I exist’).

In contrast to Descartes, a different type of philosophical skeptic David Hume (1711-1776) held all human knowledge is ultimately founded solely in ‘experience’.  In what has become known as ‘Hume’s fork’, he held that statements are divided up into two types: statements about ideas are necessary statements that are knowable a priori; and statements about the world, which are contingent and knowable a posteriori.

In modern philosophical terminology, members of the first group are known as analytic propositions and members of the latter as synthetic propositions.  Into the first class fall statements such as ‘2 + 2 = 4’, ‘all bachelors are unmarried’, and truths of mathematics and logic. Into the second class fall statements like ‘the sun rises in the morning’, and ‘the Earth has precisely one moon’.

Hume tried to prove that certainty does not exist in science. First, Hume notes that statements of the second type can never be entirely certain, due to the fallibility of our senses, the possibility of deception (for example, the modern ‘brain in a vat’ hypothesis) and other arguments made by philosophical skeptics.  It is always logically possible that any given statement about the world is false – hence the need for doubt and skepticism.

Hume formulated the ‘problem of induction’, which is the skeptical question of whether inductive reasoning leads to knowledge understood in the classic philosophical sense.  This problem focuses on the alleged lack of justification for generalising about the properties of a class of objects based on some number of observations of particular instances of that class (for example, the inference that ‘all swans we have seen are white, and therefore, all swans are white’, before the discovery of black swans in Western Australia).

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was (and still is) a major philosophical figure who tried to show the way beyond the impasse which modern philosophy had led to between rationalists such as Descartes and empiricists such as Hume.  Kant is widely held to have synthesised these two early modern philosophical traditions.  And yet he was also a skeptic, albeit of a different variety.  Kant thought that only knowledge gained from empirical science is legitimate, which is a forerunner of modern scientific skepticism.  He thought that metaphysics was illegitimate and largely speculative; and in that sense he was a philosophical skeptic.

Scientific skepticism

In 1924, the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno disputed the common dictionary definition of skepticism.  He argued that ‘skeptic does not mean him who doubts, but him who investigates or researches as opposed to him who asserts and thinks that he has found’.  Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Modern scientific skepticism is different from philosophical skepticism, and yet to some extent was influenced by the ideas of Pyrrho of Elis, David Hume, Immanuel Kant and Miguel de Unamuno.

Most skeptics in the English-speaking world see the 1976 formation of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) in the United States as the ‘birth of modern skepticism’.  (CSICOP is now called the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI).  However, CSICOP founder and philosophy professor Paul Kurtz has said that he actually modelled it after the Belgian Comité Para of 1949.  The Comité Para was partly formed as a response to a predatory industry of bogus psychics who were exploiting the grieving relatives of people who had gone missing during the Second World War.

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Kurtz recommended that CSICOP focus on testable paranormal and pseudoscientific claims and to leave religious aspects to others.  CSICOP popularised the usage of the terms ‘skeptic’, ‘skeptical’ and ‘skepticism’ by its magazine, Skeptical Inquirer, and directly inspired the foundation of many other skeptical organizations throughout the world, including the Australian Skeptics in 1980.

Through the public activism of groups such as CSICOP and the Australian Skeptics, the term ‘scientific skepticism’ has come to symbolise an activist movement as well as a type of applied philosophy.

There are several definitions of scientific skepticism, but the two that I think are most apt are those by the Canadian skeptic Daniel Loxton and the American skeptic Steven Novella.

Daniel Loxton’s definition is ‘the practice or project of studying paranormal and pseudoscientific claims through the lens of science and critical scholarship, and then sharing the results with the public.’

Steven Novella’s definition is ‘scientific skepticism is the application of skeptical philosophy, critical thinking skills, and knowledge of science and its methods to empirical claims, while remaining agnostic or neutral to non-empirical claims (except those that directly impact the practice of science).’  By this exception, I think he means religious beliefs that conflict with science, such as creationism or opposition to stem cell research.

In other words, scientific skeptics maintain that empirical investigation of reality leads to the truth, and that the scientific method is best suited to this purpose.  Scientific skeptics attempt to evaluate claims based on verifiability and falsifiability and discourage accepting claims on faith or anecdotal evidence.  This is different to philosophical skepticism, although inspired by it.

References

Descartes, R. (1641) Meditations on First Philosophy: With Selections from the Objections and Replies, trans. and ed. John Cottingham, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hume, David.(1748) An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding . Gutenberg Press.

Kant, Immanuel (1787) Critique of Pure Reason 2nd edition.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Loxton, Daniel. (2013) Why Is There a Skeptical Movement? (PDF). . Retrieved 12 January 2017.

Novella, Steven (15 February 2013). ‘Scientific Skepticism, Rationalism, and Secularism’. Neurologica (blog). Retrieved 12 February 2017.

Russell, Bertrand. (1961) History of Western Philosophy. 2nd edition London: George Allen & Unwin.

Unamuno, Miguel de., (1924) Essays and soliloquies London: Harrap.

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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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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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Harry Frankfurt on the incoherence of truth denial

‘In any case, even those who profess to deny the validity or the objective reality of the true-false distinction continue to maintain, without apparent embarrassment, that this denial is a position that they do truly endorse. The statement that they reject the distinction between true and false is, they insist, an unqualified true statement about their beliefs, not a false one.

This prima facie incoherence in the articulation of their doctrine makes it uncertain precisely how to construe what it is that they propose to deny. It is also enough to make us wonder just how seriously we need to take their claim that there is no objectively meaningful or worthwhile distinction to be made between what is true and what is false.’

Reference

Frankfurt, Harry G. (2006) On Truth. Alfred A.Knopf, New York.

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Denialism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Science deniers reject authority and facts

Here is an excellent article by philosopher  Dr. Patrick Stokes in The Age, 18 December 2015. It begins:

“Many people who choose to ignore accepted scientific conclusions are making emotional rather than rational decisions.”

Read more: http://www.theage.com.au/comment/people-pick-and-choose-over-scientific-discoveries-at-their-peril-20151216-glpj3z.html#ixzz3uctzHc6a

I have written an essay on a related topic.

 

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Rethinking Doubt

Here is an excellent talk by George Hrab about modern skepticism; particularly its important differences from cynicism and denialism.

 

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We must defend science if we want a prosperous future

The Conversation

Barry Jones, University of Melbourne

Today’s Australians are, by far, the best educated cohort in our history –- on paper, anyway -– but this is not reflected in the quality of our political discourse. We appear to be lacking in courage, judgement, capacity to analyse and even simple curiosity, except about immediate personal needs.

There are more than 1.1 million university students, both undergraduate and postgraduate (about 900,000 of them locals), currently at Australian universities.

Australia also has about 4.5 million graduates (nearly 20% of the population), far more than the total numbers of traditional blue collar workers. Members of trade unions amount to about one million people: 18% of the total work force and about 12% of the private sector.

Inevitably, these numbers will shift our political culture, but the process is occurring slowly.

Australia, like the US, UK, Canada and much of Europe, has undergone a serious decline in the quality of debate on public policy. The British journalist Robert Fisk has called this “the infantilisation of debate”.

In the era of “spin”, when a complex issue is involved, leaders do not explain. They find a mantra (“stop the boats!”) and repeat it endlessly, “staying on message”, without explanation or qualification. The word “because” seems to have fallen out of the political lexicon.

Evidence-based policies and actions should be a central principle in the working of our system and reliance on populism and sloganeering should be rejected, but in reality they are not.

Selling out science

Complex problems demand complex solutions. Examples of such problems are refugees and climate change, which cannot be reduced to parroting a few simple slogans (“turn back the boats”, “stop this toxic tax”).

“Retail politics” – sometimes called “transactional politics” – where policies are adopted not because they are right but because they can be sold, is a dangerous development and should be rejected. We must maintain confidence that major problems can be addressed –- and act accordingly.

A voracious media looks for diversity and emotional engagement, weakening capacity for reflection and serious analysis, compounded by the rise of social media where users, typically, seek reinforcement of their views rather than being challenged by diversity.

Science and research generally are given disturbingly low priority in contemporary public life in Australia. Scientists, especially those involved with climate change or the environment, have come under unprecedented attack, especially in the media.

And the whole concept of the scientific method is discounted, even ridiculed. Gus Nossal sometimes quotes me as saying that Australia must be the only country in the world where the word “academic” is treated as pejorative.

The role of science in policy development is a sensitive issue. I spent years – decades really – bashing my head against a brick wall trying to persuade colleagues to recognise the importance, even centrality, of science policy.

Many, probably most, of my political colleagues had no interest in science as an intellectual discipline, although they depended on science for their health, nutrition, transport, entertainment and communication.

We need to revive the process of dialogue: explain, explain, explain, rejecting mere sloganeering and populism. We need evidence-based policies, but often evidence lacks the psychological carrying power generated by appeals to prejudice or fear of disadvantage (“they are robbing you…”).

Evidence vs. opinion

There is a disturbing conflict between evidence and opinion (“you have evidence, but I have strong opinions”), and political processes are more likely to be driven by opinion rather than evidence in a short political cycle.

Brian Schmidt, our Nobel Laureate in astrophysics, wrote of his experience in this regard in The Age on February 16:

As a Nobel Prize winner, I travel the world meeting all kinds of people.

Most of the policy, business and political leaders I meet immediately apologise for their lack of knowledge of science.

Except when it comes to climate science. Whenever this subject comes up, it never ceases to amaze me how each person I meet suddenly becomes an expert.

Facts are then bandied to fit an argument for or against climate change, and on all sides, misconceptions abound.

The confusion is not surprising – climate science is a very broad and complicated subject with experts working on different aspects of it worldwide.

No single person knows everything about climate change. And for the average punter, it’s hard to keep up with all the latest research and what it means.

More surprising is the supreme confidence that non-experts (scientists and non-scientists alike) have in their own understanding of the subject.

I encourage you to read Thinking, Fast and Slow, a 2011 best seller by the psychologist Daniel Kahneman who, although not an economist, won the Nobel Prize for Economic Science in 2002 for his development of “prospect theory”.

Prospect theory analyses rational and irrational factors in decision making. He demonstrates, regrettably, the extent to which people like you and me use familiar short cuts – “heuristics” – to make intuitive judgements, and discount evidence or rationality in making decisions.

This can apply whether purchasing something, deciding where and how to like something, or taking a political stance on issues. Kahneman became the outstanding authority on behavioural economics and social psychology.

Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, from 2012, is also an important book. I think Haidt could go much further with his thesis, which states that politics and religion tend to be centred on “values”, so people can pick and choose, and can sometimes be blinded to the facts because of their moral worldview. It is clear that many people say: “I reject these particular facts because I don’t trust where they come from.”

Heuristics and confusion

Psychologists confirm that we habitually engage in the cherry-picking of evidence -– we choose the bits that we are emotionally, intuitively, attracted to and comfortable with.

The Cambridge political scientist, David Runciman, argues that “opinion, interest and knowledge are too divided, and no event, whether an election […] or a crisis is clear enough in its meaning to bring closure”.

For example, there is fierce opposition in some quarters to the vaccination of children and the fluoridation of water supplies to prevent dental caries, even though the empirical evidence in support of both is overwhelming. But appeals to fear can be far more powerful than arguing on the basis of hard evidence.

There has been a sustained attack from some quarters – the News Corporation papers, the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) and the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) to name only three – on scientific research and scientific method, even on rationality and the Enlightenment tradition.

The illusion was created that scientists are corrupt, while lobbyists are pure. One of the false assertions is that scientists who take the mainstream position are rewarded, while dissenters are punished (similar to Galileo and the Inquisition).

In Australia now, and the US until recently, the contrary could be argued. Galileo’s work was based on observation of data -– his opponents were operating from doctrine.

Scientists arguing for the mainstream view have been subject to strong attack by denialists who assert that they are quasi-religious zealots who are missionaries for a green religion.

In reality, it was the denialist/confusionist position to rely on faith, the conviction that there were a diversity of complex reasons for climate change but only one could be confidently rejected: the role of human activity.

It might be nice to see ‘science’ in that list. Takver/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Three fronts

There are three areas of attack against expertise and taking a long term, analytical view of the world: from the Right, the Left and the anxious Centre.

From the Right there have been systematic and well-financed attacks by lobbyists from the fossil fuels industry and electricity generators. This has been highly personal, often abusive, sometimes threatening.

The anxious Centre includes people working in particular industries and regions (such as Hunter Valley, La Trobe Valley, Tasmanian forests), understandably fearful of potential job losses, without much prospect of creating new jobs. The trade union movement is deeply divided on this –- as is the business community.

But from the Left, or some segments of the intellectual Left, a deconstructionist mind-set has partly undermined an evidence-based approach to policy making or problem solving.

The pluralist or deconstructionist or post-modern theory of knowledge is contemptuous of expertise, rejects the idea of hierarchies of knowledge and asserts the democratic mantra that –- as with votes in elections –- every opinion is of equal value, so that if you insist that the earth is flat, refuse vaccination for children or deny that HIV-AIDS is transmitted by virus, your view should be treated with respect.

Similarly, there has been a repudiation of expertise and or taste -– dismissing the idea of people like Harold Bloom, or myself, that there is a “Western canon” which sets benchmarks. “No,” say the deconstructionists, “the paintings of Banksy, the mysterious British graffiti artist, are just as good as Raphael, and hip-hop performances are just as valid as Beethoven’s Opus 131.”

The Welsh geneticist Steve Jones asks an important question: if there is a division of scientific opinion, with 999 on one side, and one on the other, how should the debate be handled? Should the one dissenter be given 500 opportunities to speak?

Yet Graham Lloyd, The Australian’s environment editor – perhaps more accurately described as the anti-environment editor – trawls the web, finds obscure and unsubstantiated critiques of mainstream science, then publishes them as front page attacks on professional integrity.

Science and common-sense

There are major problems when it comes to explaining some of issues in science, and there have been ever since science began. Some fundamental scientific discoveries seem to be counter-intuitive, challenging direct observation or our common-sense view of the world.

Common sense, and direct observation, tells us that the Earth is flat, that the sun (like the moon) rotates around the Earth and that forces don’t operate at a distance.

Aristotle with his encyclopedic –- but often erroneous –- grasp of natural phenomena, was a compelling authority in support of a geocentric universe, and that the seat of reason was in the heart, not the brain, and that females were deformed males. His views were dominant for 1,500 years.

The Greek astronomer Ptolemy, following Aristotle, provided ingenious proofs in support of geocentrism. Then along came Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler who said: “Your common sense observation is wrong. The orbits of sun and moon are completely different, although they appear to be similar.” (Our use of the terms “sunrise” and “sunset” preserves the Ptolemaic paradigm.)

By the 20th Century, electronics enabled us to apply force from a distance, to do thousands of things remotely, manipulating spacecraft and satellites, or receiving signals (radio, telephony, television), setting alarms, opening garage doors and, one of the great labour saving devices, the remote switch for television.

The most obvious disjunction between science and common sense is the question: “right now, are we at rest or in motion?”

Common sense and direct observation suggests that we are at rest. But science says, “wrong again”. We are moving very rapidly. The earth is spinning on its axis at a rate of 1,669 kmh at the equator, and in Melbourne (37.8°S) at 1,317 kmh. We are also orbiting round the sun even faster, at nearly 30 kms, or 107,200 kmh. There is a third motion, harder to measure, as the galaxy expands -– and it’s speeding up, as Brian Schmidt postulates.

But, sitting here in Footscray, it is hard to grasp that we are in motion, kept in place by gravity. Psychology resists it. Essentially we have to accept the repudiation of common sense on trust, because somebody in a white coat says, “trust me, I’m a scientist”. I would challenge anyone to reconcile common sense and quantum theory or to satisfactorily explain the Higgs boson or -– hardest of all -– to define gravity.

The factors that limit the psychological carrying power of much science –- not all -– include these:

  • its complexity, often requiring use of a language known only to initiates
  • outcomes are seen as too expensive
  • outcomes are seen as too slow
  • the history of science has been badly taught, often portrayed as an effortless success story, proceeding from triumph to triumph, instead of the passionate and dramatic reality.

Science at the core

Scientists and learned societies have been punching below their weight in matters of public policy, and they are careful to avoid being involved in controversies outside their disciplines, possible threats to grants being among them.

Some distinguished scientists are outstanding advocates, including Gus Nossal, Peter Doherty, Ian Chubb, Fiona Stanley, Robert May, Brian Schmidt, Ian Frazer, Mike Archer, Tim Flannery and Dick Denton.

Science must be at the core of our national endeavour and you are well placed to examine the evidence, evaluate it, then advocate and persuade. Our nation’s future depends on the quality of its thinking, and its leaders.

There is a wide-spread assumption by industry and government that Australia’s economic, social and technological future will be a mirror image of the past. We can be confident that this just won’t happen. We have not even begun to talk seriously about the threats and opportunities of a post-carbon economy.

I encourage you, whatever your political persuasion, or lack of it, to argue for higher recognition of the role that science must play in our future, and drive your MP mad unless or until he/ she does something about it.

Remember Archimedes and his lever. But first you have to find a fulcrum, then you push the lever.

The ConversationBarry Jones is Professorial Fellow at University of Melbourne

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

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