The scientific method helps shield scientists from claims of political or personal bias because it

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This page is synthesized from material written by Prof. Sekula in Spring 2014. We’ll try to equip you with tools for understanding these phenomena.

  • Skepticism: What is it? What is a skeptic?
  • Scientific controversy: What is it? What does it mean? What other types of controversy exist?
  • Denialism: This is often wrongly equated to skepticism. What is it really?

Skepticism

Skepticism is critically appraising the reasons or evidence for a claim. The more extraordinary the claim, the more extraordinary the evidence required to support it. Carl Sagan expressed it as “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” A trivial claim might be acceptable at face value.

A skeptic does not immediately accept all new claims, but rather waits until that information has been verified through the scientific method. There is a minimum amount of evidence required, past which the skeptic accepts the new information and moves on. A skeptic has an open mind, but not so open that their brains fall out.

A good scientist must be a good skeptic. This means properly using the scientific method, good logic argumentation (no fallacies), and the standards of good evidence. Everything in science is tentative, so the scientist (skeptic) must be prepared to accept a new idea if the evidence for it is convincing. Science is critically assessing someone else’s evidence for someone else’s hypothesis.

Skepticism is:

  • An act of compassion toward fellow humans;
  • Not mean or nasty (don’t be a jerk);
  • A shield against dangerous nonsense; there’s a lot of this in the world now.

Scientific Controversy

We’ll start this discussion with a trial question. Which of the following is a scientific controversy?

  1. Humans are changing the climate using carbon dioxide.
  2. The law of gravity works at distances less than 1 millimeter.
  3. Natural selection explains the development of biological diversity.
  4. Vitamin C plays a role in treating the causes or symptoms of a cold.

Choose one and make a note of it, then continue reading.

It is necessary to understand the characteristics of a scientific controversy, going beyond the vision of scientists arguing with each other. First and foremost, a scientific controversy must stem from a stage in the scientific method. It is not a value debate. It is a disagreement arising from some part of the scientific process. There are other types of controversies. Issues debated in a scientific controversy are quite concrete. Here’s a sampling of what questions might be involved.

  • Observation
    • Is observational data of good quality?
    • Is the methodology sound?
    • Is there any bias or deception in the methodology?
    • Is the sample size adequate?
    • Is appropriate statistical analysis used?
    • Have precautions been taken for systematic errors?
  • Hypothesis
    • Is the hypothesis really testable (not a construct)?
    • Does the hypothesis make any new predictions?
    • Is it one of equally valid hypotheses?
  • Test
    • Is the test excessively costly (not feasible)?
    • Does the methodology have any of the problems listed under Observation?
  • Assessing Test Results
    • The problems here can be similar to those in the observation of the phenomenon itself.
    • Is the result published in a high-quality journal? In low-quality journals there may be no peer review done in the journal, or short time for review, or too few reviewers.
    • Any problems in peer review?
  • Replication
    • Can the test be replicated (done by someone else)? Any proprietary or secret information preventing it?
    • Has the test/experiment actually been replicated, including the original researchers?
  • If the result is quite radical, has the process been thoroughly investigated for systematics?

A recent example would be the 2011 announcement by the OPERA experiment in Europe that they used a neutrino beam from the LHC at CERN and had detected neutrinos moving slightly faster than light. This is a radical result given that all physics so far indicates that light represents the cosmic speed limit; nothing goes faster. This aroused a LOT of discussion, with most scientists suspecting an undiscovered systematic error. A lot of questions got asked. Announcements in June and July told the scientific world that a systematic error had indeed been found; a problem with a cable had introduced errors into the timing circuits, resulting in incorrect velocity measurements.

Before accepting a new result, scientists want to know that the work has been done properly and that no equipment or analytical errors have crept in.

Here are a few more examples; this list can always be made longer.

  • Scientific Controversies:
    • “Cold Fusion”: Two researchers, Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann, claimed in a press conference and before any peer review of their work that they had discovered “cold fusion” – a way to make large amounts of energy from fusing nuclei at room temperature. Many groups tried but failed to reproduce their work; errors were identified in their original experiment. Despite this, at least one of them continued to publish on their results until about the mid-1990s.
    • The existence of “penta-quarks”: in the early 2000s, several physics experiments claimed evidence for the existence of “penta-quarks” – bound states of five quarks each. However, their data were low in statistics. Many other experiments tried to duplicate their findings and found no evidence for these states despite having much more data with which to confirm such a state of matter.
    • “String Theory”: originally proposed as an explanation of the strong nuclear force in the 1960s and 1970s, string theory morphed into a claimed “theory of everything,” describing how all known forces and particles emerged. However, the theory has continued to morph into a “theory of anything,” with no evidence to back any of its claims. The veracity of string theory as an accurate, fundamental description of nature is an ongoing scientific controversy.
  • Non-Scientific Controversies:
    • Childhood vaccination: a single experimental result from a researcher named Andrew Wakefield on a few sick children was interpreted by him and others to mean that vaccines can lead to autism in children. Despite the fact that over a dozen independent measurements with better data have shown no link, despite the fact that huge studies of vaccinated populations has shown no correlation to autism, the use of vaccines on children to prevent disease is labeled as a “scientific controversy.” It is not. It is a values controversy (“my children, my choice”: parents claim that they have sovereignty over the health of their children and can choose no to vaccinate them, regardless of the scientific evidence); it is a social and political controversy (“the good of the many vs. the good of the few”: vaccination protects the unvaccinated, known as “herd immunity,” so it’s a social and political good to vaccinate, but this can conflict with the political movement to establish “individual liberty”); it is also the realm of pseudoscientists such as chiropractors and homeopaths, who in large numbers reject the “germ theory of disease” that has been upheld by over 100 years of scientific research and claim that vaccines don’t work.
    • Human-induced climate change: that the climate is changing over time is overwhelmingly supported by multiple, independent lines of evidence. That humans are responsible for the most recent 150 years of climate change is also supported overwhelmingly by multiple, independent lines of evidence. However, policy actions to response to climate change meet with resistance from many fronts. In many of those fronts, they choose to claim there is still scientific dispute over the evidence. There is not. There are many motives underlying this denial. One of the large motives in the U.S. is economic – the fear of massive changes to the economy required to deal with the problem. This falls under “social” or “political” controversy. Tied to this is the “individual liberty” argument (or, its relative, the “anti-socialism movement”), which claims that individual liberty (e.g. to drive a certain kind of car, burn a certain kind of fuel, use a certain amount of electricity) trumps the societal issue of making changes to our aggregate behavior to ameliorate the causes or effects of climate change. This is a “political” or “moral” controversy, a disagreement between two philosophies and not a disagreement in a step of the scientific method.
    • Fluoridation of public water supplies: that fluoridation of water greatly reduces tooth decay is a long-established medical fact, with no evidence of equally counter-balancing negative side-effects from the process. However, many communities resist fluoridation of water and claim that it’s because of science that shows fluoride is medically bad, or that it doesn’t prevent tooth decay. There is no such scientific evidence. Instead, these are really “social” or “political” controversies, typically stemming from the clash of political schools of thought: “individual liberty” vs “societal good”. The argument that “I have the choice to put things in my body or not,” is part of that debate. However, there is no dispute from the scientific record about the positive health effects of water fluoridation.
    • Intelligent Design/Creationism vs. Natural Selection: the scientific fact of evolution is explained by the Theory of Natural Selection, a fact that itself has been upheld by thousands upon thousands of observations and tests for about 150 years. However, there are religious and political forces that disagree with what they view as the “moral” or “spiritual” implication of Natural Selection (e.g. that somehow humans are not special, or that humans could not have been created by a God . . . neither of which are conclusions drawn from the Theory of Natural Selection, but rather from the religious viewpoints of individuals assessing the implications of the Theory). These groups (for instance, The Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based, privately funded think tank) have lobbied for or helped author legislation to force Intelligent Design/Creationism – the religious asserting that an intelligent power tinkers with life – as science in the public school science classroom. They claim science backs them up, and that they have to do this because the scientific community won’t take them seriously. The reality is that their ideas are unscientific, and cannot stand up to the scientific method because they cannot be tested (e.g. the existence of God is a construct, not a hypothesis, and lies outside the domain of science) or because they make falsifiable predictions that are, in fact, falsified (e.g. that desert grass and prairie grass are more similar to one another than desert cactus and desert grass; in fact, the latter is true – and a prediction of Natural Selection – and the former is false.) They invent a false “scientific controversy” when, in fact, this is really a “values” or “religious” controversy that has to do with getting their version of religion into public schools.

Now that we have detailed what controversies are, let’s return to that trial question. Which one is a scientific controversy?

  1. Essentially all scientists working on this agree on climate effects. There is no controversy in the scientific world.
  2. This one is the scientific controversy. The gravity measurements are so difficult that there will be a lot of debate about whether the methodology will actually work.
  3. This is so well established that it is considered as fact. The concept is successfully used in research and practice because it deeply explains change in species over time.
  4. This claim is now known to be false. It is well-researched and not controversial. Vitamin C may have a very small effect on colds but is not a magic cure.

Denialism

Denialism is the refusal to accept evidence for a claim, no matter what the quality or weight of the evidence. This is often done to protect some world view , which itself may not have anything to do with the science issue. The denialist will not or cannot accept something which is quite clear to scientists. The response is to deny the evidence, no matter how overwhelming. This is not skepticism.

Denialism is a sub-species of pseudoscience. Recall that pseudoscience is the practice of making claims using the trappings and appearance of science and skepticism but lacking the substance of science.

If, in discussion of a scientific claim or issue, you hear someone say that there is no amount of evidence, no matter how good, that would convince them that the claim is true, then you are looking at denial. Accepting the science would require invalidating one or more of their core beliefs or possibly taking some sort of financial damage..

We can see at least two motivations for denying a scientific finding. Accepting the science would

  • upset some deeply held befief, or
  • admit that the result would be damaging to some financial interest.

For example, if someone were trying to sell beachfront property on the East coast, they would have a very strong motivation to deny or cover up the finding that climate change will result in sea level rise, thus inundating said beachfront properties. This may sound cynical, but examining the motivations for denial can prove interesting.

We have already reviewed what a scientific controversy is.

  • What is a scientific controversy?
    • Quite simply, it is a disagreement that stems from a step (or group of steps) within the scientific method.
  • What is NOT a scientific controversy?
    • Any disagreement that operates on principles outside the scientific method. For instance, a disagreement based on laws, political beliefs, values (e.g. religion, ethics, etc), popular vote, or anything else that operates outside the framework of the scientific method.

“Campaigning against Herbert Hoover in 1932, [Roosevelt] gave no indication of the bold programs he would recommend, if, in fact, he had yet thought them through himself. Addressing a campaign rally in Pittsburgh, the Democratic standard-bearer pledged to slash government spending and balance the budget. Returning to that city in 1936, seeking reelection after four years of record government outlays, he asked his top speechwriter, Samuel Rosenman, what he should say about the promise he had made in 1932. ‘Deny you were ever in Pittsburgh,’ Rosenman suggested.”
— Shogan, Robert. “The Fate of the Union: America’s Rocky Road to Political Stalemate”.

A denialist will use any means necessary to ignore or refute an established body of evidence. These tactics include:

  • Denying the premise of the argument (see previous paragraph)
  • employing authority, title, position, degrees (argument from logical fallacy)
  • employ opinion or personal attack (argument from logical fallacy)
  • define evidence weakly or not at all (avoid the scientific method)
  • conduct none or little of their own independent, peer-reviewed work (avoid the scientific method)
  • avoid scientific meetings and established scientific journals (avoid the scientific method)
  • expounding on subjects with an air of authority, even though they have neither experience nor credentials in the area where they profess denial (argument from logical fallacy)

These tricks will often appear in propaganda items.

Common themes in campaigns to manufacture a false scientific controversy

  • Declare that a scientific controversy exists. Repeat declaration.
    • This forestalls the process of taking action to respond to the scientific evidence.
  • Deny the conclusions of a body of knowledge.
    • Cast doubt on the scientific process or on the evidence gathered by the process
    • Willfully ignore evidence that supports the scientific conclusion, or simply cherry-pick evidence against the conclusion, however insignificant that evidence is in comparison to the bulk used to draw the scientific conclusion
    • argue using weak forms of evidence or logical fallacies
    • Avoid testing your claims to avoid disproof

If you read our Propaganda page, you might notice that these tactics correspond strongly to some propaganda tactics. In fact a number of denial efforts involve propaganda campaigns.

Are you a Denialist or a Skeptic?

We’ve discussed the difference between “denial” and “skepticism” before. To repeat:

  • A skeptic does not immediately accept all new claims. They wait until that information has been verified through the scientific method. There is a minimum amount of evidence required, past which the skeptic accepts the new information and moves on. A skeptic has an open mind, but not so open that their brains fall out.
  • A denialist is someone who refuses to accept new information regardless of whether it is verified through the scientific method. There is no amount of evidence that will convince them of the reality of the information, and they readily accept even weak forms of evidence or opinion that allows them to refute the claim – they’re so open-minded that their brains fall out. They never move on from refusing to believe the new information.

Refuting claims is certainly part of the scientific method. However, it is not enough to refute a claim by saying “That can’t be true” or “I don’t believe it.” A scientist (a skeptic) constructs an experiment to test the claim, or constructs a new, independent experiment to assess the original experimental results. Just because new information refutes or confirms earlier evidence doesn’t make it true or false. Its veracity is only established through the weight of the evidence gathered by repeated application of the scientific method.

Putting it all together: A Denialism Toolkit

Here is a simple “Denial Toolkit”:

  • Cast doubt on the scientific research. Misuse the word “theory” to do it.
  • Question the scientists’ motives and integrity
  • Cite only the disagreements among scientists, and amplify the arguments of a tiny group of dissenters
  • Exaggerate the potential harm
  • Appeal to personal freedom
  • Argue that acceptance of the claim would violate or invalidate a core philosophical tenet
  • Use “weasel words.”

What do I do when faced with denial?

What can you do if you encounter denial?

  • Try to understand how the denial is conducted (apply the toolkit)
  • Determine if the person would ever be convinced of the claim (how much evidence would it take?) If they will not accept any evidence, don’t bother trying. There may be something going on that you can’t see.
  • Try to understand the real cause of the denial (if that is possible)
    • Is it a science issue, or a values, social, financial, or political issue?
  • Understand that more data may not be the right path to making the argument

Resources

Further reading on this subject will help you understand. This is a lecture that touches on MANY issues addressed in greater depth, both in this course’s own lecture notes and in external books. Here are links to things to help you understand the key issues in more depth.

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