“Smoked Ham and Rabbit Stew” (Pseudoscientists)

SMOKEDHAMRABBITSTEWMy favorite irony is someone using computer technology and the Internet to bash science. The main point of these screeds is usually to highlight mistakes science has made.

Indeed, it has made plenty. Carl Sagan said if you’re not making mistakes when doing science, you’re doing it wrong. He added if you keep making the same mistakes, you’re really doing it wrong. Finally, if you don’t admit the mistakes, you’re not doing science. Making mistakes is no disgrace. Refusing to admit them is.

This seems the logical time to introduce Ken Ham, head of Answers in Genesis. His organization’s Statement of Faith reads, in part, “No evidence in any field can be valid if it contradicts the scriptural record.” It is one (rather lame) thing to have that as a philosophy. It is quite another to hold such a view and claim to be doing science. Science, in fact, is forever trying to prove itself wrong.

It is inadequate for Jenny McCarthy to note that her son was given a vaccine, developed autism, and then tie the two occurrences together. The Playboy Bunny would need her hypothesis to be tested in double blind, reproducible studies, with the results made available for peer review. In the case of vaccines and autism, that link was disproven in a series of those double blind, peer-reviewed studies. On July 1, a systematic review of these studies was published in the journal Pediatrics. It found, “There is strong evidence that the MMR vaccine is not associated with autism.” If a better study comes along and disproves this, it will be accepted. That’s how science works. In fact, science reserves its greatest praise for those who disprove conventional wisdom. Someone scientifically disproving evolution, for instance, would be as revered as Einstein and Newton.

The proper method of science is not to invent a conclusion, then find evidence that supports it, which is what creationists and cryptozoolgists do. Dr. Jeffrey Muldrum, an associate professor of anatomy and anthropology at Idaho State University, spends his time, resources, and talent foraging for Bigfoot. He believed in it as a kid and never gave up.

In the academic world, Muldrum is a pariah, as shunned as the monster he’s looking for. Muldrum is one of my least favorite characters because of his credentials. He should know much better. Somewhat to his credit, he has dismissed some pieces of Bigfoot evidence as hoaxes, rather than trying to cram them into his preconceived ideas. Further, he seems to be genuinely looking for evidence, as opposed to deciding ahead of time he will find it, then fulfilling that prophecy. But he puts stock in eyewitness accounts, a distinction belying a man of his education. Someone in his position should know that hundreds of pieces of weak evidence don’t add up to one strong piece. He should know a creature of Bigfoot’s description could not have a sustainable population that has escaped detection, especially with so many people searching in the place the beast supposedly resides. At a minimum, he should consider the possibility so remote as to warrant no use of resources, which could be spent on trying to find undiscovered bugs or small reptiles.

Still, he’s at least applying scientific principles in his search. For a much worse example, let’s go back to Answers in Genesis and its take on the age of Earth. Rather than addressing the scientific proof, such as Clair Patterson’s radiometric dating, the group simply chides geologists for not adhering to the Bible. Their evidence to counter Patterson’s is this: “A global, year-long, catastrophic flood did happen at the time of Noah. We can say this with confidence because of the clear authority in Genesis.” To reach this conclusion, they used no developed question, no hypothesis, no observation, no testing, no studies, no peer review, and certainly no science.

Here’s another goody: “Whose word we are going to trust: the all-knowing truthful creator or finite, sinful creatures who give us their books that contain errors and therefore are frequently revised?” They offer no retort to Patterson’s science or any support of an alternative theory. Just an ad hominem or two, an assertion that admitting errors is a fault, and declaring it was all made by an invisible sky creature.

To hopelessly understate the case, they are failing to employ the Scientific Method. The Method’s first step requires defining the question. And this means asking, “Why is the door slamming shut,” not “Which ghost is slamming the door?”

The next step is observation. James Randi notes that, “The plural of anecdote is not data.” Three hundred people claiming that jasmine cured their backache and increased their success in the real estate market doesn’t count as proof. It must be put to a scientific test, including the third step in the Method, developing a hypothesis. For instance, after observing that milkmaids seldom developed smallpox, Edward Jenner hypothesized that persons exposed to cowpox would eventually be immune to its more sinister cousin.

Next, the scientist tests his or her hypothesis with experiments and collects the data, without a preconceived conclusion. This is perhaps the key point of science: Attempting to nullify one’s hypothesis is necessary to promoting the field. Studies should be random, controlled, and double blind. Double blind means neither the subjects nor researchers know which is the test group and which is the control group. Then, results should be carefully analyzed using proper statistics.

Sometimes, these results cause a revision of the hypothesis, necessitating going back to the third step. If the hypothesis seems validated, the next step is to publish the results in a scientific, peer-reviewed journal. A creationist paper in an astrophysics journal would get swallowed up like objects in a black hole that the paper was probably trying to rationalize out of existence. Seeing if a claim stands up among world-class experts is an important part of the scientific process.

Ideally, the research should be repeated by others and the hypothesis may be slightly adjusted. This is because science admits its errors and shifts its thinking if warranted. Science long ago moved on from Piltdown Man, while Answers in Genesis is still asserting light can travel at thousand warp, or whatever its rationale is for being able to see stars millions of light years away in a 5,000-year-old universe.

In the Piltdown Man hoax, an amateur archeologist combined a modern human skull with the jaw of an orangutan and claimed it was an evolutionary find. Once radiocarbon dating came along, science disproved this.

Creationists still use Piltdown Man in their railings against evolution, even though it was science, not religion, that unmasked the hoax. If Piltdown Man was the only proof of evolution, it would be different. But there is a wealth of documented, researched, and peer-reviewed evidence showing man has a common ancestor with apes. The mountain of evidence for evolution also includes Archaeopteryx, Lucy, and Tiktaalik. Further evidence includes the geologic column and animals perfectly adapted for their environment, or existing only on Iceland, Madagascar, and Tasmania.

So far, I’ve spent precious little time addressing the anti-vaxxers, so let’s get back to them. Among the points some of them try to make is that science cannot be trusted because of its history. For instance, it will claim that scientists once thought smoking was healthy. This is doubtful, as what passes for evidence is usually advertisements featuring smoking doctors. But the more important point is that using the scientific method will eventually lead to getting it right.

By the late 19th Century, medical journals were publishing articles warning about smoking’s danger. By the 1930s, researchers had made the connection between smoking and lung cancer. Once studies using the Scientific Method were published, the scientific community was uniformly against smoking, and Surgeon General’s warnings were added in 1964.

Another frequent smear is that scientists thought thalidomide was safe. The truth is, it was the lack of scientific research that led to it being allowed on the market in West Germany. In the United States, the FDA rejected its use because adequate testing had not been done. Left out of the thalidomide rants is that the Scientific Method led to the discovery of its use in patients who aren’t pregnant. For instance, it is part of the treatment for leprosy.

In summary, science is an orderly, self-correcting process. Still, anti-vaxxers, cryptozoologists, and Young Earth Creationists continue to merrily spread their anti-science messages, probably by cell phone, Facebook, and Skype.

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