“Science defiance” (Anti-science tactics)


There are a variety of anti-science beliefs, but proponents of them all follow the same disingenuous techniques to further their agenda.

One trick is to rely on bogus experts. Linus Pauling won the 1954 Nobel Prize for chemistry. Later, he made unsubstantiated claims that an overload of vitamins, especially C, can cure or mitigate nearly any malady. Conditions that vitamins can’t impact, like ALS, would have never happened if the orange juice regimen had started earlier. Pauling has many fans in the alternative medicine crowd and, lacking any legitimate research to support his idiosyncratic position, they will point to his elite honor in an unrelated field for support.   

Another big one is false balance. There are tens of thousands of peer-reviewed papers on evolution in geology, anthropology, and biology journals. This compares with zero such papers on creationism. Yet when pushing for creationism in public school biology class, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal asked scientists, “What are you afraid of,” as if he were merely calling for reasonable presentation of two equally valid positions.

So whenever there is something like a Bill Nye-Ken Ham debate, it is one-against-one and this can portray a false balance between the two ideas. Yet Ham admitted that no amount of evidence would change his mind, so there was no genuine give-and-take like one might see in a debate on specifics of the tax code.

We also see the false balance card played with regard to climate change. An opinion page might feature someone arguing for AGW, and another against it, and this might create the impression of the ideas having equal weight. But based on the papers published in peer-reviewed climate change journals in recent years, the true numbers would have maybe 15 column inches for the denial camp and an encyclopedia-sized publication for the other side, representing the 99.8 percent of peer-reviewed papers that have been published this decade.

There is also playing up a conspiracy angle. The most widespread conspiracy comes courtesy the Flat Earthers, who have concocted a cover-up that brings together North and South Korea, Iran and Israel, and India and Pakistan. Also in on the plot are every satellite manufacturer, airline employee, astronaut, and ulta-high altitude jumper Felix Baumgartner. While NASA is often cited as the central evil figure, this conspiracy would have to precede the agency by more that two millennium, to at least Eratosthenes in the Third Century BCE. It then continued through ancient Greece and Rome, onto circumnavigation by Ferdinand Magellan’s crew, and then the Foucault Pendulum.

Rather than questioning the mounds of peer-reviewed science supporting evolution or climate change, deniers level charges of “religious zealotry” at the researchers and their supporters. We see the same strategy by those opposed to GMOs or vaccines. Pointing out that genetic modification saved the Hawaiian papaya, that insulin is a GMO, or that genetic modification transfers no more than four genes compared to thousands in traditional breeding, will be answered with an evidence-free assertion that the poster is an industry plant. Beyond being a wild conspiracy theory, the shill accusation is also an irrelevant ad hominem. If the person were being clandestinely paid to post the previous information, that has no bearing on its accuracy. Similarly, a pro-vaxxer noting the difference between mortality and morbidity might be answered with, “You’ve been blinded by government and Big Pharma propaganda.”

In a local example last year, WQAD meteorologist Kevin Sorenson explained the science behind airplane exhaust and pointed out this makes for harmless contrails, not mind-bending government poison. Without bothering to counter his science, detractors fantasized about the day “coming soon” when he and his children would die a horrible death from airborne chemical warfare.

Then we have cherry picking, which involves plucking a tiny piece of informational fruit and ignoring the rest of the tree. For instance, a favorite of climate change deniers is a chart showing that global warming peaked in 1998 and that average global temperature today is no more than it was then. But that’s because of an unusually strong el Niño that year. A graph starting in 1997, 1999, 2007, 1957, or 1857 would show a clear warming trend.

Another example comes from incompletely quoting Darwin when he wrote, “To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.”

Some creationists stop the quote there, but Darwin spends the subsequent sentences explaining why the apparent absurdity is grounded in reality. He continues, “Reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a simple and imperfect eye to one complex and perfect can be shown to exist, each grade being useful to its possessor, as is certainly the case; if further, the eye ever varies and the variations be inherited, as is likewise certainly the case; and if such variations should be useful to any animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, should not be considered as subversive of the theory.”

Yet another tactic is to sow doubt on the research by casting aspersions on the researcher. University of Florida horticulturist Kevin Folta has been the focus of much venom from anti-GMO camps. The university has received thousands of FOIA requests to turn over all his work-related correspondence. There is no reason to suspect wrong-doing, it is done so that a time consuming process will keep Folta from his work as a food science researcher. Folta’s employer has also been the subject of a telephone and e-mail campaign to fire him. This demand stems from a claim he was secretly on the Monsanto payroll. In truth, all he had done was speak at one seminar the company partially sponsored. He spoke as the independent researcher he is and was not compensated one penny by Monsanto. Undaunted by these facts, one vigilante group went so far as to make his wife’s usual bicycle route available online.

For all the time and effort his detractors put into this harassment campaign, they have never questioned his science. After his public presentations, he holds a question-and-answer session and patiently stays until every query is fielded. Yet his critics don’t show up at these, they only attempt to destroy the person.

Similarly, Dr. Paul Offitt engenders homicidal rage among anti-vaxxers (I’m not exaggerating, I’ve seen online posts yearning for his death-by-stabbing). Neil Tyson and Brian Cox are the bane of Flat Earthers and geocentrists, who call them all manner of names yet can never direct this energy into a scientific method study or peer-reviewed submission stating their case. Climate change papers are dismissed with “follow the money,” while the authors are labeled government payroll whores, even though some are employed by private industry. Meanwhile, Darwin rates just below Satan and Judas in the hierarchy of a fundamentalist’s most reviled entities.

Yet another trick is to selectively highlight science they think offers support for their position.  One of the more frequent manifestations is when creationist argues that evolution would violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics. But while the Law states that total entropy will increase over time, this only applies to a closed system. I strongly suspect that most making this claim couldn’t tell you what the First or Third Laws are, and that they only heard the Second and its subsequent creationist talking point from a fellow believer.

Similar tactics are utilized by anti-vaxxers and alternative medicine proponents, prompting Steven Novella to quip that these groups use science in the way a drunk uses a lamppost: For support, not illumination.

Then we have moving the goalposts, where when a challenge is met, rather than conceding the point, a further challenge is issued.  When On the Origin of Species was first published, detractors flatly denied evolution. Then it came to be observed both in nature and in a petri dish. Rather than acknowledge that this confirmed Darwin’s ideas, deniers insisted that biologists were observing only incremental change and that the animal was merely adapting and becoming more efficient, but that a series of such changes would never lead to another animal a million generations later. In all this, they failed to explain what would constitute speciation.

Based on the geologic column, comparative anatomy, and DNA, scientists might conclude that one fossil is a precursor of bears and that another species found much deeper in the column is a still earlier ancestor. Creationists, while offering no support for the position, will insist these two fossils are unrelated creatures whose similar anatomical features and placement in the geologic column are coincidental. They will then issue a challenge that an intermediate species between the two be found.

When this is produced, it is claimed that this is not a middle-stage animal, but rather just a distinct third species, again with coincidental geologic column placement. The goalpost is moved yet again and another challenge is made to find a species between this latest middle find and the two between it.  

The biggest comeback to such challenges was the discovery of Tiktaalik. It had features of both fish and the four-legged tetrapods. It had fins, scales, and gills like fish, but also flat head and body, and eyes on the top of its skull, like a crocodile. Unlike fish, it had a functional neck, and had ribs resembling those of early tetrapods. There were various creationist reactions to this major find, but none of them were, “Yep, you’ve met all the requirements we’ve asked for. This is the final piece, evolution has been proven.”

Another tactic is to think that casting doubt on one mechanism of a field can invalidate the field in totality. Of course, the questioning of that mechanism is often in error. They might ask, “If man came from chimps, why are there still chimps?” This expresses a fundamental misunderstanding of the evolutionary tenet that man and the apes share a common ancestor.

Or they may credit improved sanitation for the decline in disease rates, ignoring that this would have no impact on airborne illnesses or realizing that countries with horrible sanitation, like India, still show dramatic reduction in disease following widespread vaccination.

Then we have a flat Earth meme showing a wet, spinning tennis ball with the water shooting off from it and saying this shows what would happen if Earth were likewise a rotating spheroid. They are blissfully unaware that the gravity which helps draw the water from the tennis ball is the same force confining ocean water to Earth.

This more detailed explanation was provided by an anonymous Reddit poster: “Rotation isn’t measured in miles per hour, but in Revolutions per Minute. The Revolution of Earth is per day, there are 1,440 minutes in a day, so the RPM is about one-seven ten thousandths. By contrast, a spinning tennis ball is going much faster. The ball is unable to generate enough of its gravity to capture and hold anything including water. The water in the meme is also inside the gravitational forces of a planet which also overpower the ball. The ball lacks sufficient mass to counter centripetal force of the spin applied.”

Still another anti-science strategy is the manufactroversy. One of the more prominent examples is Climategate, where a hacker broke into the University of East Anglia to copy thousands of computer files and e-mails.

Most of the e-mails delved into the minutiae of climate research and analysis, or offered details of conferences. The manufactroversy focused on a small number of e-mails, such as one in which climate scientist Kevin Trenberth wrote, “The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t.” This was part of a discussion on the need for better monitoring of the energy flows involved in short-term climate variability, but was presented by deniers as proof that all climate scientists were perpetrating a broad  hoax.

The most frequently-recited Climategate quote came from a Phil Jones e-mail. He related using “Mike’s Nature trick” in a 1999 graph for the World Meteorological Organization “to hide the decline” in proxy temperatures derived from tree ring analyses, even though measured temperatures were rising. In mathematics, a ‘trick’ refers to a way of dealing problem, and ‘decline’ here referred to the tree ring divergence problem. But these meanings were twisted and the scientists were presented as conspirators, even though these accusations were made during the warmest year on record.

Another tactic is to compare themselves with Einstein, Newton, or Galileo (though geocentrists avoid this one). The idea is that they are being opposed for their maverick thinking and that scientists are scared of having their pet positions founder. Yet science reserves its greatest accolades and awards for those who disprove conventional wisdom. If the purveyors of cold fusion, perpetual motion machines, and q-ray bracelets successfully made their cases through the employment of the Scientific Method and peer review, they would likewise be lauded.  

Finally, scientists, being Homo sapiens, sometimes make mistakes. Carl Sagan famously said of science, “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re doing it wrong. If you keep making the same mistakes, you’re really doing it wrong. And if you don’t admit they’re mistakes, you’re not doing science.” But anti-science type see this as evidence of institutional incompetence rather than trial-and-error.

Medicine has moved on from trepanation and leeches, whereas Reiki is done the same now as when it began in 1922. Science uncovered the Piltdown Man hoax and owned up the errors in Nebraska Man and adjusted its thinking accordingly. Yet Nebraska Man is still presented by creationists as evidence of evolution being in error, as if one corrected mistake by one anthropologist negates the entire biology field.

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