Anti-Science in Academia?

There is a phenomena I came across again: anti-science.

I wouldn’t feel compelled to write about it again, though, if it didn’t frustrate me so much. The reason I feel frustrated in this moment is because of three different interactions I’ve had this past week or so. What stood out to me is that these interactions weren’t entirely typical in that it demonstrated how widely spread this problem is.

I should first explain that the issue frustrating me isn’t precisely an anti-scientific attitude, but something that nearly approximates it in specific contexts.

Several interactions I had were all well-educated people who have spent much time in academia. I know at least some of them have worked in the capacity of teaching. All of them are typical intellectual types who are well informed about the world and are certainly way above average in IQ. Also, they also seem like people who are more than capable of independent thinking and rational analysis. Basically, they aren’t anti-intellectual and, of course, wouldn’t think of themselves that way. Nonetheless, the doubts they express about certain scientific issues is so strong that it comes close to the doubts expressed by people who are more obviously anti-intellectual.

One commonality is that all of them have spent time outside of the country of their birth, at least one of them having lived significant part of his life in another country. A couple of them even speak another language besides English. So, these are relatively worldly people.

Besides the commonalities, my attention was caught by the fact that they are ideologically and academically quite diverse. Between them all: They run the entire ideological spectrum from left to right. And they include a diversity of academic knowledge and experience. They are even diverse in their religious proclivities or lack thereof.

I should point out that all of these people are intellectually respectable. In fact, I personally respect them for their intellects. It’s because of their general knowledgeablity and rationality that I enjoy discussing issues with them on occasion, although only one of them did I meet directly through such a discussion.

It is for this reason I felt so disheartened by my feeling the need to defend science against people who should know better… or maybe that isn’t quite the right way of saying it. It’s not that I think all of them are wrong in their views per se, except for one of them who I think is obviously wrong about the data. More basically, it’s just frustration at trying to communicate. Science is one of those topics that brings up a lot of ideological baggage which gets in the way, myself included. It seems odd to me that science is so often one of the most polarizing of issues. It makes me aware of how much views on science can diverge when even well educated people can disagree so widely. On top of that, it has become clear to me how much we are divided simply because of the powerful role of media.

These interactions involved a variety of scientific issues, all related to research: psychology of ideologies, IQ testing, global warming, etc. Fundamentally, all of these people felt some variation of mistrust about potential bias in various aspects: the researchers themselves, the limitations of research, the agendas of scientific institutions, how data was being interpreted or reported, etc.

The specifics aren’t all that important. In some cases, the doubts they shared were to some degree within reason. What didn’t seem reasonable to me was how strongly they held onto those doubts, how resistant they were to treat as trustworthy the scientific method and scientific community. Of course, my own biased opinions about science played into my own sense of conflict and frustration. It’s hard to discuss neutrally many of these kinds of issues, especially when they seem very important in how they touch upon many other issues (global warming being a particularly clear example of this).

It seemed to me that they didn’t want give scientists their due. Despite their being well educated, they were all speaking about science as laypeople. As a layperson myself, I tend to want to put more trust in scientific experts until I discover very good reasons to doubt; for certain, I feel annoyed when an entire scientific field is dismissed or devalued without any seeming good reason besides the consensus of that field not fitting the person’s worldview.

More specifically, it seemed that they didn’t want to acknowledge the fact that scientists are more aware of and careful about such potential problems than anyone outside of the scientific fields. I would point out some of these scientific researchers (specifically the soccial scientists) are experts in bias and in some cases experts in the biases of science itself. If you want to know what are the reasonable doubts to have about science, you just need to ask scientists. Science works by trial and error. If there is bias or limitiation to some type of testing, scientists will be the first to point it out and fix the problem. The scientific method is a self-correcting system.

Doubt within the scientific method is essential and necessary. But doubt about the scientific method itself is a direct attack on the very ideal that puts knowledge above belief or opinion. That said, I’m sure none of these people meant to attack such an ideal and probably would see themselves defending it in their own way. It’s  just that it felt like their criticisms weren’t all that helpful coming from the sidelines of science.

Here is my response to all of this:

If we can’t trust that the best experts on bias can deal with potential problems of bias, then we lesser mortals are beyond any hope of non-scientifically dealing with biases. Attempting to dismiss or discredit a particular field of science is the opposite of helpful. As long as even well-educated intellecuals end up undermining science and the scientific method, whether intentionally anti-scientific or not, we are going to have a hard time advancing as a society. Considering the possibility of losing our collective faith in the ideal of knowledge, do most people realize what we would be giving up?

These interactions demonstrate the apparent failure of the non-scientific fields of academia… or maybe just failure of science education in general (I know the science education I received from the public school system was probably a bit lacking). I would imagine that even many of those working in higher education need to be better educated about science. Our entire society needs to be better educated all around, and I have no doubt that the people I speak of would agree with me on that.

My emotional response to these interactions might have less to do with the interactions themselves. Instead, it might just be that these interactions helped clarify my sense of the problem we face. My perception of science being undermined not only saddens me, it makes me fear for our future. This isn’t about any individual person or any individual doubt. We could argue about the specifics endlessly. What I’m pointing out is much more insidious, the undermining of scientific authority itself where any doubt almost automatically trumps even the vast knowledge accumulated by decades of experts, where scientific peer-review and consensus becomes a reason for doubt of expertise instead of a reason for trust… worst still, where the science itself and the scientists who do it seem to get lost in the cloud of conflict and the whole media charade, where we no longer even have a shared set of facts to work from, much less a shared set of values.

The line between questioning doubt and nihilistic denialism may be thinner than many realize. It’s a line that might be easy to cross. As individuals ocassionally going a little too far over the line isn’t necessarily problematic, but if such a crossing is done on a society-wide scale it may not be easily undone. Nothing good can come of this. We seem to be livng in a an era ruled by mistrust that dangerously verges on collective cynicism. We should tread very carefully.

Bashing My Head Against a Brick Wall: Love of Truth or Masochism?

I’ve come to a point of frustration. Let me explain.

A conclusion I’ve flirted with for many years is that humans are fundamentally NOT rational (which isn’t necessarily to say humans are irrational; a better word is ‘arational’). Humans have some minimal capacity for rationality, but I suspect most of what is considered ‘rational’ is too often largely just rationalization. This is no grand insight per se. Still, I’ve resisted it. I want to believe that humans can be persuaded by facts. I want to believe that truth matters. However, I think it ultimately comes down to the fact that people don’t change much once set in their ways (which tends to happen early in life). As such, people don’t usually change their minds even when confronted with new facts and new ways of interpreting the facts. It’s just that people die and new generations come along (with new biases). The best hope one has of changing another’s mind is to meet them when they are a small child. After that point, there is little hope left for any further change.

Debating most people is about as worthwhile as bashing your head against a brick wall. Even worse, the people most interested in ‘debate’ tend to be the very people who are least interested in truth. It’s rather ironic. People tend to seek out debate because they want to ‘prove’ themselves right, not to explore possibilities, not to learn something new. There are exceptions, but they are few and far between. You might bash your skull to a bloody pulp before you find them.

And, no, I’m not excluding myself from my own criticisms. I know from my own experience how challenging it is to try to be ‘rational’ (objective, emotionally neutral, self-critical, aware of cognitive biases, being on guard for logical fallacies, genuinely trying to understand different viewpoints, being fair toward another’s argument, considering all the data instead of cherrypicking, and on and on). It’s hard enough for me to deal with all this within myself. It’s just too much to have to try to deal with it in other’s as well, especially when those others in most cases don’t want to (or don’t have the capacity to) deal with it in themselves. Spending so much time online, I end up interacting with many people who don’t bring out the best in me and who put me in a generally combative, irritable mood. And it’s my fault for being so easily effected. I’m the way I am. People are the way they are. There is nothing that can be done about that. In this post, I merely wish to explain my frustration.

– – –

I’ll give some examples.

I recently wrote about the differences between Southern and Northern cultures. There are two ways of treating these differences. The standard liberal view is that cultures are different with both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ aspects. The standard conservative view is that some cultures are inherently or fundamentally superior. The problem with the conservative view is that conservative states and societies don’t rank well on many factors most people consider worthy (education, health, economic equality, etc). The conservative will often dismiss this data outright or rationalize it away. And, of course, a lot of (most?) conservatives have little interest in conceding to the liberal view of openminded and tolerant multiculturalism. As a liberal, how do I win or how do I find a win/win middle ground of understanding? I often can’t.

When I was writing about the Southern/Northern culture issue, I also brought up the related issue of race and IQ because it’s a favorite discussion of conservatives. As a liberal, I have a bias toward believing in egalitarianism. It bothers me on a fundamental level that conservatives are always seeking to prove others (usually those different than them) are inferior. Nonetheless, I’m inclined to defer to science on these kinds of issues. Facts are more important than my beliefs and preferences. I take it seriously when conservatives reference studies suggesting a correlation between race (i.e., racial genetics) and IQ. Because I take facts so seriously, I’ve researched the subject extensively by looking at all the studies I could find along with meta-analysis of the studies. It’s true there are some studies that suggest a possible correlation between race and IQ. But what these conservatives don’t wish to acknowledge is that there are also many studies showing no correlation between race and IQ and also many studies correlating IQ to many other factors. Simply put, the data is complex and the research is inconclusive. There is no scientific consensus, as far as I can tell.

I find odd this conservative attitude. These conservatives will cite research that supports their preconceived conclusions while ignoring all the research that contradicts their views. They completely ignore the issue of scientific consensus. I’ve found conservatives quite suspicious of scientific consensus. Conservatives like science when it agrees with them, but they realize scientific authority is a two-edged sword. Once you accept scientific consensus, you eliminate your ability to cherrypick the data. As a comparable example, most conservatives utterly despise the fact that most scientists in all fields and vast majority (98% as I recall) climatology experts who are active researchers agree that the data supports the theory of anthropogenic global warming (AGW). It took decades for conservatives to accept global warming was even happening, but seemingly most still don’t accept that humans contribute to global warming. So, despite the strong scientific evidence and strong scientific consensus, conservatives are wary about science when it disagrees with their beliefs. They’ll ignore what most scientists conclude about AGW and instead they’ll find the small minority of studies and scientists who agree with them.

Accordingly, science is just there to be referred to when convenient and ignored when inconvenient. I don’t understand this attitude. I just don’t get it. If the majority of experts agree about something, I won’t be so presumptuous as to claim that I know better nor will I simply cherrypick the data that agrees with me. Why would I do this? What is to be gained by such anti-intellectual tactics?

One last example. I was looking at reviews of some books by Jim Wallis. One reviewer (in reference to God’s Politics if I remember correctly) mentioned the abortion issue. The person was criticizing the ‘moderate’ position that Wallis was proposing. As I understand it, Wallis is against abortions except when they are absolutely necessary (such as to save the mother’s life) and so is against banning abortions entirely. This position is ‘moderate’ in two ways. First, it strikes a balance between the practical and the moral and seeks a middle ground between two extremes (of pro-life and pro-choice). Second, it is the view held by most Americans and so is the ‘center’ of public opinion. The critical reviewer was promoting the common conservative view that abortions are bad and so compromising principles is to let liberals win. In a sense this is true because compromise is a liberal principle but not a conservative principle. Polls show that liberals support and conservative don’t support compromise. Even independents, although more supportive than conservatives, don’t have a majority that supports compromise. So, when Wallis is promoting a ‘moderate’ position he is by default promoting the ‘liberal’ position. Also, on many issues, most Americans hold positions that are ‘liberal’ (even though Americans don’t like to label themselves as ‘liberals’).

It just seems like liberals in America always lose even when they win. The liberal can have facts and public opinion on their side… and, yet, liberals are treated like an elitist minority to be dismissed and distrusted. It’s understandable that conservatives are wary about science considering most scientists identify as ‘liberals’.

– – –

All of this has made me increasingly pessimistic. I grew up among idealistic liberals which rubbed off on me a bit, but I’ve over time become cynical in response. What is the point in bringing up facts and analyzing the data? Those who agree with me probably already know what I know or are at least open to learning. And those who disagree with me probably won’t accept the facts no matter what.

My frustration isn’t entirely limited to those on the right. I often find a simplemindedness in the idealism and egalitarianism on the left. Even so, I rarely find the same radical anti-intellectualism on the left as I described above. Plenty of liberals don’t understand science and misrepresent scientific research, but they tend to do so out of an admiration (albeit a confused admiration). There are, for example, the New Age type liberals who want to turn science into a pseudo-religion about the beauty of nature and the wonder of the universe. It’s well intentioned even if naive. From my view, this liberal simplemindedness is mostly harmless. Liberals generally aren’t interested in trying to use science against some race or culture. This isn’t to say I don’t feel frustrated by the liberal New Age woo, but it doesn’t usually make me angry and it won’t make me lose all hope in humanity. Even if a liberal dismisses out of hand scientific studies suggesting a possible correlation between race and IQ, they do so because of worthy ideals of egalitarianism. Liberals want to make the world better for everyone, not just better for one group. Liberals are correct that many conservatives will use any scientific research, with or without scientific consensus, against those they perceive as ‘other’. Yes, we should be wary of ulterior motives when scientific research is being cited.

It’s hard for me to grapple with my frustration or to fully understand it. It’s my own personal issue (which relates to the depression I’ve experienced for a couple of decades), but it’s obviously not just about me. I’m a liberal in a society that is dominated by a conservative ruling elite. I see the polls showing most Americans agree with liberals like me on many issues, but none of that seems to matter. Those with the most power and those who are loudest aren’t generally the liberals. It’s rare for the majority public opinion to become visible such as with the protests in Wisconsin. The liberal majority is largely a silent majority. Most ‘liberals’ (whether or not they identify themselves as such) are ‘moderates’ and so they aren’t radicals who want force their opinion onto others. Anyway, polls showing what most Americans believe or support is quite likely irrelevant to most conservatives. Either they just know most Americans agree with them (no matter what the polls may show) or else the general masses isn’t to be trusted (any more than the intellectual elite).

I’m just frustrated. I have many non-fiction books that interest me and many posts I’d like to write if I had the time… but what is the point? Time is a precious commodity. I could be spending it on activities less frustrating. Yes, I enjoy learning new things, but the process of learning can be less than enjoyable at times because of those I run into while doing research online. I think I just have to accept that what interests me isn’t what interests most others, including in many cases most other liberals. I can get obsessive when my curiosity is piqued. It’s not unusual for me to spend weeks or months doing research and thinking about some subject before writing about it and it can take equal amount of time to gather my thoughts into the form of a post. After all that, very few people typically will ever read what I write. I largely do it for my own reasons and so this shouldn’t matter, but it does matter. It just makes me feel isolated. Truth matters to me in the same way God matters to a religious believer. Truth is my religion. There I said it. I know it sounds silly. I know most people don’t idealize truth in this way and to this extent. It’s because truth matters to me that I want to communicate my own understanding of truth. I want truth to matter to other people. I want to live in a society that values truth above all else. But that isn’t the world I live in.

Honestly, does truth matter? Why should it matter? Why should anyone care about truth?

My frustration makes me feel cynical, but I don’t want to be a cynic. Still, I do understand the attraction of ‘giving up’. As Thomas Ligotti once wrote, in response to superficial optimists (which can apply to all the superficialities of human society): “Once you understand that, you can spare yourself from suffering excessively at the hands of ‘normal people’, a pestilent confederation of upstanding creatures who in concert keep the conspiracy going by rehashing their patented banalities and watchwords.” I can’t begin to explain how much I sympathize with Liotti’s words, but he presents a conclusion of radical pessimism that goes far beyond even my own frustration. What I like about his advice is that bashing one’s head against a brick wall becomes unnecessary and avoidable once one realizes the brick wall for what it is. The brick wall ain’t going to move, not easily anyway. Even the best of us can only bash our heads against a brick wall for so long. I can’t say I’ve given up on my ideal of truth. I just need to let my fractured skull to mend a bit for the time being. Maybe I should read some fiction.

Skeptics & Debunkers

C. P. Snow

The Two Cultures

Science Wars

Sociology of Scientific Knowledge


2/15 3/15 4/15 5/15 6/15 7/15 8/15 9/15 10/15 11/15 12/15 13/15 14/15 15/15 

Charles Fort

The Book of the Damned



2/12 3/12 4/12 5/12 6/12 7/12 8/12 9/12 10/12 11/12 12/12

Jacques Vallée


2/4 3/4 4/4

Robert Anton Wilson

The New Inquisition


Rupert Sheldrake

Richard Dawkins comes to call

He dismissed all research on the subject out of hand. […] “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

“This depends on what you regard as extraordinary”, I replied. “Most people say they have experienced telepathy, especially in connection with telephone calls. In that sense, telepathy is ordinary. The claim that most people are deluded about their own experience is extraordinary. Where is the extraordinary evidence for that?”

He produced no evidence at all, apart from generic arguments about the fallibility of human judgment. He assumed that people want to believe in “the paranormal” because of wishful thinking.

We then agreed that controlled experiments were necessary. I said that this was why I had actually been doing such experiments, including tests to find out if people really could tell who was calling them on the telephone when the caller was selected at random. The results were far above the chance level.

The previous week I had sent Richard copies of some of my papers, published in peer-reviewed journals, so that he could look at the data.

Richard seemed uneasy and said, “I’m don’t want to discuss evidence”. “Why not?” I asked. “There isn’t time. It’s too complicated. And that’s not what this programme is about.” The camera stopped.

George P. Hansen

Magicians Who Endorsed Psychic Phenomena

CSICOP and the Skeptics: An Overview

CSICOP to CSI: the Stigma of the Paranormal

Has CSICOP Lost the Thirty Years’ War?
Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4, Pt. 5, Pt. 6

Marcello Truzzi

Skeptics

Pseudoskepticism

Pyrrhonism

SCEPCOP

Closeminded Science

Scientism

Parapsychology, Anomalies, Science, Skepticism, and CSICOP

Parapsychology, [Marcello] Truzzi contends as a sociologist, is more tough-minded than many other academic fields, yet paradoxically, it remains a fringe subject.  “Parapsychologists really want to play the game by the proper statistical rules,” he expounds. “They’re very staid. They thought they could convince these sceptics but the sceptics keep raising the goalposts. It’s ironic, because real psychic researchers are very committed to doing real science, more than a lot of people in science are. Yet they get rejected, while we can be slipshod in psychology and sociology and economics and get away with it. We’re not painted as the witchdoctors, but they are.”  Jonathon Margolis in Uri Geller: Magician or Mystic?
 
“. . . members of the scientific community often judge the parapsychological claims without firsthand knowledge of the experimental evidence. Very few of the scientific critics have examined even one of the many experimental reports on psychic phenomena. Even fewer, if any, have examined the bulk of the parapsychological literature…. Consequently, parapsychologists have justification for their complaint that the scientific community is dismissing their claims without a fair hearing. . . .” Ray Hyman

 “I call them scoffers, not skeptics,” says Marcello Truzzi, director of the Center of Scientific Anomalies Research at Eastern Michigan University.

Truzzi, who studies what he calls protoscience, was a founding member of the world’s oldest and most respected skeptic society, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). But Truzzi says he withdrew after growing disillusioned with the group’s research methods.

“They tend to block honest inquiry, in my opinion,” he asserts. “Most of them are not agnostic toward claims of the paranormal; they are out to knock them.”

Truzzi says that some of the CSICOP researchers set the bar of proof outrageously high when it comes to the study of the paranormal. “When an experiment of the paranormal meets their requirements, then they move the goal posts,” he says. “Then, if the experiment is reputable, they say it’s a mere anomaly.”  Tanya Barrientos in  The Paranormal? Pshaw!

“The most ardent skeptics enjoy their skepticism as long as it does not encroach upon their most cherished beliefs. Then incredulity flies out the window. . . . It is easy, even fun to challenge others’ beliefs, when we are smug in our certainty about our own. But when ours are challenged, it takes great patience and ego strength to listen with an unjaundiced ear.” Michael Shermer in A Skeptical Manifesto
 
“. . . the same scientific mind-set that thrives on high precision and critical thinking is also extremely adept at forming clever rationalizations that get in the way of progress. In extreme cases, these rationalizations have prevented psi research from taking place at all. Ironically, the very same skeptics who have attempted to block psi research through the use of rhetoric and ridicule have also been responsible for perpetuating the many popular myths associated with psychic phenomena. If serious scientists are prevented from investigating claims of psi out of fear for their reputations, then who is left to conduct these investigations? Extreme skeptics? No, because the fact is that most extremists do not conduct research, they specialize in criticism. Extreme believers? No, because they are usually not interested in conducting rigorous scientific studies. Dean Radin in The Conscious Universe, p. 206-207
 
“There are three broad approaches to anomaly studies. . . . The second common approach is what critics usually call the debunkers’ approach. This is the main attitude of the orthodox scientific community towards anomaly claims. It is characterized by the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). “Whatever is claimed is nothing but … something else.” Seemingly anomalous phenomena are denied first and sometimes investigated only second. Like the Fortean the debunker is not concerned with the full explanation. Whereas the Fortean types don’t want explanations, the debunkers don’t need them as they believe they have already them.”  Marcello Truzzi in Reflections on the Reception of Unconventional Claims in Science
“Despite years of attempts to study paranormal phenomena, there’s been a scientific iron curtain raised against serious research on these experiences.” Andrew Greeley in The “Impossible”:  It’s Happening
 
“In 1819, Ernst Chladni reflected back on his struggles for the recognition of meteorites. While the Enlightenment, the 18th century intellectual movement that examined accepted doctrines of the time, had brought certain benefits, he felt it also brought with it certain intellectual problems. Now scientists ‘thought it necessary to throw away or reject as error anything that did not conform to a self-constructed model.’ The very success of scientific experiment and theory had led to a misplaced confidence that what was real was already within the circle of science. What was outside, therefore, what did not conform to scientists’ theories, could be dismissed by invoking scientific authority and by ignoring or ridiculing observations not supported by it.”  Ron Westrum in The Blind Eye of Science
 
“New data and discordant, anomalous, or bizarre experiences or facts can destroy the best explanations. Thus we cannot say with absolute confidence that the data and theories of parapsychology must be false because they contradict the existing body of physical [scientific] theory.” Paul Kurtz in The Transcendental Temptation

Denialism: Skepticism isn’t a river in Egypt

I’ve had some discussions about science online. I even managed to find some intelligent people to debate with. However, these discussions have caused me to lose faith in human reason. I’ve come to realize that even intelligent people aren’t necessarily well-informed, aren’t necessarily open-minded about other people’s views, aren’t necessarily critical-minded about their own assumptions… nor necessarily desire to be so.

I find myself in an odd position. I’m not a fan of scientific materialism. I don’t claim science is perfect or that it has everything figured out, but the skepticism of many people I’ve met online verges on Nihilism or Pyrrhonism… but, despite this attitude of radical doubt, what makes it particularly irrational is that it’s selective. This selective mistrust falls apart under scrutiny. Part of the reason it falls apart is because of the narrowness of this skepticism. These people are skeptical of everything they disagree with, but oddly completely trusting in everything they agree with. That isn’t true skepticism. I don’t trust anything even when or especially when I agree with it. I think skepticism should even be turned towards our own biases, and skepticism should particularly be turned towards our use of skepticism. 

Some of these people are rightly called Denialists because any evidence I bring up they find a way to dismiss. They don’t need any evidence themselves because from their view all scientific evidence is suspect. They just have a vague intuition. They’ve heard one critical scientist or some other supposed expert and they assume that somehow disproves all of the science. Don’t they realize all science is skeptical. The skepticism of a few scientists doesn’t disprove the consensus of the majority. It’s important to consider the 3% of climatologists who don’t support Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW), but it’s even more important to consider the 97% of active climatology researchers who do support it. A recent IPCC report was shown to have a couple of mistakes. The critics argue that these few minor mistakes (one being a typo) disprove a report that is thousands of pages long and which was contributed to by hundreds of scientists.

One recent discussion, I was able to get the skeptic to agree that maybe just maybe 97% of active climatology researchers support AGW. But he still thought the scientists were biased. I pointed out that these scientists work in different organizations in different countries with funding from many sources. But he still thought the scientists were biased. This is basically a conspiracy theory mindset. No matter what evidence is provided, there is always a reason it can’t be trusted. It’s not that they can’t sometimes bring up a few facts here and there (some connection involving financing or whatever), but the facts they use is very selective.

To counter my conspiracy theory allegation, one person denied this by saying it was more like something that got started and then all the climatologists jumped on. This person couldn’t explain how something just gets started and why climatologists would risk their entire careers to join in on this non-conspiracy conspiracy. For example, climatologists get no payment for submitting research to the IPCC. Climatologists don’t get wealthy off of their research and so what would they get out of deceiving the public? Many of these skeptics argue that the government is intentionally biasing research by which research they fund, but scientists get their funding from non-government organizations as well. One skeptic argued that climatology researchers who propose disaster scenarios will get more funding because the government will want to fund research that might help avoid disasters. That might be true to an extent, but scientists are doing research about all kinds of things. If something doesn’t prove true or potentially true, then it loses funding. Why would the government fund and why would 97% of researchers support a theory that had absolutely no evidence in support of it? It’s simply absurd to make such a claim.

I’m fine with being skeptical in terms of using good critical thinking skills, but Denialism goes way beyond that. The skeptic who I managed to get to grudgingly agree that the 97% might be true wouldn’t even admit to slight doubt about his own position. I admitted to him that there were skeptical scientists and that these skeptics played a valid role in the scientific method, but he wouldn’t return the favor by admitting that scientific consensus also plays a valid role. The only reason he held to his position is because he had his mind made up before the debate started. He didn’t care what scientists think or what scientific research concludes. He only mentioned scientists when they agreed with him. He was merely using the minority of scientific skeptics to outright deny the majority of scientific supporters, but he didn’t really care what any of these scientists said. It was just convenient that some scientists happened to agree with him on this issue.

What he refused to understand is that skepticism goes both ways (or rather goes many directions). Yes, the 3% are skeptical of the 97% consensus, but the 97% are also skeptical of the 3%. Furthermore, even within the 97% there are those who are skeptical because they think the mainstream doesn’t go far enough in support of AGW. Scientific institutions such as the IPCC are very conservative. These institutions represent the consensus, represent the slow and conservative process of the scientific method, represents decades of  peer-reviewed research. There are scientists with all kinds of opinions outside of the consensus, but it would be utterly stupid to base public policies on the minority of scientists rather than on the consensus. In the past, there wasn’t a consensus about AGW, but then the data changed and so through painstaking discussion a consensus developed. That is quite significant.

Michael Specter makes a very good point at the beginning of that video. He says there are two topics he doesn’t discuss: Creationism and Global Warming. If someone believe humans and dinosaurs co-existed, then there is absolutely no basis for a rational discussion. If someone dismisses the mountain of data on climate change, then one more intelligent presentation of the data will be pointless. I probably should follow his example. I’m sure I’d be happier if I didn’t waste my time with these extreme representatives of denialism.

I’ve written about all of this before. There is a long history to my irritation towards rampant irrationality, anti-intellectualism, ideological rhetoric, apologetics, and general ignorance.

Climategate, Science Funding, Public Ignorance
Online Debates: Ideology, Education & Psychology
Denialism & Anti-intellectualism (AGW)
Uncommon Talents: Research & Critical Thinking
Liberal Facts vs Conservative Ideology
Head in the Sand Syndrome
Climate Change, Scandalous E-mails, and Wendell Berry
Denialism: Science and Public Debate
Righteousness: Ignorance and Inauthenticity
What is Intellectuality?
Intelligence & Curiosity
Lies and Truth: why care?
Reality and Rationality: a discussion
Debate b/t Religion and Science: Theists, Atheists, Agnostics, Integralists
Love of Truth: Discussing vs Arguing
Re: All Evidence to the Contrary
NT Scholarship and Discussions: limits, failings
The Love of Truth vs. the Sophistry of Apologetics

Considering I’ve already written so many posts along these lines, what does this post add? I don’t know. I’m just continually frustrated and just need to vent. But there is one thing that was new on my mind.

I was recently reading Charles Fort… now, he is a real skeptic. He is an important example because he was very critical of science, but why I respect him is because he was critical of everything. Fort wasn’t an anti-intellectual. My respect for him, though, goes beyond just his equal opportunity skepticism. Fort didn’t just doubt for his doubt was motivated by wonder. He wasn’t denying for the sake of playing Devil’s Advocate and he certainly wasn’t denying other view points in defense of a Sacred Cow. He was truly curious and he followed the facts. His skepticism was more about interpretations than the facts themselves.

Fort is my kind of thinker. I put him in the same category as John Keel, Jacques Vallee, Robert Anton Wilson, John C. Lilly, Terrence McKenna, William S. Burroughs, and Philip K. Dick. These people thought outside of the box which sometimes means questioning mainstream science but more than anything it means using critical thinking skills and being independent-minded.

I’m not sure what any of them would think about Global Warming. They’re all dead now. Fort died before the really amazing advances of modern science. I too probably would’ve been more skeptical of science if I lived when he did. It’s possible that Fort or any of these others might’ve had doubts about Global Warming. I too have doubts. Any intelligent person has doubts. But I imagine that, even if these thinkers were skeptical of climate change, I still wouldn’t be irritated whether or not I agreed with their assessment. The reason I say this is because all of these people seemed to have been true skeptics rather than denialists.

From my perspective, denialism seems like a defensive attitude motivated by fear and uncertainty. Scientists are saying the world is changing. Science is about true skepticism. So, what are the denialists trying to defend? I see a number of possibilities. Some might be defending the status quo. People like the lifestyle they’ve become accustomed to and they don’t want to consider the possibility that their lifestyle isn’t sustainable. Similarly, some are just afraid of the unknown. The paranoia of the conspiracy mindset is motivated by this kind of fear. There is this sense of an invisible or elusive enemy whether scientists, liberal elite, one world order, the anti-Christ, or whatever. Another possibility is that some people might be defending against complexity. In a global world, life is no longer simple. The easy answers of the past no longer seem to work. Society seems to be breaking down. The environment may be more precarious than we previously thought. It’s a scary world.

From a psychological perspective, denialism is understandable… but that is all the more reason we shouldn’t ignore the denialists and dismiss them as merely ignorant. Denialists aren’t necessarily stupid, but many of them do seem to at least lack critical thinking skills. I think our education system has failed… as have many things in our society (politics, corporations, communities, etc). I think we need to try to understand this from a larger perspective that can include all of the diverse pieces. I don’t know what the answer is, but I wish curiosity (especially intellectual curiosity) were promoted more in our society. It depresses me that people seem more motivated by ideology than by a love of knowledge.

That is the issue I’m personally dealing with. I’ve met many intelligent people online, but I’ve come to realize that a deep sense of open-minded curiosity is a rare thing. Maybe I shouldn’t be so critical of the failings of others… no doubt I have failings of my own. If even intelligent people can fall into the trap of denialism, then maybe a more compassionate and understanding response is required.

If people are this afraid of the world (of the government, of the elites, of modern life in general), then throwing facts at them isn’t likely to lessen their fears. They sense something is wrong with the world and they’re trying to understand the cause. I agree that there is a lot wrong. How can I blame them for looking for an easy answer? By creating an enemy that can be fought, the world can feel safer. Someone like Glenn Beck may be more of a symptom than a cause of this collective sense of fear. Of course, he wants to blame Obama, the socialists, and the liberal elite. Of course, people want some single thing to be the problem (statism, socialism, fascism, etc) or some combination of problems held together by that singular sense of fear.

Even some environmental alarmists get pulled into this overwhelming sense of fear. It can be found in all sectors of society. I guess that is why I think science is so important. The purpose of the scientific method is to filter out the biases, the assumptions, the emotions. The scientific method isn’t perfect, but it’s one of the best things we’ve got going for us. If we can’t trust science, then we can’t trust anything and we are just fucked. If we can’t trust human reason, if fear is greater than hope, if denialism is greater than the wonder we’re born with, then we might as well just give up right now. We have to be willing to face our fears, both personal and collective… and that is the hardest thing to do. The world is a scary place. There are no easy answers. But what is clear is that knowledge is better than ignorance… even imperfect, partial knowledge is better than ignorance.

Denialism & Anti-intellectualism (AGW)

In a recent post I mentioned a discussion I was having with a rightwinger in the comments section of an Amazon.com book review.  The person seemed somewhat reasonable and intelligent, but didn’t offer much evidence to support his arguments.  I’m fine with that as long as someone isn’t making extreme claims and that is where I finally took issue with this person.  I explained, in one of my comments, my criticism of the anti-intellectualism that has become popular with some conservatives, and then this person provides a perfect example of this rightwing anti-intellectualism.

I wanted to use this example because it’s too easy to think of anti-intellectual types as backwards and stupid.  That may sometimes be the case, but not always.  The particular person in question, although no intellectual giant, is able to present himself in a reasonable manner in most of his comments.  He can put together a coherent thought and articulate it with some clarity.  He does even offer some meager evidence.  However, his response to my evidence seems perplexing from a rational perspective.

My comment:

There was a study done in 2009 at University of Illinois by Peter Doran and Kendall Zimmerman which appeared in the January 19 publication Eos, Transactions, American Geophysical Union. From around the world, 3,146 earth scientists were surveyed which included experts in academia and government research centers.

The questions were checked by a polling expert to ensure there was no bias. There were two questions that are directly relevant to our. One question was about whether the mean global temperatures had risen since before the 1800s. And another question was about whether human activity had been a significant factor in changing mean global temperatures.

Around 90% of scientists thought that mean global temperatures had risen and 82% thought human activity was a significant factor. Just considering climatologists who are active in research, 97.4% thought human activity was a significant factor. Even petrolium geologists were almost evenly split with only 54% disagreeing with the majority of climatologists.

Doran also noted recent poll data about public opinion. Gallup poll shows 58% of the public agrees with climatologists that human activity contributes to global warming. However, most Americans are misinformed about actual scientific consensus. Only 52% think most scientists agree that temperature is rising and only 47% think most scientists agree that human activity is contributing. However, a World Bank international survey found that most people in most countries thought that scientists agree that climate change is an urgent problem that is understood well enough that action needs to be taken.

From the Wikipedia article “Climate change consensus” (with cited and linked sources):

“The majority of climate scientists agree that global warming is primarily caused by human activities such as fossil fuel burning and deforestation. The conclusion that global warming is mainly caused by human activity and will continue if greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced has been endorsed by more than 75 scientific societies and academies of science, including all of the national academies of science of the major industrialized countries. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Meteorological Society, the International Union for Quaternary Research, and the Joint Science Academies of the major industrialized and developing nations explicitly use the word “consensus” when referring to this conclusion.””

And:

“A 2004 essay by Naomi Oreskes in the journal Science reported a survey of 928 abstracts of peer-reviewed papers related to global climate change in the ISI database. Oreskes claimed that “Remarkably, none of the papers disagreed with the consensus position. … This analysis shows that scientists publishing in the peer-reviewed literature agree with IPCC, the National Academy of Sciences, and the public statements of their professional societies.” Benny Peiser claimed to have found flaws in Oreskes’ work, but his attempted refutation is disputed and has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal. Peiser later withdrew parts of his criticism, also commenting that “the overwhelming majority of climatologists is agreed that the current warming period is mostly due to human impact. However, this majority consensus is far from unanimous.””

The other person’s response:

Sorry Steele; the science just isn’t there. You think it is because there is a conspiracy of sorts. It’s not a deal where everyone set down and plotted, but the ball got rolling and everyone jumped on for their own gain. And there is a leftist move to redistribute wealth this way. Gore has multiplied his wealth many, many times just since promoting this issue. He has a vested interest and if he was a government official would probably be violating conflict of interest. As Dr. Gray says its all ocean currents. He also says the CO2 is good for the plants as we know from biology class. There are many scientists against this and many more who won’t speak out because of political correctness. Oh well, the left has only a few months left in power. Still haven’t read all your stuff; I’ll get back to you.

I only listed part of the data that shows consensus among climatologists.  A survey of the data is presented in the Wikipedia article “Scientific opinion on climate change“.  A number of respected organizations have referred to scientific opinion on this issue as a consensus: American Association for the Advancement of Science, US National Academy of Sciences,  American Meteorological Society, Network of African Science Academies, International Union for Quaternary Research, and Australian Coral Reef Society.

It takes some major balls for a non-scientist to deny the consensus of thousands of scientists who are experts in the field of climatology.  The climatologists who are the most active researchers are in fact the ones who show the highest agreement, but even the non-active scientists agree (and so presumably they aren’t receiving funding to bias their opinions).  The person I was having the discussion with obviously hadn’t really considered the science in any depth and possibly thinks that scientists are part of the liberal elite trying to take over the world.

It’s fine if you have criticisms (assuming they’re based on critical thinking).  Scientists can be wrong and the scientific method takes into account the errors of individual scientists.  That is why we have peer-review, but the meta-analysis of the peer-review articles also shows support for anthropogenic global warming.  Scientific consensus is based on the known facts.  Some of those facts may turn out to be wrong or misinterpreted, and if that were to happen then scientific consensus would change.  But it’s the worst kind of anti-intellectualism to dismiss both the known facts and the scientific concensus because they disagree with your preconceived ideology.

There are intelligent criticisms.  As an example of a slightly more intelligent discussion between two skeptical non-scientists, watch the following video:

The obvious weakness of that discussion is that neither person is a climatologists or even a scientist.  The person being interviewed is a journalist and does seem to be at least somewhat informed.  It’s fair to criticize specific measurements and how accurate they might be.  It’s fair to criticize how large the actual effect is on climate.  Most climatologists aren’t fear-mongering about the end of the world.  Even though there is a concensus about anthropogenic global warming, many scientists debate and disagree about the exact mechanism of global warming, the exact influence of human activity, and the exact influence on the climate in the near future.  Nonetheless, the consensus remains.

The major failing of the discussion in the above video is that it doesn’t take into account the 97% of experts who do support anthropogenic global warming.  It isn’t clear how much the journalist disagrees with the consensus itself or merely the conclusions extrapolated from that conclusion.  I don’t understand the science well enough to fully understand the data he is referring to.  All I know for sure is that only 3% of experts are skeptical about anthropogenic global warming.  I think it’s fairly weak when skeptics refer to scientists within that 3% in order to “disprove” the conclusions of the 97%.  If this non-expert journalist disagrees with 97% of expert scientists, then I think I’ll go with the consensus of the experts.

A maybe more important failing of global warming skepticism in general is that it supports the dismissal of the global problems we face.  Even if humans don’t cause global warming and even if global warming doesn’t exist at all, we still are destroying entire ecosystems and poisoning ourselves.  If you’re concerned about the issue of diseases, poverty, and human rights, then you should be concerned about pollution and environmental destruction.  You can argue about the policies that should be implemented, but to ignore the problems themselves is insane.

Skepticism is good as all scientists strive to be skeptical.  There, however, has been a failure of our education system and a failure of our media in teaching intelligent skepticism.  I heard an interview on public radio with one of the scientists involved with Climategate.  I thought the scientist was fairly humble and defended the science in a reasonable manner.  The scientist pointed out an important issue.  The media has failed in explaining the actual science of climatology.  The reporters weak response was “So, you’re attacking the messenger.”  The scientists was correct.  The media just likes conflict and often does little to resolve conflict by intelligent reporting.  The problem is most reporters don’t understand science to any great degree.  Reporting done about science by a non-scientist isn’t likely to have much depth of analysis.

There is even support for the allegation that the media and the education system aren’t informing the public.  I thought it quite significant that the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming is so extremely high and yet most Americans don’t think there is a scientific consensus.  How does such a disconnect happen between public opinion and scientific knowledge?  Furthermore, even when I’ve presented this data to global warming denialists, they act as if it’s of no significance what most scientific experts think.  I’ve even seen a denialist claim that consensus has nothing to do with science and therefore the 3% of dissenting scientific opinion is somehow equal to or greater than the 97% of scientific consensus.  So, if there is any scientist who disagrees with a consensus, then that consensus automatically becomes false and anyone who promotes it is morally inferior for supposedly trying to silence the minority who disagrees.  The faulty logic of this style of thinking not only is a failure of public education in teaching critical thinking skills but also a failure in teaching the scientific method.

This post was more about the issue of anti-intellectualism than climatology, but if you want to read more about the issue of global warming and Climategate I’ve written about it previously:

Climate Change, Scandalous E-mails, and Wendell Berry

Climatology and Conspiracy Theorists

Head in the Sand Syndrome

And some reasonable videos showing the scientific support of anthropogenic global warming:

Climatology and Conspiracy Theorists

If you’re a person who prefers intelligent analysis over conspiracy theorizing, then check out this blog post about quote mining code

Let me be straight about the facts. 

The e-mails were supposedly stolen by hackers, but all of the e-mails haven’t yet been confirmed as authentic.  There is an investigation in determining their authenticity.  Assuming they’re authentic, the investigation will also determine precisely what was written in what context and what was the intended meaning of the comments (see above linked post for some preliminary analysis).  As such, the scientists in question are innocent until proven guilty.  Libelous attacks by climate change contrarians (what some call ‘denialists’) should be ignored.

Furthermore, I’ve so far seen no evidence that anything stated in the e-mailes contradicts or undermines the entire field of climatology.  The allegations are directed at a small number of scientists and all of the e-mails came from just one organization.  Assuming the allegations are true, it would be conspiracy theorizing to assume that these few scientists have enough control of the entire climatology field to alter all of the data in the world or that there is a secret cabal of climatologists controlling all research and publications. 

It is only fair and rational to ignore the conspiracy theories, but let us consider the implications of the more reasonable allegations against the specific scientists in question.  Even if we dismiss the data from these few scientists, there still is plenty of data from other sources that confirms the exact same conclusions of these scientists.  The consensus of climatologists includes scientists from all over the world including many highly respected scientists.  If anyone plans on trying to attack every climatologist in the world and dismiss all climatology research ever done, I’d love to see them try.

I think it’s time that people look at the facts instead of trying to run away from them.  Just my humble opinion.

Denialism: Science and Public Debate

I’ve just come across the name of Michael Specter.  He has received some attention lately because of his book Denialism.  In the following video, Specter explains why he didn’t include the Global Warming issue in his book.  He said that it’s too complex of an issue and so requires more than just a chapter in a book.  I’d argue back that complex issues are precisely where his argument is weakest.  The allegation of “denialism” implies that it is always or usually clear who is doing the denying and that some people are intellectually above such cognitive weaknesses and failings.  Basically, what Sepcter leaves out is the psychological insight about how and why people think the way they do.

I noticed this review of Michael Specter’s book Denialism.

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Battling the Skeptics by Darshak Sanghavi

Science utopians can be touching in their naïveté, much like high school chemistry whizzes who try to figure out why the popular kids never pay them any attention. But they fail to appreciate a salient point: scientists may get how the atoms of the universe combine, but they’re often dweebs in the real world. In any event, there are two ways to deal with scientific illiteracy: take a long, hard look at the forces that repel so many from science, or throw up your hands and write people off as fools.

Michael Specter, a science and public health writer for The New Yorker, shows little interest in the first approach in his pugnacious new book, “Denialism,” which carries the ominous subtitle “How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives.” He devotes chapters to anti-­vaccine zealots, purveyors of organic foods, promoters of alternative medicines and opponents of race-based medicine, accusing each group of turning “away from reality in favor of a more comfortable lie.”

[…] But Specter isn’t much interested in the roots of denialism, much less in engaging productively with it. While his book brims with passion and many interesting facts, he repeatedly pulls rabble-rousing tricks — this in a book that accuses others of forgoing rational debate — and his annoyance is rarely focused.

[…] Specter used to be a denialist himself. […] Here, Specter could have explored how even a prestigious science writer like himself was seduced by the highly unlikely possibility that coffee enemas might cure pancreatic cancer. (After all, the flip side of denialism is faith, which isn’t always bad.) But rather than attempting to ­understand his former fellow denialists, he pushes them out of reasoned conversation, declaring, “Denialism is a virus, and viruses are contagious.”

[…] In his haste to sort people into two bins — either scientifically enlightened or in denial — Specter overlooks an important trend: for better or worse, people are more skeptical of authority than they used to be and want to think for themselves, which includes grappling with the minutiae of science. Not so long ago, for example, patients rarely questioned doctors before undergoing surgery or taking their pills (for example, estrogen replacement therapy to prevent heart attacks), a blind obedience to authority that arguably cost many more lives than, say, vaccine refusal does now. What we are seeing is the democratization of science, not the rise of denialism. […] The list goes on. Specter has written a frustrated book about “denialism” but could just as well have described the hopeful signs of a new era.

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Specter sounds like he might be in the same camp as the new atheists.  My problem with this type of writing isn’t that some intelligent points aren’t made but rather the author’s attitude.  Calling someone (or a group of people) a “denialist” seems more polemical than helpful.  If used carefully and sparingly, it could be a useful term.  However, using it to dismiss those who disagree with you just contributes to the conflict.  The fact of the matter is that science is never black and white.

For example, I’m fine with labelling as a denialist someone who entirely denies Darwinism because they believe the Bible has greater authority than peer-reviewed science.  But I’m not fine with labelling as a denialist someone who argues against Darwinism by pointing out a scientifically plausible alternative theory.  Questioning Darwinism doesn’t a denialist make.  Intelligent public debate demands that people point out the weaknesses and unanswered questions of the prevailing paradigm.

Also, I’m not in favor of science being used to dismiss the everyday experience of people.  Scientific consensus shouldn’t be used to bludgeon people for disagreeing and to keep the public in line.  There are many things science can’t answer and scientists and new atheists should be more humble in the limits of present knowledge.  Most people have weird experiences such as UFOs and ghosts.  Even though science isn’t able to research such phenomena, doesn’t mean science can deny such experiences because then scientists would themselves fall into the trap of denialism.  Many things exist in the world that can’t be controlled in a lab that don’t happen on a regular enough basis to be predictably studied.  However, respectable people including scientists have observed many things that they can’t explain.  Anecdotal experience doesn’t prove anything, but many scientific discoveries begin with anecdotal experience.

Unsatisfying as it may be, there are always more questions than answers.  Some questions may seem stupid.  But if it weren’t for seemingly stupid questions, there would be a lot slower pace to the gaining of new scientific knowledge.

Anyways, scientists are as easily swayed by ideological beliefs and paradigmatic assumptions as the rest of us.  The power of science is in the overall scientific view that evolves over generations.  The underlying complaint that I sense from the new atheist types is that scientific progress is too slow, but I’m doubtbul that it can be speeded up to any great degree.  Scientific progress is dependent on even larger trends of social development.  And for scientific knowledge to develop science itself along with scientists will have to develop as well.

Some other related pieces:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denialism

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/05/books/excerpt-michael-specter.html?ref=review

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=120139776

http://www.slate.com/id/2234719/entry/2234720/

http://www.grist.org/article/2009-10-31-michael-specter-denialism-organic-GMO/

http://www.postbourgie.com/2009/11/09/denialism/

http://2020science.org/2009/08/11/reflections-of-a-scientific-illiterate/

http://www.forteantimes.com/strangedays/science/2158/abominable_no_men.html

http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php?/site/article/2792

http://www.newsweek.com/id/32482

http://cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com/archive/2009/07/09/1991160.aspx

http://getenergysmartnow.com/2009/07/10/republicans-reject-science-scientists-reject-republicans/

http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1399/religion-and-science