Thursday, September 26, 2013

Science And Pseudoscience

I'm no longer a regular Popular Science reader, although I do find myself on their website a couple of times a month and whenever I fly, like I did when traveling Down Under in August, I always do so with the latest copy of the magazine in my backpack. I'm not a scientist, of course, although I approach my job with a kind of experimental approach. I joke that most preschool teachers, if forced to choose another profession, might well choose science because, as my scientist friends often describe their work, it sounds a lot like children's play.

But I know I'm not really a scientist. That's why I appreciate a publication like Scientific American, one that makes the latest scientific theories, discoveries, and debate understandable to the man on the street. This is what they have done for 141 years. This week, the editors have announced that their website will no longer permit comments on articles because of the negative impact science deniers are having on the discussion on their pages. 

A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientific validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to "debate" on television. And because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.

The New York Times editorial linked to in the above excerpt, tells us that the number of Americans who "believe" in human caused "climate change" has actually declined by five percent since the concept was coined in 1989. This despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. Even more insane is that doubting the scientifically unquestionable Theory of Evolution has become a kind of litmus test for one of our major political parties, and the transparently unscientific muddle called "creation science" is actually being taught in schools. These are only two of dozens of areas in which the cynical have intentionally sewn the seeds of doubt as a way to promote their own political agendas. It's a dangerous game they are playing, one that undermines the whole idea of science in America.

Of course, there are science deniers all over the world, but if a politician in any another modern country let it be known that his beliefs would trounce science, he would be relegated to ash heap of history. The only nations I'm aware of, besides the US, where people can proudly wear their pseudoscience badge with "honor" are third world theocracies. 

I'm sad that Popular Science has been forced to make this move, but I'm even sadder that my nation, the nation that has for the past century lead the world in scientific discovery and innovation, is now educating its children in ignorance. Some time ago, I made a similar decision to that of PS, choosing to moderate the comments on this blog. Most comments I approve, but those that deny facts, data, research, and science are deleted. I have no patience for those who argue their denial of science with the use of anecdotes, faith, name-calling, and, well, general trolling. I engage some of the more civil ones on my Facebook page, but only by way of demonstrating to the rest of you ways to push back. Otherwise they find their comments deleted as well. You are welcome to disagree with me, but I will not engage in a debate that pits your "beliefs" against science: it makes all of us stupider.

Most frustrating are people who send me links to things that support their beliefs dressed up as science. I've gotten quite good at recognizing many of these pseudoscientific sites and organizations set up to provide rational sounding arguments to support the fixed beliefs of believers, but every now and then I'll click through. It's stunning how ignorant and cynical these people are. I pity the children they are raising who will one day step out into the world to learn they've been lied to, or perhaps worse, laughed at.

I'll leave you with this handy-dandy infographic detailing some of the fundamental differences between science and pseudoscience.

I will be moderating the comments.

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Judi Pack said...

Yes, thank you! Unfortunately, educators are using the so-called "brain science" in unscientific ways to explain or defend. John Bruer (along with many others) has written extensively about this. The fact is, neuroscience has very little to tell teachers about what they should do in classrooms. True neuroscientists advise that we base our work on observation and years of study that support good practice--not on pseudoscience.

childsplaymusic said...

Well said, Tom, and it indeed a sorry state of affairs when Scientific American is forced into taking such action. But I see no way around it: the hordes of anti-science tinfoil hat-wearing conspiracy theorists are well organised and very vocal.

They pounce on any article that goes against their fixed beliefs and their comments are coordinated by their respective "leaders". This sounds like a conspiracy theory of my own, but the evidence is undeniable.

Take vaccination - quite possibly the single most important step forward in medical prevention of disease. The peer-reviewed science supporting vaccination is incontrovertible: vaccination is safe and effective, and saves literally millions of lives every year. The UN estimates that if we ceased all vaccination for measles around 3 million people, mainly children, would die every single year. And that's just ONE vaccine.

Yet the anti-vaccination groups, although actually small in number of members, flood the comments on any article or post that supports vaccination. I've actually seen posts on anti-vax Pages on Facebook announcing that there is a new article or post on the subject and that members should "go and tell the truth" about vaccines.

Every time I post about the importance of vaccination on my own Page, (which, let's face it, is not a big Page by any means) I get comments calling me a "shill for Big Pharma". Last time I checked, Big Pharma wasn't employing any children's musicians, but nevertheless, the anti-vax crowd accuses me of being in their pay.

Lord knows I could use a few extra dollars, but I'm not getting any for simply sharing the peer-reviewed evidence and the incontrovertible truth about the safety and efficacy of vaccination. I only link to thoroughly reputable sites, like the CDC and the Australian Health Department, or to news reports from quality media, reporting solid research-based evidence. Where possible I also link to the original research papers themselves.

The anti-vaxxers, on the other hand "support" their views by linking to websites that I will not name (I don't want them to get any extra traffic) which are themselves in the business of making vast amounts of money selling scientifically untested and potentially very harmful "natural treatments", or completely safe ones that don't work: because homoeopathy is selling nothing but pure water. Or to YouTube videos! Or shysters like Mercola, or Andrew Wakefield, a man so thoroughly discredited that he has been struck off as a doctor for fraud.

Sometimes I despair: the anti-vaxxers are literally killing children. Diseases that were almost eradicated are making a comeback because of their scare campaigns and outright lies. They are killing children as surely as climate-deniers are killing our planet and creation scientists are killing our children's scientific education and ability to think rationally.

I'm sorry for such a long comment, but your post hit a nerve. I believe in science, not because I have "faith" in it, but because it is an ever-evolving process, with checks and balances, where peer-review and the open exchange of information allows ideas and research to live or die on their merits.

Bad science exists; it always has done. But the difference between science and anti-science is that science always eventually weeds out the misinformation, the spurious results, and even the outright frauds. Science is a self-correcting machine. Science WORKS. Anti-science has none of those features; it is the antithesis of rationality, and the apotheosis of humbug.

RobynHeud said...

Thank you for this. I've always been a huge fan of numbers, especially when it comes to my children. When I was pregnant with both, I wanted the data to tell me what would help keep me and my baby healthy, not the scary, fear-mongering anecdotes. Give me the odds and I'll make my own choice. And as you so often point out, with research and well-reasoned arguments, play-based education is how children learn, and play is different for every child.

And @childsplaymusic, thank you for your comments as well. I remember hearing so much about whether or not to vaccinate before my children were born so I turned to the library and found some amazing research (one book specifically, simply called "Vaccine") that went through the history and impetus for vaccinations. The numbers made sense. My family gets vaccinated. I just got my Tdap booster and it hurt like the dickens, but as I told the nurse, I'll take a sore arm over the whooping cough or lockjaw.

Thank you again for being a calm voice of reason in an ever-noisier world.

Anonymous said...

I really related to this post. I am extremely saddened by the way so many people actively deny facts and choose ignorance on behalf of their children. We are a homeschooling family in the bible-belt and, for the sake of not having our children ostracized, we've had to make efforts to blend in. We have quietly taught our children about evolution and raised them to believe that homosexuality is just as valid as heterosexuality. We avoid certain subjects with the other homeschool families. We taught our children to treat religion much the same way they treat Santa: even if something isn't real, they aren't allowed to tell their friends who still believe.
It is horrid to live this way, but the fact is that the science-deniers outnumber us, at least where we live.
I so wish that I could share this post on Facebook or link to it on my homeschool blog, but I know that as soon as I did, we would be outed from our co-op and have all our standing playdates cancel.
I wish there was a way to make them understand, no matter how strongly you believe in something, that doesn't make it true.

subversivereader said...

Unfortunately Australia's new government has 'doubts' about human caused climate change and is dismantling the different measures set up to deal with it. We also have a politician of the leading party in Queensland who believes in 'pharmacy conspiracies' particularly around fluoridated water . . . seems that pseudoscience is taking a grip around the world

louise mckervey said...

And now, as Australians, we have a (so-called) Prime Minister (although I have plenty of other names for him) who has thrown out the Minister for Science from his parliament cabinet... scrapping carbon tax... trying to cut down heritage listed forests for building materials...planning to destroy the Great Barrier Reef (not to mention appointing himself - the worlds most chauvinistic pig - as the representative for women's issues!). We're screwed. My kids (and some that I look after) are angry about this, of course, because we as parents are,- and we are planning creating a video to send their message through to government - I'd love to know your opinions on that - whether we should involve kids in political problems, or let them think the the Prime Minister is a sacred role and therefore must be respected? I personally think that it's their future, more so than mine, so they have every right to know what's being planned and have some say in it, but others I know think they should be protected from 'scary knowledge' and left in a little coccoon.

Eloise said...

Thank you, childsplaymusic, for mentioning vaccine denialism. I'm sure I'm not the only progressive parent who takes issue with the pseudoscience behind anti-vaccination campaigns. It's frustrating that in some circles, vaccine (and sometimes HIV/AIDS) denialism gets a free pass, while climate change or evolution denialism is rightly rejected.

Anonymous said...

As a former child raised on pseudoscience/faith in the bible, I can tell you that it absolutely angers me. I feel like I was lied to my entire childhood and given no skills to cope with the real world. Instead of empathy I was told to pray. Instead of guidance I was told to pray. I have a very stressed relationship with my family over it. I feel like they really let me down big time.

Jolee Burger said...

Teacher Tom, I love you, simply put. You are always so logical... and I love reading what you have to say. Thank you for the chart about science and pseudoscience. I am a homeschooler... and I believe in evolution (until something better comes along) and climate change... all that good stuff. But vaccines. Not to sound conspiracy, but at what point does funding (Big Pharma) play an issue in science? I know there are peer reviewed studies... but not many independent studies happen in the matter of drugs and vaccines, and since we homeschool, I trust that nature knows best, and we opt out. I don't want to play the game that the CDC has dictated to put more money into the pockets of corporations while second-guessing my children's perfectly designed immune systems. Simply put. :-) (Hey, did this get to be a debate about vaccines instead of science?! I hope not... just had to have a presence on here that some people are smart, are not religious in any way and choose NOT to vaccinate.)

Tracy said...

This is a subject that is near and dear to my heart. My 15 month old is a natural scientist: Inquisitive about the world, obsessively observant, and already on to the idea of reproducibility in his experimentation about How The World Works.

I am saddened that some of us seem to lose this natural curiosity and trust in the scientific process over time and become swayed by what is very kindly called pseudoscience. I feel that in most instances, the debates that happen in popular culture about things the scientific community has already largely sorted out only distract from the more interesting questions.

For climate change, the interesting question is not whether or not humans have caused or accelerated the global warming we've been experiencing, but what can we do to reduce the global warming that we have caused by our own actions so that it does not end up our demise?

For evolution, the interesting question isn't should it be taught in schools or not, but how can it best be taught so that it captures the imaginations of young people and inspires them to ask their own questions about the natural world?

For vaccination, there really is no debate over whether or not families ought to chose vaccination if one is looking at solid, scientific information (unless there a medical contraindication suggests otherwise). The interesting question is how can we make our already safe and effective vaccinations even safer and more effective? And is there any way we can identify the very small number of people who would be adversely affected by vaccines so that they can be medically treated in a way that is safe for them?

With vaccines, the fact that the CDC and "Big Pharma" are involved does not negate the science. The science is happening in research universities and research institutes all over the world. To believe that scientists are covering up information that says vaccines are anything other than safe or effective would be to believe in a conspiracy theory. And it would be vast. It would involve competing pharmaceutical companies, the CDC, the FDA, the AAP, the AAFP, nursing organizations, state and county health departments, the WHO, and pretty much every single other government across the world, not to mention universities, research institutes and non-profit organizations across the globe.

There is no way that multiple government organizations in hundreds of countries along with hundreds of universities and scientific foundations are all tainted by pharmaceutical companies for the purpose of profits. Profits from vaccines account for less than 2% of pharmaceutical companies' profits. It just doesn't make sense that they would (or could) pay off millions of people all over the world in the interest of a product that earns them a relatively small amount of money relative to their total profits. Nor does it make sense that we wouldn't have heard about it, if it were happening, from a whistle blower by now.

But back to the general point. Science is important. Science literacy is important. I hope that's something my son grows up embracing. Thank you for your sage words, Teacher Tom.

Anonymous said...

I think science has been done an huge injustice recently by being hijacked by governments and marketing departments who use it to promote their own agendas. Since becoming a mother I have found myself becoming more wary of research and science. I used to be a big fan, reading lots of publications and fascinated in new discoveries. Maybe its from finding out that nothing beats a mothers instinct! I still read a lot, but am more wary of the motivations behind research. If one has ulterior motives, anything can be promoted by declaring research suggests this or that. I also feel that science can take a while to catch up. A crude example, with smoking, or climate change, it took a while for that to be proved harmful. There will be something we do today that in the future will be proved harmful, just by the nature of research it takes science a while to find out what it is. I trust nature, it's beautifully complex and rarely messes up, and I trust true instinct. Not through faith or someone elses ideas. I personally am one of those who is rather untrusting of blanket vaccines and general pharmaceutical recommendations at the moment having worked briefly within the sales side of the industry. I have read A LOT, the research seems to reflect different sides. I have personal experience in the troubles caused by both so I have nothing left but to trust my instincts.

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