• Paul D. Wilke

Science! vs. "Science?" - Part II

I want to finish up the idea from my previous post by offering up some bullshit detection tools that can be useful in identifying poorly reasoned biases in yourself or others. This is by no means a comprehensive list but gives an idea of some of the ways we bullshit ourselves and others about what we know or don't know.

First, you can usually tell when someone has a strong opinion about something they don't understand very well because when challenged, even just a little bit, they'll switch gears and become a little offended. Usually, this happens after you challenge an outrageous claim they've made. Rather than back off and admit ignorance, they'll unleash a wave of righteous indignation. What comes next will likely be a lamentation about the negative tone of the debate and how he would love to argue the science with you, but alas, what's the point, if you cannot be civil and have an open mind. He'll say something to the effect that every time someone challenges the scientific status quo like they are so boldly doing, they get shouted down and insulted.

This makes any real debate impossible. Everyone, after all, loves a good Galileo Persecution Narrative, and so doubters resort to this tactic often. Doing so gives the unbeliever a way to grab the moral high ground and feel like a lone freedom fighter for truth, all while shifting the discussion away from one about the merits of the actual science to one about the tone of the debate. If you pay attention to online comments or television interviews with doubters of particular scientific theories, you'll see them resort to this quite often. Debating the debate gets people off the hook of having to defend something they know little about and onto more the comfortable intellectual territory of merely being offended.

Second, is the moderation fallacy, or 'Reasonable Me.' Here, the person, perhaps innocently, seeks to find a golden mean in absolutely everything. Actually, as a general rule for living, this is not a bad way to go, but it can lead to sloppy reasoning if applied without discrimination. In deciding which side of a scientific debate to endorse, however, some people will default to this middle ground position no matter what. When they hear two sides arguing the merits or something, they'll not pay too much attention to the actual arguments, but will simply assume that the truth must lie "somewhere in the middle." Even in cases where one side holds overwhelming evidence that such and such is true, you'll often hear these moderation junkies say "I just can't imagine..." when they hear something that doesn't synch up with their intuitions.

As we saw in the previous blog entry on this topic, they'll start with intuition (for example, to be moderate is good) and then reason out a model that looks for truths that confirm this intuition. But doing so also opens these people up to false equivalence. When confronted by two competing claims, the instinct will be to dismiss both as equally implausible and then fall back to a default middle ground position, taking bits and pieces of each side's claim and cobbling together a synthesis of the two claims. This is revealing, however, when one of the two competing claims has the preponderance of the scientific evidence in its favor. Then, you can begin to suspect that the real bias is directed toward the mainstream science position.

Like the "debate the debate" example above, the moderation fallacy allows the doubter to avoid the difficulty of defending the specifics of what is a weak position. These doubters may concede some points to what scientists claim about theory X, but they'll dismiss or downplay other claims as appearing to exceed common sense moderation. This is an easy trap to fall into. After all, our own beliefs are all quite reasonable to us, and seeking the mean is a natural default to fall back to when we can't debate the science we claim to doubt. Moderation just feels right for many (often me included), and it is applied as a cognitive shortcut to make sense of the world. To be fair, we all tend to do this. Instead of a self-awareness of ignorance, we are left feeling like dispassionate observers standing above the noise of public debate and objectively, dispassionately assessing the science in a better way than the experts. Really, though, it's just another mask for ignorance. Notice, as well, that those who argue for moderation also love to debate the debate, but they'll sagely conclude that the truth must lie somewhere in the middle.

Finally, you get conspiracies. These are not always over the top and crazy sounding but are implied as alternative ways to deal with the dissonance of a scientific explanation that does not coincide with one's worldview. Resorting to conspiracy seeks to question the conclusions of the scientific community by impugning its motives. The most common we hear is "follow the money." This lazy phrase, which means nothing if you stop and think about it, is wielded by doubters early and often in debate. The implication, of course, is that any scientific conclusions I disagree with are hopelessly tainted by the profit motive, that scientists are just doing it for the grant money, that the corporations will say anything for profits.

Here you get people holding strong positions contrary to consensus science, but who know little about the actual science itself. They've reasoned out positions based on intuition, emotion, or ideology, and not any thorough assessment of the evidence. When the real villain is Big Government or Evil Corporations, the lazy "follow the money" argument seems to make some sense, but only if you don't think about it too long. If you have a bias against either BG or ECs, you'll not need much convincing to assume the worst motives in almost any situation, and you'll follow the money all the way to the conspiracy you need to believe.

And anyway, conspiracies are exciting, aren't they? They make people feel like they've puzzled out some dark mystery that the mass of humanity does not know, a kind of Da Vinci Code for the common man. Everyone is deluded but the conspiracy theorist, just 'follow the money, man!' The thing about contrarianism like this is that it appears to separate us from herd-thought, but at the same time it can lead to some pretty whacky places (see video below). Instead of taking the time to study the science they are already pre-disposed to disagree with, these people concoct ever more elaborate conspiracy theories that effectively confirm their biases.

For example, creationists argue that evolution is all part of a grand strategy to secularize society and eliminate God from our schools. Before we all know it, we'll be getting tattooed with the number of the beast and the end times will commence. The folks against genetically modified foods deeply mistrust anything put out by Big Ag companies like Monsanto and that mistrust extends to the scientific community as well. And finally, the average climate change doubter on the street usually doesn't care about the science - it's too abstract and far off to matter to them - what they care about is higher taxes to support Big Government's policies to impose socialism on society.

These are just a few of the ways people wiggle out of any in-depth discussion of a scientific issue. As I mentioned before, most of us are laymen when discussing most things outside our areas of expertise. To live in this kind of information environment requires two things: First, you need intellectual humility. Sometimes just admit what you don't know and leave it at that. If there are reasons for you to care, make sure you've studied the issue thoroughly before coming to any tentative conclusions. And then, be ready to shift with the facts. Don't build a fortress around your opinion and then fight to the death defending it. If your opinion diverges from the scientific consensus, look very carefully at what your real motivations are. Those motivations may stem from different public policy priorities, and that's OK, but be honest about it. For example, you may think climate change is real, but it's not a problem you'll have to deal with in your lifetime, and therefore don't want to support costly policies to deal with climate change now. Just say that. Don't say it's all a hoax or a grand socialist conspiracy. It's not.

Second, and this is the one many will have trouble with: default to the scientific consensus until you take the time to disprove its claims. Unless you yourself are an expert in the relevant field, that will be very hard to do. Really, they are the experts and there are almost never any real conspiracies. Yes, scientists may get it wrong on occasion, but most work in a good-faith effort to give us the most sound explanations based on the best scientific evidence available. Fortunately, science self-corrects when the evidence shifts. Plus, it takes effort and time to get smart in topics that can be abstract and complicated to non-experts, and most of us don't have the time nor the inclination to dive into the intricacies of the evidence. If you are inclined to disagree, then, by all means, jump into the debate, but look at the best arguments from both sides before reaching any conclusions. Otherwise, sit it out and defer to the experts.

For the fun of it, watch this serious video arguing that the earth is flat, followed by a video debunking it. Listen to the narrator in the first video talk about his brave intellectual journey to the truth of the flat earth. And then watch the second video deconstructing the first video, claim by claim. Now, this is an extreme example, but it shows what can happen when non-experts rely entirely on their intuitions to make sense of the world. Anyway, it shows how people can convince themselves of some pretty odd things when they want to. If you made it this far, thanks for taking the time to read my blog.