Stop Being Anti-Science

This might be my most obvious post to date. I know the message that follows has been stated many times and in many ways much more eloquently than I am about to here. I still feel I need to repeat it here. Conspiracy theorists, con artists, woo artists, and all of those who refuse to use the scientific process to push your agenda – just stop. You are hindering real science and productive discussion with your nonsense.

A good example of this nonsense surrounds the company Monsanto and their process of genetic modification of plants used for food. There is a near hysteria over the process of selectively inserting genes into plants to make them resistant to herbicides, so that the herbicide can than kill the weeds and allow the plants to be more productive. There is a very small number of “scientists” and a larger number of websites and naturalistic fallacy pushers that say this “unnatural process” is causing all modern disease (I put “scientists” in quotes because reading some of their publications – they don’t follow a scientific process). The science does not back up this claim. None of the studies showing harm have repeatable results. Most studies show consumption of these plants is safe.

When our resources are used over and over to both study and communicate the safety of these GMO crops, it takes away from other areas of study which do have a level of concern. For example, there is some preliminary evidence that the lack of genetic diversity caused by a large number of farms being planted with these modified plants may actually be hurting the productivity. These plants also require an increased amount of certain resources when compared to previous strains. There are ethical concerns when companies are allowed to patent genetic code. But none of these concerns are able to compete with the noise of the naturalistic fallacy being shouted in the media any time Monsanto is mentioned. While we should be studying and discussing these genuine issues, the issue of non-concern is getting the most attention.

Climate change is another issue often given poor treatment by the media and politicians. Over 97% of scientists believe the Earth’s energy balance is changing, and that humans play a role in the increased retention of energy. There are well over 10,000 peer-reviewed papers showing an increase in temperature caused at least in part by humans, while only a few dozen showing no link. Yet, this somehow continues to be a “debate” whether humans are causing climate change, or if it is happening at all.

If we could just get over the bias caused by politics, a distrust in science, an arrogance, or whatever the cause and have a genuine discussion of the real issues of climate science, we could make huge progress. Certainly making future predictions of warming is not easy. The Earth and sun are very dynamic systems. Models are being improved as new information comes in and as computing power increases. We should put our resources towards the study of the change, not digging for data that isn’t there. We should discuss what actions people and governments should take to deal with the effects of climate change. We should invest in energy that still keeps society convenient, but relies less on putting new carbon into the atmosphere. Just because someone believes climate change exists doesn’t mean they believe society should be shut down to stop it. But these reasonable discussions will never reach the media, because the loudest voices are on the extremes.

Anti-vaccination people have to be some of the worst (or perhaps best) examples of people ignoring science. These people use similar tactics to the anti-GMO people. There are wild claims that vaccines cause all disease – whether because of the ingredients or because somehow the actual dead pathogen is causing the brain to mutate. There is so much data showing how effective vaccines are in preventing disease. One can look at any disease. Look 5 years before and 5 years after a vaccine goes into use – and we have dozens of examples of vaccines working. Yet a few celebrities and quack scientists continue to garner equal attention to their anti-science stance of making “an informed choice” and not vaccinating.

The media really fails here. Yes, it is true no vaccine is 100% safe. There are a few people each year who are genuinely injured by vaccines because of an allergic reaction or some other odd reaction to that person’s unique genetic code. This doesn’t mean people shouldn’t get vaccines. It would be a little like saying you shouldn’t refrigerate your food because 1 in 250,000 refrigerators starts a home on fire. The risk of not doing something here is far greater than the risk of doing something. Luckily, there has been a little progress by science here. But just imagine if all of the time and money spent to “prove” vaccines to be safe over and over could instead be spent researching better flu vaccines. Imagine a vaccine for the common cold. For HIV. While these are being researched, more resources would only help to make better vaccines faster.

I don’t have an issue with people questioning any scientific research. Questioning leads to new science, to new hypothesis, new study, new learning, and a better world. But once the question is asked, and answered by research, we all must be willing to accept the results of  properly structured research.

I teach science and write about science as my little contribution to help fight the nonsense. There are days I am not sure if science is winning these battles. I won’t give up. However, I find it important to also reflect on how to do better in teaching and communicating science to make sure science stays in the lead. I’d like to see more progress.

My call to action is for all of us who believe in science and the scientific process to continue to work hard to properly steer the global conversation to the science. I think the science communicators I read and listen to do an excellent job of mostly staying on that task. It isn’t easy, and I think even the best slip at times. It is important to make clear when fighting anti-science groups that while their position is based on opinion, our position is based on evidence. Thank you to all of the skeptics and scientists who continue to work to make the world smarter and better – and for doing the same for me. Let’s never give up the fight!

About Eric Hall

My day job is teaching physics at the University of Minnesota, Rochester. I write about physics, other sciences, politics, education, and whatever else interests or concerns me. I am always working to be rational and reasonable, and I am always willing to improve my knowledge and change my mind when presented with new evidence.
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40 Responses to Stop Being Anti-Science

  1. Magnanamous Dinoflagellate says:

    I think the problem is that folk don’t actually know what science is.

  2. Kevin Folta says:

    Nicely put Eric. The problem is that so many people don’t know even what science is. They get wrapped into their interpretation groups and refuse to recognize legitimate experts. I love to teach and talk about science, but every time I discuss real data I get discounted because my mom was a Chicago Cubs fan, their 3rd baseman was Ron Santo, and change that R to an M and you get Monsanto. See– I practically own the company.

  3. Josh DeWald says:

    Well said. I was seriously considered recording audio of myself just yelling out of pure frustration (and linking to it in my next article) at the fact that KIDS LITERALLY DIE because their parents or somebody else’s parents have decided not to vaccinate due to the anti-science misinformation being spread around.

  4. This, this, a thousand times this.

  5. Innominata says:

    It starts with tolerance of religion. If you can believe man was created by and in the image of a magic cloudman who sent himself to earth as his own son, in order to die and be reborn to save us from ourselves, but only as long as we completely give ourselves to him, because he is really insecure, even though he is the be all and end all….

    How can you be expected to think logocally about anything else?

    Tolerance of something as patently absurd as christianity is essentially tolerance for much more plausible, but equally wrong notions.

    What is more likely, vaccines cause autism, or the earth is 6000 years old?

    • Reg. says:

      I like this one because with all the fine arts induced by attachment to religion, the Catholic Religion in particular, we have all been led to regard the music of Bach, Mozart, Handel and so many other fine composers as representative of Christian beliefs and justification for those beliefs.

      Nothing could be further from the truth and yet even the non-aligned of today, are left wondering at the power, both mental and pecuniary that created such a productive reaction. In fact they were all only earning a living in a very restricted market that required support from the rich and powerful and the rich and powerful had the support of the church in that they were regarded as the chosen of God. It just shows how important this decision was because I can find no such parallel in Islam.

      The cross-over between Science and Art is regarded as mysterious and even religious, and I and others know the danger of challenging aspects of this belief.

  6. Reg. says:

    I couldn’t agree more Eric. The big problem is that Science is outnumbered by quacks and dilettantes such as I. My pet hate is that “Science Fiction” attempts to gain respectability by attaching the word SCIENCE to absolutely anything that passes as a third rate and totally dreamed up story. All is fodder for the conspiracy theorists and drama queens, they actually believe it. Pardon.

  7. Rocky Coggins says:

    “Science” as you call it is responsible for and feeds much of the “pure nonsense” that you describe … Universities and their research arms are thoroughly corrupt, biased, money driven and populated by some of the most autocratic, close-minded frauds on the planet. The global warming fiasco is not even a subject of open scientific discussion not because of the science but due to the lies, fabrications and misinformation … the science has been buried by the fools and unethical scum surrounding the issue … “Doctor, heal thy self” before ascribing “Science’s” ills to an incredulous public and many a peer sickened by the university research fascist, pop science, grant fraud, research fabrications. We see a level of unethical behavior unknown in distant times. Return to the scientific method, return to strict ethical standards, return to and openly embrace the standards that deserve respect rather than demanding that a public that thinks your profession has disavowed their code of honor should alter their well founded perception. Clean up “Science” and you will silence the less than honest critics … and the loons.

    • Reg. says:

      “…. are thoroughly corrupt, biased, money driven and populated by some of the most autocratic, close-minded frauds on the planet.”

      Gosh, and all along I’d understood they plied their trade on Wall St.

      • Rocky Coggins says:

        I wish it was restricted to car dealers, siding salesmen and the AARP but the corruption is an integral part of every facet of Life I held in high esteem as a child … the President, medicine, accounting, the military, etc, etc … the rot in society is pervasive … I expect nothing of wall streeters or lawyers … by definition they are motivated by greed and hold the ethics of a pig … but it is the crushing disappointment when you are confronted by a crooked police officer or a cheating athlete that I revolt against … science, also, was to be “above it all” … men/women of black and white judgment and honor bound to adhere to an inhuman dedication to “proof” …. but they are now perceived as corrupt as everyone. You can as easily buy a scientist to appear in court … or a national scientific symposium, for example, to say any thing you wish … There is no professional censure because so many are doing the same thing.

        • Eric Hall says:

          Rocky – All scientists are humans. Humans do carry bias and make mistakes – even if we follow the scientific method, our bias can creep in. But the data and the review process helps to correct that. Remember faster than light neutrinos? Turned out it was a loose cable!

          To say all scientists are corrupt is also bad science. There is always error bars, thus your observations of corruption cannot be used to put an exact number of all scientists who are corrupt.

          Certainly each set of data, each study, etc should be evaluated before trusting it as a source. I assume you trust yourself – does that mean every single piece of science you ever read about is bad and incorrect?

          I agree there is some corruption – but I think you should really reconsider your pessimism. Science is the best thing humans have ever come up with – and if it isn’t, science can fix that (thanks Bill Nye).

  8. Rocky Coggins says:

    Thank you for your reply. I am just so broken hearted with the whole mess … the decline of all I held sacred.

    • Vanda says:

      Well Rocky, perhaps you should be the change you want to see. You say that you are broken hearted at the mess and the decline of all you hold sacred, yet you post two abusive and untrue comments about certain professions.

      I am a lawyer. I am not a pig. I am not greedy. I am not doing it for fame or money. In fact, I work my guts out for a community law centre. When I say that to people like you the response I get is always ‘oh obviously I don’t mean lawyers like you’. Well, you do. You just said that me and many other fine lawyers who have done a lot for the world are people who are motivated by greed and have the ethics of a pig (not sure why you picked pigs – they are quite intelligent, wonderful animals).

      No-one is ‘above it all’. That is why there are checks and balances in systems, and doctors, scientists, police, the legal profession are all subject to far more checks and balances than many other professions. That’s why you hear about it when there are problems.

      The reason people like you think the world is going to hell in a handbasket is because you rely on information from people filled with bile and hate, and you repeat that bile and hate on other forums. You are the only person who can fix your broken heart. You need to read more widely, think more clearly, and see for yourself the good things that happen in the world – the people around you who help their neighbours, the people who work hard in dangerous situations to bring hope and life to people, the people who gather together in joy to celebrate the birth of a child or a marriage. There is so much that is positive about the world.

    • freedumbs says:

      You know, every generation has lamented the decline of all they held sacred. But in hindsight, it was never really that bad. And it’s not now.

      Also, keep in mind when you watch the news, read newspapers, listen to internet pundits, that they are engaged in business too. One of the best ways to get you hooked and coming back for more is to keep you on edge and/or outraged. And never before have we been so bombared with a constant stream of information. Remember that and remind yourself that everyone wants to sell you something. It’s up to you to buy it though.

  9. Not all scientists are corrupt, or can be bought. I was married to one (well known) for 59 years,, so I should know! In my own humble opinion, power and greed are destroying the planet, not scientists

  10. Peter G Brooksbank says:

    Amen to that Rocky Coggins. Organisations like the IPCC don’t help. Unaccountable, unregulated and brought into existence to prove global warming, the backlash was inevitable.

    As for arrogance, what is more arrogant then the line, “we don’t need to debate climate change, it is proven, you are a denier and therefore simple,” or ” it doesn’t matter if we a right or not, its too important a topic not to act regardless.”

    Day after day I see posts in magazines and news papers berating creationists while at the same time worshiping at the alter of science. Blind faith is not exclusive to the religious.

    Here in Britain we have our own version, the University of Norfolk’s Clmategate scandal with a Principal that admits he doesn’t full understand statistics.

    I don’t know about America but in Britain we see that the country is going to hell in a hand cart because we have a past that acts as a bench mark for those of us that are old enough.

    As for Franken crops, I’ll let you know what I think in another hundred years if they don’t pose a threat.

    I’ve no sympathy for scientists at all, one of my closest friends is a physicist and he agrees.

    Of course not all scientists are bent but bad science creates bad feeling and what you have now is the payback, to use an American term. Science has done wonders for mankind but its politicisation is counter productive.

    I’ll end with just two words, Charles Fort.

    • Reg. says:

      “Amen to that Rocky Coggins. Organisations like the IPCC don’t help. Unaccountable, unregulated and brought into existence to prove global warming, the backlash was inevitable.”

      ## IF they were brought into existence to prove global warming, as you SAY they were, then they are both accountable and regulated, it’s just that you are unhappy with the accountants and regulators and would rather it were someone else. You perhaps?

      “Day after day I see posts in magazines and news papers berating creationists while at the same time worshiping at the alter of science. Blind faith is not exclusive to the religious.”

      ## This is obviously the reaction you are talking about, the reaction to centenaries of unqualified religious dominance. Blind faith is pretty much the domain of the religious whether you think so or not.

      Perhaps you’d like to negotiate a compromise between 2+2 = 5 and 2+2 = 4.

      “Here in Britain we have our own version, the University of Norfolk’s Clmategate scandal with a Principal that admits he doesn’t full understand statistics.”

      ## I doubt there is anyone with an ounce of honesty who would claim to know EVERYTHING about ANYTHING.

      “I don’t know about America but in Britain we see that the country is going to hell in a hand cart because we have a past that acts as a bench mark for those of us that are old enough.”

      ## Britain is paying the price for its Colonial past and many are reluctant to look at those benchmarks you refer to and see the gross abuse behind them. I’m old too and have never given Britain unqualified support in its policies and endeavors, there have always been far too many sins of omission and downright usury for them to be ignored.

      “I’ve no sympathy for scientists at all, one of my closest friends is a physicist and he agrees.”

      ## From most failures we still learn something, as I’m sure you physicist friend would agree for he seems a most agreeable bloke.

      “Of course not all scientists are bent but bad science creates bad feeling and what you have now is the payback, to use an American term. Science has done wonders for mankind but its politicisation is counter productive.”

      ## … by which I understand you to mean that sciences’ current need to toe the line to one political persuasion, is contrary to your political persuasion.

      I ask a question. Do you blame science for creating the current world population explosion, or do you praise science for relieving suffering? Would you rather that suffering had been encouraged so that you may continue to enjoy your old world benchmarks?

      Reg, Sydney, Australia.

      • Peter G Brooksbank says:

        I’ll ask you a question how do you walk when you are leaning so far left?

        I think from the other side of the world you dramatise so many of Briton’s problems, I’m not talking about Britain,s place in the world, real or imagined. The truth is more mundane and is due to a combination of political incompetence and noses in the trough.

        I’ll answer one statement as I could write a book on the fact that you misinterpret much of what I say by a million miles.

        You say, “by which I understand you to mean that sciences’ current need to toe the line to one political persuasion, is contrary to your political persuasion.”

        No I don’t and you are wrong on virtually every count. I would rather science and scientists be completely neutral. But I’m not naive enough to think that will happen.

        I mentioned Charles Fort. You picked up on all the rest but chose to ignore this, so I’ll quote Fort here, a true Skeptic.

        “I like a bargain as well as does anybody else, but I can’t save expenses by being grateful to Science, if for every scientist who has perhaps been of benefit to me, there have been many other scientists who have tried to strangle that possible benefit.”

        The author Colin Wilson said, “Running through Forts work is the premise that, no matter how honest scientists think they are, they are still influenced by various unconscious assumptions that prevent them from attaining true objectivity.”

        Expressed in a sentence, Fort’s principle goes something like this: People with a psychological need to believe in marvels are no more prejudiced and gullible than people with a psychological need not to believe in marvels.”

        Put simpler, we are all human and subject to the frailties that beset humanity.

        I would fully endorse this.

        • Reg. says:

          I’ll answer your question when you have responded to mine. Not before. You are clearly both religiously and politically motivated, with a thoroughly conservative bent.

          Your initial reference to Fort meant nothing and is no clearer now despite your two or three attempts at reduction. Science is fully aware of the human potential for failure and of the need for caution. Accepting your choice of words, Fort has done nothing but assure his followers of his neutral stance between science and religion. Nothing wrong with that whether he is being honest or simply placatative. He would not be the first scientist driven to this ploy for the sake of family and friends.

          Now while name dropping is a scurrilous method of supporting an argument I see you were hopeful of an opportunity for expanding on Fort as you have interpreted him. This means the words are no longer Fort’s but are instead, yours. What a sneaky way of slipping in your own bias under the guise of another while simultaneously adopting the mantle of a Skeptic, as you have described him.

          I am not duped Peter. The evidence against you is there in the words you have written and the responses you have failed to supply.

          • Peter G Brooksbank says:

            You see the difficulty here is that you don’t seem to understand English and are using some kind of cold reading just as clairvoyants do.

            Like clairvoyants you are shooting in the dark and seeing things that aren’t there.

            Conservative? No, I’m a socialist. Thats just one example of how far out you are.

            I never claimed Charles Forts words as my own, I clearly referenced them. I even referenced Colin Wilson when referring to what he had written about Charles Fort.

            I feel that continuing a conversation with someone who has such a tenuous grasp on reality is pointless.

            I’m not even sure if you know who Charles Fort was from your comments.

            Nobody is trying to dupe you, are you paranoid?

            Evidence against me? Am I on trial here?

            Someone once said that America and Britain are divided by a common language. It looks like you can add Australia to that. If you can’t read and understand the words on the page how do you expect to have a conversation? I’m serious.

            Just because you feel it doesn’t mean its there.

  11. Freke1 says:

    The strength of science is that You can question the results. It’s open like a democracy, not closed like a tyranny or religion which You can’t question. There You have to accept or believe.
    The trouble is that a lot of people don’t question. And that even applies to some scientists too.
    For instance people could ask themselves: “Do I have a soul?” (not a religious soul, a human soul). Here is something about the heart You may not know:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Yp7W-8MsyQ
    Maybe we could get rid of all religions if science could tell us about the (possible) soul.
    But sometimes I get the feeling that facts are not what runs this world. The voters time horizon is not 5.000 or a million years. Maybe we need scientists to run the world. To make it.

  12. Freke1 says:

    There is a docu on Youtube called “The world according to Monsanto (FULL LENGTH)” if anyone would like to see it for themselves.

  13. Moral Dolphin says:

    Aaah yes, the youtube educated. The bane of hamburger flippers world wide.

    Freke, can you start losing this early twenties lager populism.? If you still have it at forty you’ll look a bit like a yokel. If you have it in your sixties you can blame free government digital literacy lessons.

    Yes, lager was spelled correctly

    • Freke1 says:

      I’ll take information from Youtube over papers published by Monsanto any day, mate 😉

      • Peter G Brooksbank says:

        I’d take information from a bubble gum wrapper as opposed to Monsanto. I thought we where on Skeptoid here not gulibleoid.

        • Eric Hall says:

          While the source of information is one piece of the puzzle in weighing the validity of scientific information, it isn’t the only piece. If the science is carefully constructed, peer-reviewed, and done correctly, than it is likely valid even if we find the source “icky.” Many people find Skeptoid to be a poor source of information – but Brian does good research and is generally careful at analyzing that information, thus I find it reliable (as do many others). Same could be said of Science Based Medicine

          Another good example of weighing information comes from a few weeks ago – Roundup and Gut Bacteria

        • Freke1 says:

          (Apparently) there is a revolving door between Monsanto and FDA, just as the scientists/health advisors at EFSA (European food safety Authority) are highly dependent upon funding (for their research) from some of the worlds largest food companies like Nestle and Kraft. Not to mention the lobbying going on in EU which means consumer friendly legislation is having a hard time getting passed. “Forks over Knives” shows (if One pays attention) that official food advice has always been wrong. The revolving doors, the dependence of corporate funding for research and the lobbying ruins the credibility of FDA and EFSA. I’m skeptic. Just in the other direction.

          • Moral Dolphin says:

            I didnt know they shared a building Freke.

            All the rest is conjecture based on some pretty lousy fallacies you see rampant on youtube clips.

            Skeptic=youtube…Hardly

  14. Moral Dolphin says:

    I only wish I was corrupted or bought or even knew of a scientist that was corrupted or bought.

    I lie, a science career has so many interesting turns you can put up with the curmudgeons who get their science from a store or worse, from a luddite blogpage.

    59 years marriage to a scientist? Thats worse than being married to a career. You lucky people. You must have a lot to reflect of Sally. The past 60-70 years have been astounding and well worthy of a conversation every..minute!

    Mind you, the nature walks and fishing expeditions etc turning into an immediate opportunity to rbbit on about the next astounding find along the way can be tedious I am told by my partner.

    The kids still love it.

    • Freke1 says:

      Nature is a great place.

      • Moral Dolphin says:

        I probably am a bit boring when it comes to finding things and publicly examining them.

        If it wasnt for me my partners fondest memories of beach walking (octopus warnings, Mother and calf whales and weedy sea dragons…Dolphins podding, Dolphins feeding, males separation) have nothing to do with my science career, its due to noticing things in and near the sea being an old coot surfer and fisherman and having some obvious personality defect.

        Surfing and fishing? going to the finest accesible places and enjoying yourself!

        • Moral Dolphin says:

          Come to think of it, beach side biology is just another way of pampering your partner.

          Its better for her than chocolates, wine and cheese.

          One does need a bit of exercise to be able to get these prior to tea (my beer oclock is spent making dinner as best as can!).

          I actually have to thank my mother for all this focus on biology and food.

          She spent an inordinate time exercising me and teaching me that a mans place at home is the kitchen..

          Just to shut that noisy kid up!

          • Freke1 says:

            If You care about food then there is an excellent docu on Netflix called “Forks over knives” about food. Apart from being about what we should eat to stay healthy, it is also showing (unfortunately I must say) that the official food pyramids/advice is rather unhealthy. Given that they are all doctors/scientists it shows (to me anyway) that I have to keep my eyes and ears open if I want to know the truth.

          • Reg says:

            That’s all so sweet MD but lay off saying unpleasant things about wine and cheese please. Try some Bega Strong and Bitey, ‘cos if you’re in the US I was never able to find anything so tasty.

            Hey and how about that story of holes in Swiss cheese in the US being set at a smaller size so the cutters can handle it, thus ensuring an inferior product? Swiss cheese needs all the help it can get and you’re obviously a person of good taste MD.

  15. AVacc says:

    Fantastic post. I would, however, refrain from using the phrase “believe in science.” And so my nit is picked. 🙂

    • Eric Hall says:

      Good point – I will leave it as is, but point taken.

      • Reg. says:

        Now is the moment to prompt the writers to reread the chapter in Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, entitled, Antiscience.

        If that’s too much, then perhaps from page 252 beginning, “For centuries, science has been under a line of attack, that rather than pseudoscience, can be called antiscience.” to page 263, at the break.

        On page 255 he writes the following about scientists being driven by pure wonder;

        Quote; “A few saintly personalities stand out amidst a roiling sea of jealousies, ambitions, backbiting, suppression of dissent, and absurd conceits. In some fields, highly productive fields, such behavior is almost the norm.” Unquote.

        So apparently nothing has changed in at least the past 50 years if I am allowed to use Carl Sagan’s stated experience as a gauge.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Craig I agree and as always I’m proud of you and your views. They are the same as mine usually.

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