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Stop Being Anti-Science

by Eric Hall

June 2, 2013

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Donate 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!

by Eric Hall

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