Listener Feedback: That Darned Science
Once again we're going to pour the mailbag of listener feedback onto the table, and sort through the pile of questions, suggestions, criticisms, praise, requests for lengthy one-on-one discourse, and death threats. Those are the basic mail slots, for better or for worse.
This week's feedback is comprised of common misunderstandings of science and the scientific method. Most of these are familiar arguments that attempt to bolster a pseudoscience not by providing evidence in favor of it, but instead by trying to show that science itself is fatally flawed; thus, by implication, the preferred pseudoscience must therefore be correct. On top of everything else, this is a false dichotomy. Even if the scientific method were proven to be useless, this would not leave the paranormal to be the only possible true explanation.
Let's get started with an email from Scott from The Villages, Florida, who wrote in response to my episode on expensive alkaline water filters, a health product sold through quack multilevel marketing business scams. Scott reiterates the most basic of all misunderstandings of science based medicine, which is the Big Pharma conspiracy theory:
Setting aside for the moment the question of whether doctors truly do conspire to suppress useful therapies, let's focus on the rationale of Scott's argument. If someone is motivated by profits from selling a service, they are not likely to sell a service that will provide what the customer actually needs. My question for Scott would be that if this truly is human nature, does it extend to the sellers of these water filters? Most such devices cost in the range of two to six thousand dollars. Why would someone sell a machine that would truly solve the customer's health problems? If they did, the customers would be taken care of, and would not need to give repeat business.
Scott's logic is also commonly used by supporters of just about every other type of alternative medicine. Herbal supplements, acupuncture, and cleansing concoctions are all sold on a for-profit basis, and thus the argument applies to them as well. I couldn't say it any better than Scott did himself, and I quote: "The pills they sell will not cure anything. If they did, they would go out of business."
Next we have an email from Dezi, who writes:
Dezi raises several fallacious arguments, but let's focus on the common misperception that the dismissal of an unscientific belief is just as much a type of belief itself; faith-based, as it were. This is popular because it sounds so rational: as silly as it would be to "believe" in leprechauns, logically it's just as unsupportable to assert that they don't exist.
This reflects a misunderstanding of what the scientific method leads to. The application of skepticism to a new idea that's not yet proven does not lead to the assertion that it's false. Instead it leaves us with the null hypothesis, an important concept that's often overlooked. If the new idea is a suggestion that we're surrounded by invisible dancing unicorns, the null hypothesis tells us that there's not yet a compelling reason to make this conclusion. That's different from saying it's a fact that we're not surrounded by invisible dancing unicorns. Maybe we are, allows skepticism; but without convincing evidence that can be tested and repeated, we don't yet agree that the case is proven.
Here's a really good email from James in New York. I love this because James understands just enough to be dangerous:
James is absolutely right that science is a continually self-correcting process. Unlike pseudoscience, we constantly revise and improve our knowledge. But James does something that I hear all the time: he twists this fact into an assertion that anything we've learned might be suddenly and completely overturned at any moment. Pre-scientific ideas, like geocentrism, were completely overturned because they had no sound empirical underpinnings. Conversely, today's theories are based on foundations of research and testing; in some cases, centuries of it. It's true that we are still revising some of the nuances of gravitational theory, but by now it's implausible to suspect that its fundamental nature might suddenly be found completely wrong. So it is with nearly every science. Think of science as forever incomplete, not as catastrophically fragile. The pyramid may be uncapped, but it's not likely to tip over.
Macky from Auckland presents another facet of the misrepresentation of scientific thought:
Dogma is a set of irrefutable truths established by an authority. Thus Macky is demonstrating one of the most familiar misconceptions, that science is an established set of beliefs, rather than a learning process. There are a number of flaws in this perspective. First, "science" has no authority figure with the power to establish anything. Second, every working scientist's career is defined by his new discoveries; there is no work to be done, and no salary to be found, in accepting irrefutable truths and doing nothing.
I also hear the word "heretic" a lot from people with Macky's perspective. It's usually used in reference to a lone crank who promotes some pseudoscience, often selling a product, who wishes to be seen as a maverick courageously bucking the trend. It's noteworthy that the term "heretic" is only ever used by dogmatic authorities. For example, the Catholic church used it during the Inquisition. I've never heard a working scientist call anyone a heretic in reference to their scientific work; instead, they simply point out that they're wrong and why. But promoters of pseudoscience want to be called heretics, because that would make the scientific mainstream into a dogmatic authority. Whenever you run into a lone researcher who's outside the mainstream and claims to have been labeled a heretic, you have very good reason to be skeptical.
Mick from Liverpool wrote in reference to my episode on the Baigong Pipes, one of many examples around the world where some think modern humans were preceded by a more advanced race:
The charge that today's researchers have an inflated sense of themselves is basically saying that scientists arrogantly claim to know everything. Again, this flies in the face of the whole reason researchers exist. It's to learn new stuff. Nobody funds research that's intended to not learn anything. I've never met an archaeologist or anthropologist who wouldn't love to discover evidence of a superior early civilization. The reason we don't think there were any is not that we have an inflated sense of ourselves, it's that there's no evidence or record of it, and it's fundamentally illogical for knowledge and technology to have actually decreased over the centuries.
Finally, here's an email from Adrian in Romania, who wrote in about the homeopathy episode. Homeopathy proposes that spiritual essence is a functional mechanism:
Adrian makes two basic points, but they contradict each other. First he asserts that scientists who study the physical world are somehow lost or deficient or are unable to enjoy life for some reason; but then he contends that the only reason someone would study the physical world is that they're either brainwashed or paid to pretend to do it. Adrian's proposed dichotomy — which I hear all the time — is that in order to accept what we can learn through scientific research, we must reject all intangibles such as love and happiness. It's a bizarre suggestion, but in my experience, it's all too commonplace. It seems infantile to even have to refute such a statement, by pointing out such obvious facts as the existence of many happy scientists in the world.
There should be something of a self-evident red flag to people who draw this dichotomy and make such a radical assumption about so many people. Great sweeping generalizations, particularly those purporting to know the thoughts and feelings of other people, are almost always wrong. It doesn't really matter whether you're a skeptic or a believer, black or white, gay or straight, liberal or conservative, Eastern or Western, Northern or Southern: when you catch yourself thinking you know the minds of others — and most especially when you assign them some sort of sub-human, amoral, or thoughtless traits — it's almost certainly you who is in the wrong.
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