Listener Feedback: That Darned Science
Skeptoid responds to some listener emails that question the validity of the scientific method.
by Brian Dunning
August 21, 2012
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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:
It's been reported that doctors will not recommend the use of these alkaline antioxidant water making machines because its a fact that do help people get releaf from some medical ailments, and that would cause less people going to doctors for treatments.Bottom line,the doctors would lose money.
The same holds true with the pharmaceuticals companies.The pills they sell will not cure anything.If they did,they would go out of business.
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:
Skepticism is like a blind religion that "believes" blindly the negative of everything and just rationalises evidence away and comes up with theories that are just as bizzare as anyone elses and then pretends those theories are facts.
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:
Science is ever correcting itself. Scientists of the day thought the world was flat. Science today views the solar system in the same way as the people who thought the world was flat. Newton was corrected by Einstein who was corrected by Hawking. Science continually updates, then considers that to be rock solid evidence.
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:
Science has made much progress DESPITE other mainstream scientists who have maintained the status quo of the day, even sometimes at the ruination of the "heretic's" career or life. The mainstream did not engage in critical thinking at all, but proceeded to often pillory the heretic until they either recanted, or faced death or dishonour.
The previous outdated models of science, in fact, was only DOGMA, as it has turned out so often.
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:
i think the obvious conclusion is that we are not the first advanced civilization or species on this planet.......thats plausable enough to me, and the geological argument sounds desperate. so , lets drop this inflated sense of ourselves and say..ok, maybe we are not the first bunch of people to get to at least our level of technology and maybe our history is nothing but an educated guess and nothing is written in stone
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:
You people are so concerned (and bitter) about scientific details that you lose the essence of human being.
It must be very lonely to live surrounded only by matter, with no hope, or happiness, or LOVE around you, just because there is no scientific prove of these feelings. No IN LOVE without statistical analysis. Waiting for "material death" to come in a statistically determined moment, destructuring your atoms and molecules and returning them to Earth.
There are only two possibilities:
1. You are well paid to convince readers that the highest entity they must believe in is the President or Royal Highness.
2. You are brainwashed.
3. The possibility of doing that for free is aberrant that I prefer not to consider it.
It is not my intention to offend you, but to awaken you, to understand that every single decision we take has consequences and if you can fool some people around you cannot fool your inner self. So close your eyes, take a deep deep breath and just be yourself.
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.
By Brian Dunning
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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Listener Feedback: That Darned Science." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
21 Aug 2012. Web.
20 Jan 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4324>
References & Further Reading
Dyson, Freeman. The Scientist As Rebel. New York: The New York Review of Books, 2006.
Ernst, E., Singh, S. Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts about Alternative Medicine. New York: Bantam Press, 2008.
Plait, P. Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing Hoax. New York: Wiley, 2002.
Randi, J. Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions. Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1982.
Sagan, C. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Random House, 1995.
Shermer, M. The Believing Brain: How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2011. 207-230.
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