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Denialism and pseudo-science

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/03/31

Nowadays, questioning whether HIV causes AIDS, or whether carbon dioxide causes global warming, is often deplored and attacked as “denialism” or pseudo-science. Yet questioning those theories is perfectly good, normal science.

Science is many things, including a human activity, an institution, an authority, but most centrally science means knowledge and understanding. Pseudo-science correspondingly means false claims dressed up as though they were reliable, genuine science. Denialism means refusing to believe what is unquestionably known to be true.

Knowledge means facts; understanding means theories or interpretations; and an essential adjunct to both is methodology, the means by which facts can be gathered.

There is an important connection not only between methods and facts but also between facts and theories: Un-interpreted facts carry no meaning. They are made meaningful only when connected to a conceptual framework, which is inevitably subjective. That is typically illustrated by diagrams where the facts consist of black and white lines and areas whose meaning depends on interpretations by the viewer. Different observers offer different interpretations.

The meanings of these facts — black-and-white lines and areas — are supplied by the viewer:
A young lady with extravagant hair treatment facing left — OR an old crone looking downwards;
A duck facing left OR a rabbit facing right;
Twin black profiles looking at one another OR a white vase.

In science, researchers often differ over the interpretation of the evidence: the facts are not disputed but different theories are offered to explain them.

At any rate, in considering what science can tell us we need to consider the three facets of science: facts, methods, and theories [1]. Normal scientific activity is guided by established theories and applies established methods to enlarge the range of factual knowledge.
Every now and again, something unconventional and unforeseen turns up in one of those three facets of science. It might be a new interpretation of existing facts, as in the theory of relativity; or it may be the application of a novel method as in radio-astronomy; or it may be the observation of previously unsuspected happenings, facts, for instance that atoms are not eternally stable and sometimes decompose spontaneously. When something of that sort happens, it is often referred to later as having been a scientific revolution, overturning what had been taken for granted in one facet of science while remaining content with what has been taken for granted in the other two facets.
The progress of science can be viewed as revolutions in facts, or in method followed by the gaining of possibly revolutionary facts, followed eventually by minor or major revisions of theory. Over a sufficiently long time — say, the several centuries of modern (post-17th-century) science — the impression by hindsight is of continual accumulation of facts and improvement of methods; the periodic changes in theoretical perspective are all that tends to be remembered by other than specialist historians of science.

(from “Why minority views should be listened to”)

The history of science also records episodes in which researchers proposed something novel simultaneously in two facets of science, for example when Gregor Mendel applied simple arithmetic to observations of plant breeding, an unprecedented methodology in biology that thereby uncovered entirely new facts. Another example might be the suggestion by Alfred Wegener in the early decades of the 20th century that the Earth’s continents must have moved, since the flora and fauna and geological formations are so alike on continents that are now far apart; making comparisons across oceans was an entirely novel methodology, and there was no theory to accommodate the possibility of continents moving. Episodes of that sort, where two of the three facets of science are unorthodox, have been labeled “premature science” by Gunther Stent [2]; the scientific community did not accept these suggestions for periods of several decades, until something more conventional showed that those unorthodox proposals had been sound.

When claims are made that do not fit with established theory or established methods or established facts, then those claims are typically dismissed out of hand and labeled pseudo-science. For example, claims of the existence of Loch Ness “monsters” involve unorthodox facts obtained by methods that are unorthodox in biology, namely eyewitness accounts, sonar echoes, photographs, and films, instead of the established way of certifying the existence of a species through the examination of an actual specimen; and the theory of evolution and the accepted fossil record have no place for the sort of creature that eyewitnesses describe.

In recent years it has it has been quite common see dissent from established scientific theories referred to as “denialism”. The connotation of that term “denialism” is not only that something is wrong but that it is reprehensibly wrong, that those who question the established view should know better, that it would be damaging to pay attention to them; moreover that denying (for example) that HIV causes AIDS is as morally distasteful as denying the fact of the Holocaust in which millions of Jews, Gypsies, and others were killed.

As Google N-grams for “denialism” indicate, until the last couple of decades, “denialism” meant to deny historical facts of genocide or something like it:

In the 1930s, “denialism” was applied to the refusal to acknowledge the millions of deaths in the Soviet Union caused by enforcement of collectivized agriculture and associated political purges, for example the 1932-33 Ukraine famine [3]. Holocaust denial was prominent for a while around 1970 but then faded away from mention in books until it re-appeared in the late 1980s [4]. But soon “denialism” directed at questioning of HIV/AIDS theory and the theory of carbon-dioxide-induced global warming swamped all other applications of the term:

This recent usage of “denialism” is consciously and specifically intended to arouse the moral outrage associated with denial of genocides, as admitted (for example) by the South African jurist Edwin Cameron [5]. But those genocides are facts, proved beyond doubt by the records of deaths as well as remains and various artefacts at concentration camps. By contrast, so-called “AIDS denialism” and so-called “climate-change denialism” or “global warming denialism” are the questioning or disputing of theories, not facts.

That questioning, moreover, is perfectly consonant with normal science:
⇒⇒   On the matter of whether HIV causes AIDS, dissidents do not question anything about established methods of virology, and they do not claim that HIV tests do not measure proteins, antibodies, and bits of genetic material; they merely assert that the results of HIV tests do not fit the theory that HIV is an infectious agent, and they assert that the methods used in HIV AIDS research are not sound methods for studying viruses since they have not been verified against experiments with authentic pure HIV virions derived directly from HIV+ individuals or from AIDS patients (The Case against HIV).
⇒⇒   On the matter of whether the liberation of carbon dioxide and by the burning of fossil fuels is the primary cause of global warming and climate change (AGW, Anthropogenic Global Warming and climate change [ACC]), those who question that theory do not question the facts about amounts of carbon dioxide present over time and they do not question the changes that have taken place in temperatures; they merely point out that the known and accepted facts show that there have been periods of time during which carbon-dioxide levels were very high while temperatures were very low, and that during several periods when carbon-dioxide levels were increasing the Earth’s temperature was not increasing or perhaps even cooling [6]. Furthermore, those who question AGW point out that the prime evidence offered for the theory is no evidence at all, merely the outputs of computer models that are supposed to take into account all the important variables — even as it is obvious that they do not do that, since those computer models do not provide an accurate record of the actual temperature changes that have been observed over many centuries.

Denialism means to deny something that is unquestionably true, but theories, interpretations, can never be known to be unquestionably true. Labeling as denialists those who question whether HIV causes AIDS, or those who question whether human-caused generation of carbon dioxide is the prime cause of global warming and climate change, is an attempt to finesse having to properly demonstrate the validity of those theories. Another attempt at such evasion is the oft-heard assertion that there is an “overwhelming consensus” on those matters. As Michael Crichton put it:
the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. . . . Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough. Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody says the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to anyone to speak that way [7].

When the assertion of consensus does not suffice, then the ad hominem tactic of crying “denialism” is invoked: the last refuge of intellectual scoundrels who cannot prove their case by evidence and logic.

[1]    I first suggested this in “Velikovsky and the Loch Ness Monster: Attempts at demarcation in two controversies”, in a symposium on “The Demarcation between Science and Pseudo-Science” (ed. Rachel Laudan), published as Working Papers of the Center for the Study of Science in Society (VPI&SU), 2 (#1, April 1983) 87-106. The idea was developed further in The Enigma of Loch Ness: Making Sense of a Mystery (University of Illinois Press, 1986/88; reprint, Wipf & Stock, 2012; pp. 152-3); see also Science or Pseudoscience: Magnetic Healing, Psychic Phenomena, and Other Heterodoxies (University of Illinois Press, 2001); Science Is Not What You Think (McFarland, 2017)
[2]    Gunther Stent, “Prematurity and uniqueness in scientific discovery”, Scientific American, December 1972, pp. 84–93
[3]    Described as the Holodomor
[4]    Holocaust Denial Timeline
[5]    Edwin Cameron, Witness to AIDS, I. B. Tauris, 2005; see book review in Journal of Scientific Exploration, 20 (2006) 436-444
[6]    Climate-change facts: Temperature is not determined by carbon dioxide
[7]    Michael Crichton,  “Aliens cause global warming”, Caltech Michelin Lecture, 17 January 2003



Posted in consensus, denialism, global warming, media flaws, politics and science, science is not truth, science policy, scientific culture, scientific literacy, scientism, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Dangerous knowledge II: Wrong knowledge about the history of science

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/01/27

Knowledge of history among most people is rarely more than superficial; the history of science is much less known even than is general (political, social) history. Consequently, what many people believe they know about science is typically wrong and dangerously misleading.

General knowledge about history, the conventional wisdom about historical matters, depends on what society as a whole has gleaned from historians, the people who have devoted enormous time and effort to assemble and assess the available evidence about what happened in the past.

Society on the whole does not learn about history from the specialists, the primary research historians. Rather, teachers of general national and world histories in schools and colleges have assembled some sort of whole story from all the specialist bits, perforce taking on trust what the specialist cadres have concluded. The interpretations and conclusions of the primary specialists are filtered and modified by second-level scholars and teachers. So what society as a whole learns about history as a whole is a sort of third-hand impression of what the specialists have concluded.

History is a hugely demanding pursuit. Its mission is so vast that historians have increasingly had to specialize. There are specialist historians of economics, of   mathematics, and of other aspects of human cultures; and there are historians who specialize in particular eras in particular places, say Victorian Britain. Written material still extant is an important resource, of course, but it cannot be taken literally, it has to be evaluated for the author’s identity, and clues as to bias and ignorance. Artefacts provide clues, and various techniques from chemistry and physics help to discover dates or to test putative dates. What further makes doing history so demanding is the need to capture the spirit of a different time and place, an holistic sense of it; on top of which the historian needs a deep, authentic understanding of the particular aspect of society under scrutiny. So doing economic history, for example, calls not only for a good sense of general political history, it requires also a good understanding of the whole subject of economics itself in its various stages of development.

The history of science is a sorely neglected specialty within history. There are History Departments in colleges and universities without a specialist in the history of science — which entails also that many of the people who — at both school and college levels — teach general history or political or social or economic history, or the history of particular eras or places, have never themselves learned much about the history of science, not even as to how it impinges on their own specialty. One reason for the incongruous place — or lack of a place — for the history of science with respect to the discipline of history as a whole is the need for historians to command an authentic understanding of the particular aspect of history that is their special concern. Few if any people whose career ambition was to become historians have the needed familiarity with any science; so a considerable proportion of historians of science are people whose careers began in a science and who later turned to history.

Most of the academic research in the history of science has been carried on in separate Departments of History of Science, or Departments of History and Philosophy of Science, or Departments of History and Sociology of Science, or in the relatively new (founded within the last half a century) Departments of Science & Technology Studies (STS).

Before there were historian specialists in the history of science, some historical aspects were typically mentioned within courses in the sciences. Physicists might hear bits about Galileo, Newton, Einstein. Chemists would be introduced to thought-bites about alchemy, Priestley and oxygen, Haber and nitrogen fixation, atomic theory and the Greeks. Such anecdotes were what filtered into general knowledge about the history of science; and the resulting impressions are grossly misleading. Within science courses, the chief interest is in the contemporary state of known facts and established theories, and historical aspects are mentioned only in so far as they illustrate progress toward ever better understanding, yielding an overall sense that science has been unswervingly progressive and increasingly trustworthy. In other words, science courses judge the past in terms of what the present knows, an approach that the discipline of history recognizes as unwarranted, since the purpose of history is to understand earlier periods fully, to know about the people and events in their own terms, under their own values.

*                   *                   *                  *                    *                   *

How to explain that science, unlike other human ventures, has managed to get better all the time? It must be that there is some “scientific method” that ensures faithful adherence to the realities of Nature. Hence the formulaic “scientific method” taught in schools, and in college courses in the behavioral and social sciences (though not in the natural sciences).

Specialist historians of science, and philosophers and sociologists of science and scholars of Science & Technology Studies all know that science is not done by any such formulaic scientific method, and that the development of modern science owes as much to the precursors and ground-preparers as to such individual geniuses as Newton, Galileo, etc. — Newton, by the way, being so fully aware of that as to have used the modest “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” mentioned in my previous post (Dangerous knowledge).

*                     *                   *                   *                   *                   *

Modern science cannot be understood, cannot be appreciated without an authentic sense of the actual history of science. Unfortunately, for the reasons outlined above, contemporary culture is pervaded by partly ignorance and partly wrong knowledge of the history of science. In elementary schools and in high schools, and in college textbooks in the social sciences, students are mis-taught that science is characterized, defined, by use of “the scientific method”. That is simply not so: see Chapter 2 in Science Is Not What You Think: How It Has Changed, Why We Can’t Trust It, How It Can Be Fixed (McFarland 2017)  and sources cited there. The so-called the scientific method is an invention of philosophical speculation by would-be interpreters of the successes of science; working scientists never subscribed to this fallacy, see for instance Reflections of a Physicist (P. W. Bridgman, Philosophical Library, 1955), or in 1992 the physicist David Goodstein, “I would strongly recommend this book to anyone who hasn’t yet heard that the scientific method is a myth. Apparently there are still lots of those folks around” (“this book” being my Scientific Literacy and Myth of the Scientific Method).

The widespread misconception about the scientific method is compounded by the misconception that the progress of science has been owing to individual acts of genius by the people whose names are common currency — Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, etc. — whereas in reality those unquestionably outstanding individuals were not creating out of the blue but rather placing keystones, putting final touches, synthesizing; see for instance Tony Rothman’s Everything’s Relative: And Other Fables from Science and Technology (Wiley, 2003). The same insight is expressed in Stigler’s Law, that discoveries are typically named after the last person who discovered them, not the first (S. M. Stigler, “Stigler’s Law of Eponymy”, Transactions of the N.Y. Academy of Science, II, 39 [1980] 147–58).

That misconception about science progressing by lauded leaps by applauded geniuses is highly damaging since it hides the crucially important lesson that the acts of genius that we praise in hindsight were vigorously, often even viciously resisted by their contemporaries, their contemporary scientific establishment and scientific consensus; see “Resistance by scientists to scientific discovery” (Bernard Barber, Science, 134 [1961] 596–602); “Prematurity and uniqueness in scientific discovery” (Gunther Stent, Scientific American, December 1972, 84–93); Prematurity in Scientific Discovery: On Resistance and Neglect (Ernest B. Hook (ed)., University of California Press, 2002).

What is perhaps most needed nowadays, as the authority of science is invoked in so many aspects of everyday affairs and official policies, is clarity that any contemporary scientific consensus is inherently and inevitably fallible; and that the scientific establishment will nevertheless defend it zealously, often unscrupulously, even when it is demonstrably wrong.


Recommended reading: The historiography of the history of science, its relation to general history, and related issues, as well as synopses of such special topics as evolution or relativity, are treated authoritatively in Companion to the History of Modern Science (eds.: Cantor, Christie, Hodge, Olby; Routledge, 1996) [not to be confused with the encyclopedia titled Oxford Companion to the History of Modern Science, ed. Heilbron, Oxford University Press, 2003).

Posted in consensus, media flaws, resistance to discovery, science is not truth, scientific culture, scientific literacy, scientism, scientists are human, the scientific method, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Dangerous knowledge

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/01/24

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble.
It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.

That’s very true.

In a mild way, the quote also illustrates itself since it is so often attributed wrongly; perhaps most often to Mark Twain but also to other humorists — Will Rogers, Artemus Ward, Kin Hubbard — as well as to inventor Charles Kettering, pianist Eubie Blake, baseball player Yogi Berra, and more (“Bloopers: Quote didn’t really originate with Will Rogers”).

Such mis-attributions of insightful sayings are perhaps the rule rather than any exception; sociologist Robert Merton even wrote a whole book (On the Shoulders of Giants, Free Press 1965 & several later editions) about mis-attributions over many centuries of the modest acknowledgment that “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”.

No great harm comes from mis-attributing words of wisdom. Great harm is being done nowadays, however, by accepting much widely believed and supposedly scientific medical knowledge; for example about hypertension, cholesterol, prescription drugs, and more (see works listed in What’s Wrong with Present-Day Medicine).

The trouble is that “science” was so spectacularly successful in elucidating so much about the natural world and contributing to so many useful technologies that it has come to be regarded as virtually infallible.

Historians and other specialist observers of scientific activity — philosophers, sociologists, political scientists, various others — of course know that science, no less than all other human activities, is inherently and unavoidably fallible.

Until the middle of the 20th century, science was pretty much an academic vocation not venturing very much outside the ivory towers. Consequently and fortunately, the innumerable things on which science went wrong in past decades and centuries did no significant damage to society as a whole; the errors mattered only within science and were corrected as time went by. Nowadays, however, science has come to pervade much of everyday life through its influences on industry, medicine, and official policies on much of what governments are concerned with: agriculture, public health, environmental matters, technologies of transport and of warfare, and so on. Official regulations deal with what is permitted to be in water and in the air and in innumerable man-made products; propellants in spray cans and refrigerants in cooling machinery have been banned, globally, because science (primarily chemists) persuaded the world that those substances were reaching the upper atmosphere and destroying the natural “layer” of ozone that absorbs some of the ultraviolet radiation from the sun, thereby protecting us from damage to eyes and skin. For the last three decades, science (primarily physicists) has convinced the world that human generation of carbon dioxide is warming the planet and causing irreversible climate change.

So when science goes wrong nowadays, that can do untold harm to national economies, and to whole populations of people if the matter has to do with health.

Yet science remains as fallible as it ever was, because it continues to be done by human beings. The popular illusion that science is objective and safeguarded from error by the scientific method is simply that, an illusion: the scientific method describes how science perhaps ought to be done, but how it is done depends on the human beings doing it, none of whom never make mistakes.

When I wrote that “science persuaded the world” or “convinced the world”, of course it was not science that did that, because science cannot speak for itself. Rather, the apparent “scientific consensus” at any given time is generally taken a priori as “what science says”. But it is rare that any scientific consensus represents what all pertinent experts think; and consensus is appealed to only when there is controversy, as Michael Crichton pointed out so cogently: “the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels[,] … invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough. Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody says the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to anyone to speak that way”.

Yet the scientific consensus represents contemporary views incorporated in textbooks and disseminated by science writers and the mass media. Attempting to argue publicly against it on any particular topic encounters the pervasive acceptance of the scientific consensus as reliably trustworthy. What reason could there be to question “what science says”? There seems no incentive for anyone to undertake the formidable task of seeking out and evaluating the actual evidence for oneself.

Here is where real damage follows from what everyone knows that just happens not to be so. It is not so that a scientific consensus is the same as “what science says”, in other words what the available evidence is, let alone what it implies. On any number of issues, there are scientific experts who recognize flaws in the consensus and dissent from it. That dissent is not usually mentioned by the popular media, however; and if it should be mentioned then it is typically described as misguided, mistaken, “denialism”.

Examples are legion. Strong evidence and expert voices dissent from the scientific consensus on many matters that the popular media regard as settled: that the universe began with a Big Bang about 13 billion years ago; that anti-depressant drugs work specifically and selectively against depression; that human beings (the “Clovis” people) first settled the Americas about 13,000 years ago by crossing the Bering Strait; that the dinosaurs were brought to an end by the impact of a giant asteroid; that claims of nuclear fusion at ordinary temperatures (“cold fusion”) have been decisively disproved; that Alzheimer’s disease is caused by the build-up of plaques of amyloid protein; and more. Details are offered in my book, Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth (McFarland, 2012). That book also documents the widespread informed dissent from the views that human-generated carbon dioxide is the prime cause of global warming and climate change, and that HIV is not the cause of AIDS (for which see the compendium of evidence and sources at The Case against HIV).

The popular knowledge that just isn’t so is, directly, that it is safe to accept as true for all practical purposes what the scientific consensus happens to be. That mistaken knowledge can be traced, however, to knowledge that isn’t so about the history of science, for that history is a very long story of the scientific consensus being wrong and later modified or replaced, quite often more than once.

Further posts will talk about why the real history of science is so little known.


Posted in consensus, denialism, global warming, media flaws, medical practices, prescription drugs, science is not truth, scientific literacy, scientism, scientists are human, the scientific method, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: , | 4 Comments »

What science says about global warming and climate change

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2017/07/06

There is strong evidence that global temperatures are not significantly dependent on the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (Climate-change facts: Temperature is not determined by carbon dioxide).

That’s what science — the evidence, the facts — says.

Nevertheless, the overwhelmingly widespread belief among public and governments is the opposite, believing carbon dioxide to be the single most important determinant of global temperature and climate.

How could such a disparity between fact and public belief come about?

President Eisenhower foresaw the possibility half a century ago:
“in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite” (Farewell speech, 17 January 1961).

Such influence of a scientific-technological elite is possible because “science” has become believed in superstitiously: on authority, not because it offers sound evidence and logic (Superstitious belief in science). A number of popular misunderstandings about science conspire to maintain this state of affairs, notably a failure to appreciate how drastically different scientific activities became following World War II, different from earlier times; science nowadays is not self-correcting and it does not follow the so-called scientific method. A full discussion of those points is in my just-published Science Is Not What You Think — How it has changed, Why we can’t trust it, How it can be fixed.

The “fix” refers to the possible establishment of a Science Court to adjudicate expert differences over technical issues. That was first suggested more than half a century ago when the experts were at loggerheads and arguing publicly over whether power could be generated safely using nuclear reactors.
More recently, some legal scholars have pointed out that such an institution could help the legal system to cope with cases where technical issues play an important role.
Beyond that, I suggest that a Science Court is needed to force the prevailing “scientific consensus” to respond substantively to critiques like those made by the many critics of human-caused global warming and climate change.

Posted in consensus, global warming, politics and science, science is not truth, science policy, scientific literacy, scientism | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Superstitious belief in science

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2017/05/16

Most people have a very misled, unrealistic view of “science”. A very damaging consequence is that scientific claims are given automatic respect even when that is unwarranted — as it always is with new claims, say about global warming. Dramatic changes in how science is done, especially since mid-20th century, make it less trustworthy than earlier.

In 1987, historian John Burnham published How Superstition Won and Science Lost, arguing that modern science had not vanquished popular superstition by inculcating scientific, evidence-based thinking; rather, science had itself become on worldly matters the accepted authority whose pronouncements are believed without question, in other words superstitiously, by society at large.

Burnham argued through detailed analysis of how science is popularized, and especially how that has changed over the decades. Some 30 years later, Burnham’s insight is perhaps even more important. Over those years, certain changes in scientific activity have also become evident that support Burnham’s conclusion from different directions: science has grown so much, and has become so specialized and bureaucratic and dependent on outside patronage, that it has lost any ability to self-correct. As with religion in medieval times, official pronouncements about science are usually accepted without further ado, and minority voices of dissent are dismissed and denigrated.

A full discussion with source references, far too long for a blog post, is available here.

Posted in conflicts of interest, consensus, denialism, politics and science, science is not truth, scientific culture, scientific literacy, scientism, scientists are human, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

What is scientific literacy good for?

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2016/01/03

The way scientific literacy is defined and measured makes no sense — see Scientific Literacy and Myth of the Scientific Method (1992/1994 and still in print, which surely says something about the validity of its arguments).
Scientific literacy is measured by what people know about things like atoms and about “the scientific method”, in effect by how well they could function within science; whereas scientific literacy should surely mean what non-scientists need to know about the role of science in society: when to believe the experts and when not to. About medicine, by analogy, we don’t need to know how drugs work, say, we just need to know where to find data about how long they have been in use and what their side effects are and whether there’s already a law suit against the manufacturer that is still actively advertising it (quite a common circumstance; see anticoagulants Pradaxa and Xarelto and anti-diabetes Invokana at the moment (2015-16).

It turns out that current measurements of scientific literacy yield results that should be highly embarrassing to the expert gurus on this topic.

For example, people who score high on “scientific literacy” do poorly on distinguishing pseudo-science from science — Chris Impey, Sanlyn Buxner, Jessie Antonellis, Elizabeth Johnson, & Courtney King, “A twenty-year survey of science literacy among college undergraduates”, Journal of College Science Teaching, 40 (#4, 2011) 31-7.

When it comes to human-caused climate change, perhaps the measures of “scientific literacy” are pretty meaningful after all, because the most scientifically literate according to these tests are least likely to believe that human generation of carbon dioxide is responsible for climate change:
“Climate skepticism not rooted in science illiteracy: Cultural values, not knowledge, shape global warming views, a study finds” (Janet Raloff, 29 May 2012)

“New study: Numerical and Science Literacy cause Climate Change Skepticism” (1 June 2012)”

“Study: Climate skeptics and proponents score highest on climate science literacy…but are the most polarized” (Anthony Watts, 23 February 2015)

As I had pointed out in the first entry on this blog (A politically liberal global-warming skeptic?), most people’s views about human-caused climate change are determined by their political affiliation and not by their understanding of science or familiarity with the evidence.


Posted in global warming, media flaws, politics and science, scientific literacy | Tagged: | 6 Comments »

Meaningless research

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2014/07/17

Medicine and doctors are often symbolized by reference to Greek mythology:


Nowadays, though, much of so-called medical research would be better represented by p-values rampant over a field of nonsensical “associations”.

I had recently drawn attention (Statistics literacy) to a fine article about the lack of understanding of statistics that pervades the medical scene (Do doctors understand test results?). It explains how the risk of false-positive tests should be — but is not — understood by doctors and communicated to patients; and how relative risks are cited instead of absolute risks — a confusion that Big Pharma does much to promulgate because it helps to sell pills.
Another set of misunderstandings underlies much of the “research” that is picked up by the media as significant news: data mining coupled with the virtually universal mistake of taking correlations as indicating causation. A recent case in point concerns Alzheimer’s Disease (AD):

”Sleep disorders may raise risk of Alzheimer’s, new research shows
Sleep disturbances such as apnea may increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, while moderate exercise in middle age and mentally stimulating games, such as crossword puzzles, may prevent the onset of the dementia-causing disease, according to new research to be presented Monday”.

Note that “may increase” and “may prevent” both imply causation, that sleep disorders may actually cause AD while physical and mental exercise may bring about (cause) protection. But the evidence is only that there is some sort of correlation; and it’s vitally important to keep in mind that correlation doesn’t mean an association every time, it means only that two things are found together apparently more often than one might expect purely as a result of chance.

Note too that “may” is an often-used weasel word to insinuate something while guarding against being held accountable for actually asserting it; e.g., big campaign contributions may influence politicians; conflicts of interest may influence researchers; and so on.

Note as well “to be presented”, which illustrates publicity-seeking by researchers and the complicity of the media in that, as they ignore the fact that at this moment the matter is nothing more than hearsay: science is supposed to published and evaluated before being taken at all seriously.

As to “purely as a result of chance”, everyone should understand, but few do, that the almost universally used method of calculating these probabilities as “p-values” is itself quite misleading; see “Statistics can lie, but Jack Good never did — a personal essay in tribute to I J Good, 1916-2009”.
The take-away lesson is that what researchers claim as “statistically significant” is often not at all significant, indeed it may be entirely meaningless; yet it will still be picked up by the media and ballyhooed as the latest breakthrough.

Here’s how researchers in medically related fields (and elsewhere too, of course) can generate publications effortlessly and prolifically while disseminating misleading notions:
Select a topic — AD, say.
Collect a data set of people who have that condition, the data including every conceivable characteristic: age (in several categories such as young, early middle age, middle age, late middle age, young-old, fairly old, quite old); exercise habits (light, moderate, heavy); alcohol consumption (light, moderate, heavy); diet (many variables — fat, meat, dairy, vegan, gluten-free, etc.); other medical conditions and history (many indeed); race and ethnicity; any others you can think of (urban or rural, say; employment history and type of employment — veteran; blue or white collar; innumerable possibilities); tests by MRI, complete blood analysis, etc.
Feed all the data into a computer, and set it to find correlations.

Purely by chance, at least 1 of every 20 possible pairings will produce a “p ≤ 0.5 statistically significant” result. Since p ≤ 0.5, this is publishable, especially since the written report fails to emphasize that this resulted from a random sweep through 20 times as many pairings.

Naturally such results are quite likely to make little sense, since they are random by-chance associations. For example:
“[M]oderate physical exercise in middle age could decrease the risk that their cognitive deficits progress to dementia. . . .
Oddly, however, the association did not hold for people who engaged in light or vigorous exercise in middle age or for any level of physical activity later in life.
On a similarly counterintuitive note, another study suggested that high blood pressure among people at least 90 years old — “the oldest old” — may protect against cognitive impairment. . . . although hypertension is believed to increase the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia for middle-aged people, the risk may shift with time” [emphases added].

The reason these results seem so incongruous and counterintuitive is, of course, that they were never genuine results at all, just “associations” that occurred when looking for correlations among a whole host of possibilities.

The notion that moderate exercise but not light or heavy exercise might actually be a significant cause of something like Alzheimer’s is not entirely beyond the realm of possibility, I suppose. Still, it seems sufficiently farfetched that I would hesitate — or be ashamed — even to mention the possibility until it had been reproduced in quite a few studies.
On the other hand I’m perfectly willing to see an association between high blood pressure and good cognition in the elderly, since good cognition depends on plentiful oxygen which depends on a good blood flow; and since arteries become less flexible with age, more pressure is needed to achieve that.
On a further hand, though, the notion that high blood pressure increases the risk of dementia in middle age strikes me as sufficiently absurd as to be dismissed pending the strongest most direct possible evidence; it “is believed” by whom?

Common sense cries out to be applied whenever a p ≤ 0.5 association is touted as meaning something. Try it out on the suggestion that “A daily high dose of Vitamin E may slow early Alzheimer’s disease”. Think about the caveats in that piece, and the trivial magnitude of the reported possible effect.

That respected mass media feature such garbage may well be quite harmful. I would expect some number of people will start taking vitamin E supplements immediately, whether or not there are any indications that they are not getting enough of it already. Not to speak of all the >90-year-olds desperately trying to raise their blood pressure and puzzled about how to decide how much exercise at their age is “moderate” but not “light” or “heavy”; and all the 70-to-90-year-olds wondering at what age high blood pressure stops causing Alzheimer’s and starts protecting against it.


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Statistics literacy

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2014/07/13

Doctors are on average ignorant about statistics that are directly relevant to their practice and their advising of patients and their ability to understand the tricks played by drug companies and their representatives. A comment to my HIV/AIDS blog mentioned an excellent article, “Do doctors understand test results?”,  that everyone should read and re-read and learn from, because it is not only doctors who are woefully ignorant about statistics.

Everyone would benefit from understanding the difference between relative risk and absolute risk, and between survival rate and mortality,  for example.

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TED and TEDx reinvent the wheel — and get it all wrong (or, Ignorant punditry about science and pseudo-science)

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2014/05/30

For something like a century, scientists, philosophers of science, and many other scholars have grappled with this question: What criteria, principles, rules, or behavior characterize science by contrast to all other things? What exactly is “not-science”, in other words? What exactly is “pseudo-science”?

The upshot of these many decades of suggestions and discussions and argumentation among the most well-informed specialists is that


The classic summation of failed attempts is Larry Laudan’s “The demise of the demarcation problem” [1]. Even those who don’t agree that the issue is at a dead end [2] attempt to find a practical distinction by means of “family resemblances” or “fuzzy logic”, thereby acknowledging that the distinction can only be approximate, probabilistic, never a definitive one: no hard-and-fast, unequivocally valid set of criteria is able to identify an instance of “pseudo-science” without delving into the particularities of methods, evidence, and inference specific to that instance. Of course you can declare something wrong if you can show the methods to be inappropriate or incompetent, or that the claimed evidence is fudged or faulty or incomplete, or inferences are drawn against logic. But you don’t need a general, universal definition of “pseudo-science” to do that.

By hindsight, it even seems obvious that no universal definition of “science” could be found. It would have to be based on what everyone agrees constitutes science: biology, chemistry, geology, physics, etc. — not to speak of the behavioral and social sciences. Inferring from those real-world enterprises the “essence” of science means educing or inducing universal characteristics from empirical observations. But philosophy has long understood that induction from empirical observation or experience can never be guaranteed to yield universally applicable generalizations. (The classic illustration is that empirical observation yielded the principle that all swans are white, which was confounded upon the discovery of black swans in Western Australia.)

Moreover, a universally applicable definition of science would not change over time, whereas the activities that everyone calls “science” have changed drastically over time [3]. Most pertinent: some matters once accepted as proper science later became generally regarded as not-science or even pseudo-science, and some matters once pooh-poohed as pseudo-science later became accepted as quite proper mainstream science, for example, electromagnetic phenomena in biology [4].

The term “pseudo-science” can only mean something that pretends to be science but isn’t; and since there is no valid definition of “science”, there is equally no valid definition of “pseudo-science” by which it could be recognized.

Nevertheless, it remains quite common in public discourse that practicing scientists as well as professional and amateur pundits use the epithet “pseudo-science” to malign specific claims (say, the existence of Loch Ness Monsters or of Bigfeet) or even whole fields of activity (parapsychology, “cold fusion”, cryptozoology, ufology, etc. etc.)
The basis for such maligning and pooh-poohing is that the topic has been found wanting by the prevailing consensus in mainstream science. But that basis is fatally flawed: the history of science tells of one after another mainstream consensus being itself found wanting and replaced, often by something that the mainstream had earlier resisted vigorously or ignored studiously [5-8].

The state of the intellectual art about this has been quite plain for decades. But this intellectual art is the domain of history of science, philosophy of science, sociology of science, and the comparatively young interdisciplinary umbrella of STS (Science & Technology Studies), of which most scientists, journalists, and pundits generally are woefully ignorant; an ignorance that extends perforce to the public media generally, and to Internet punditry, very much including Wikipedia and its ilk, to an extent that would be highly embarrassing if those people and groups knew even a smidgeon of what they ought to before blathering about “pseudo-science” or “science”.

There is so much of this ignorant blathering that I usually ignore it, but that blissful state was interrupted when I became aware of a recent instance from the prominent and prestigious TED  and its franchised TEDx ventures, which bill themselves as promoters of high-quality seminars — “Ideas worth spreading . . . the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and, ultimately, the world”.

What TED and TEDx spread about science and pseudo-science is ignorant rubbish (A letter to the TEDx community on TEDx and bad science). As with other charlatans, they know how to cover their tracks: They acknowledge reality correctly in sweeping general statements and then try unobtrusively to get around it:
“What is bad science/pseudoscience? There is no bright and shining line between pseudoscience and real science”.
RIGHT. But that valid statement is followed immediately with tiptoeing away from validity:

“Needless to say, this makes it all terribly hard to detect and define”.
NO: it makes it IMPOSSIBLE to detect as a genre or class or supposed exemplar of a genre or class. The only way to evaluate any counter-mainstream claim is to dig into the specific particularities, and then to concede that any contemporaneous judgment of plausibility or potential validity can only be probabilistic. That’s the clear lesson of centuries of history of science and a century or so of scholarly preoccupation with this issue [4].

The TED ignoramuses then proceed to offer “guidelines” for what constitutes “good science”. All of those “guidelines” are plainly misguided, reflecting a childishly naïve, uninformed view of science:

“It makes claims that can be tested and verified”
Every scholarly source since Popper’s proposal of “falsifiability” has been clear about the impossibility of verification — there can never be a guarantee against the future appearance of a “black swan”.

“It has been published in a peer reviewed journal (but beware… there are some dodgy journals out there that seem credible, but aren’t.)”
As Ziman pointed out [9], something like 90% of the primary research literature is wrong to some degree (in physics, but that’s the epitome of science and it may well be worse in other fields)

“It is based on theories that are discussed and argued for by many experts in the field”
History teaches that all the experts can be wrong — and are wrong in the longest run.

“It is backed up by experiments that have generated enough data to convince other experts of its legitimacy”
That the experts agree is no reason to believe them, in part because in the long run they’re usually wrong [5-8]. Here’s a nice way of putting it [10]:
“Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you’re being had. . . .
Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough.
Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody says the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to anyone to speak that way”.

“Its proponents are secure enough to accept areas of doubt and need for further investigation”
Few mainstream scientists exhibit that quality, as anyone familiar with actual scientists or with the history of science or the sociology of science knows

“It does not fly in the face of the broad existing body of scientific knowledge”
The most significant advances are those that do contradict contemporary views; they spark scientific revolutions and become praised only by hindsight [5-8]

“The proposed speaker works for a university and/or has a PhD or other bona fide high level scientific qualification”
Any number of incompetents and kooks have such qualifications, as even a brief participation in a research community makes evident.
It is an endless source of astonishment to me that totally uninformed, ignorant people feel so free to hold forth with arrogant assurance, as TED does on the issue of science and pseudo-science. Don’t the TEDdies and their ilk ever stop to wonder where their knowledge comes from? “Knowledge” that is actually abysmal ignorance?


[1] Pp.111-27 in Physics, Philosophy and Psychoanalysis, ed. R. S. Cohen & L. Laudan, Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1983
[2] For example, Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem, ed. M. Pigliucci & M. Boudry, University of Chicago Press, 2013
[3] Henry H. Bauer, Three Stages of Modern Science, Journal of Scientific Exploration, 27 [2013] 505-13; From dawn to decadence: The three ages of modern science
[4] Henry H. Bauer, Science or Pseudoscience: Magnetic Healing, Psychic Phenomena, and Other Heterodoxies, University of Illinois Press, 2001
[5] Bernard Barber, Resistance by scientists to scientific discovery,  Science, 134 (1961) 596-602
[6] Ernest B. Hook (ed)., Prematurity in Scientific Discovery: On Resistance and Neglect, University of California Press, 2002
[7] Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, 1970
[8] Gunther Stent, “Prematurity and uniqueness in scientific discovery”, Scientific American, December 1972, 84-93
[9] John Ziman, p. 40 in Reliable Knowledge: An Exploration of the Grounds for Belief in Science, Cambridge University Press, 1978
[10] Michael Crichton, “Aliens Cause Global Warming”, Caltech Michelin Lecture, 17 January 2003

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60 MINUTES on aging — correlations or causes?

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2014/05/06

The TV program 60 Minutes on 4 May 2014 reported on studies of people older than 90, for clues to what allowed them to live so long. It was clear that neither the reporters nor the doctors understand the difference between correlations and causes.

Dementia was a prime concern, Alzheimer’s in particular. The mainstream dogma was taken for granted, that Alzheimer’s is defined and caused by amyloid plaques and tangles in the brain.
It turns out, however, that behavioral dementia does not correlate with either of those: people showing no behavioral signs of Alzheimer’s might have quite a lot of tangles and plaques, while people with behavioral dementia might have little or none of either or both.
One doctor did at one point say that one possibility might be that the tangles were not causes of dementia, but no one questioned that amyloid defined Alzheimer’s despite the rather clear evidence that they are not correlated.
Lack of correlation is a good sign of lack of causation. If plaques and tangles cause Alzheimer’s dementia, then they should be present in all cases of AD. They are not. Yet the belief persists despite disproof.

At the same time, the misguided view that correlation indicates causation pervaded the program. It was said that maintaining weight or even gaining a bit made for — is a cause of, in other words — longevity; that vitamin supplements do not; that moderate alcohol and coffee intakes make for longevity, as does exercise and social activity.
BUT: Assume just for the sake of argument that healthy longevity is determined solely by genetics. Then exactly the same correlations would be observed. People with good genes would live longer, socialize more, exercise more, eat and drink with fewer restrictions . . . .
So those correlations in themselves say absolutely nothing about what might have actually caused the long healthy lives of the studied people.
Correlations never prove causation.

Some autopsies revealed that dementia and death were sometimes associated with signs of numerous mini-strokes that might have been so slight as to be not even noticed. The prevalence of such strokes was less in people with higher blood pressure, the opposite of expectation based on current medical dogma.
The lack of correlation between high blood pressure and stroke indicates, of course, that high blood pressure may not be a significant cause of stroke, but this conclusion was not drawn.

The chief doctor in the program was quick to add that high blood pressure is still a risk factor for younger people, showing ignorance of actual data and brainwashing by contemporary medical dogma and shibboleths. It’s been known for a century that blood pressure increases with age — normally, naturally. That people over 90 have “high” pressure should not have been a surprise, nor that they had fewer strokes: IF one lives to a significantly old age, it means that one has not had too many strokes, and living that long means that one’s blood pressure will naturally, normally, be what is nowadays called, out of ignorance, “high”.

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