Dec 31 2009

End of a Decade

Today is the last day of the first decade of the 21st century and third millenium. Please don’t get pedantic on me about there not being a year zero and therefore the decades begin with years ending in 1 and not 0. I know the whole story – I choose to count my decades (like most people) from 0-9. The 70s does not include 1980.

It does not seem like we have yet reached a consensus on what to call this past decade – the “aughts”, the “naughties” or what. In any case I would like to muse about science and skepticism over the last 10 years as I did about 2009 earlier this week.

Rather than consider single news items, since we are covering an entire decade I want to write about those big issues that skeptics have dealt with over the last 10 years, and sum up how I think it went. My goal is to offend as many people as possible (not really, but I often feel as if it might as well be).

9/11 Truthers

This was the decade of the 9/11 truth movement – of course because 9/11 happened in 2001. But 9/11 truth can also stand in for any big evil government conspiracy. The first half of the decade the truthers made their biggest impact, and polls at the time (polls are tricky, but taken at face value) indicate that as many as a third of Americans thought the Bush administration had something to do with 9/11.

Whether this meant it was an inside job, or they were just covering up their own incompetence is where interpretation gets tricky. But either way – many people saw Loose Change and thought that something fishy was going on.

But the skeptical movement, and some notable science outlets, like Popular Mechanics and NIST, fought back hard. We pointed out all the flaws in the arguments of the truthers – anomaly hunting for example, and countered them fact by fact. Eventually the truther movement was fairly marginalized and the general perception is that they are a bunch of conspiracy-mongering nutcases.

This is definitively a big win for the skeptical movement over the aughts. But there are still truthers (as the comment section of this post is likely to evidence). Now they seem largely to stick to the straw man that the skeptics are saying we should uncritically believe everything the government tells us about everything.

It was never about that. Be skeptical of the government all you want. But that does not mean you can weave elaborate grand conspiracy theories out of inuendo and pseudoscience.

ID/Creationism

I also put the ID/creationist crowd (or CDesign Proponentsists) in the loser column for the last decade. They lost major legal battles, like Dover. They have failed to gain any legal ground, despite desperate flailing for a strategy since their big loss at Dover. They have tried hard – going for the academic freedom gambit, but that does not seem to have any real traction.

I think the bottom line is that the scientific community simply has their number. They know how to deal with creationists now. Now creationists are just target practice for budding skeptics.

Expelled was also a big fail. It may have fired up the absolute core of the religious right, but it failed to gain any objectives for ID. It made an absolute fool of Ben Stein, and exposed the dirty tactics of ID proponents. It was good fodder to skeptics, and little more.

We have to keep an eyes on these guys – but their movement is intellectually bankrupt, and they are getting more and more desperate. I think we can easily keep them on a losing trajectory.

Alternative Medicine

This is a tough one. From one perspective the CAM movement has continued to gain ground over the last decade – not so much in usage (the numbers are actually quite flat) but in mainstreaming their propaganda. They have convinced much of the public that natural is magically better. They have successfully smeared Big Pharma and mainstream medicine. They have continued their infiltration of academia and regulation.

However, I also think they are coasting on the successes of the last decade. In the last ten years, if anything, I see more and more of a pushback against outlandish claims and the wild-west regulation that CAM advocates have been pushing for. The mainstrem media has caught on to the fact (unheard of in the 1990s) that CAM is often a SCAM.

We are starting to see more and more books like Trick or Treatment. And the British Chiropractic Associate lawsuit against Simon Singh has united the skeptical movement and large portions of the scientific community against chiropractic. That was a big fail for the BCA (even though the suit is still ongoing) and if anything just showed them to be thugs who are trying to hide their dirty little secret that there is little to no evidence for many of their claims.

Maybe the tide is turning – but this is the time to increase our efforts to protect the integrity of science in medicine. Those who are attacking science as the basis of the standard of care in medicine (for whatever motivation) are going to fight back hard. And they have established a lot of groundwork. We still have our work cut out for us, and the outcome is far from determined.

Anti-Vaccinationists

Unfortunately, the anti-vaxers have clearly had a good decade. They emerged from a fringe group to the mainstream. This can be measured by declining vaccination rates, pockets of very low vaccination, and the resurgence of previously contained vaccine-preventable diseases.

They have garnered some significant celebrity support, Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carey among them. They have successfully branded themselves as vaccine experts (which is disturbing) and have hijacked a significant portion of the autism community.

They have successfully marketed several effective slogans, like “green our vaccines”, “vaccine choice”, and “too many too soon.”

And they are pushing forward with increasing vigor and resources. It does not seem that they have yet passed their peak.

But also opposition to the anti-vaxers (the anti-anti-vax movement) is gaining steam. Ironically, over the last decade the science has been mostly against the anti-vaxers. Study after study have supported vaccine safety and soundly refuted the vaccine-autism hypothesis.

The mainstream media seems to be on our side in this one. The public is starting to realize that these anti-vaxers are dangerous and misguided. But we are right in the midst of this struggle – again a time when we have to push forward with increasing effort.

UFOlogy

This past decade the UFO movement has largely flown under the radar. In the last 50 years or so belief in UFOs has waxed and waned, and the aughts were a waning decade.

I think our digital age has something to do with it. Cameras are now ubiquitous, and yet all we get are crappy photos or videos – the smoking gun of alien spacecraft has not emerged. Also, the news cycle is so short now that when people report seeing lights in the sky, the story is still in everyone’s memory when the next day it is revealed that they were floating lanterns.

UFOs are just too quickly and easily debunked. There was also no new alien phenomenon to drive the movement – alien abductions, alien implants, crashed saucers, and big government coverups were all additions of previous decades. The past decade added nothing to the mythology – nothing to spur interest.

Perhaps we are seeing a long term waning of UFOlogy, but think it is more likely that there will be flaps in the future.

The Paranormal

Overall this was a lame decade for the paranormal. The one big winner was ghost-hunting, due entirely to the reality TV craze. Ghost hunters found their home in cheap reality TV mind candy for the masses.

But it can’t last long. Have you ever seen one of those shows? Nothing happens – they are as boring as watching snails mate. Eventually even the true-believer must be stuck with the sense that nothing is happening in these shows.You can only hunt ghosts without actually finding one for so long before people lose interest.

Other paranormal phenomena coasted over the last decade – no breakthroughs, no new sensations, all just the same old stuff. Of course there is always a new generation coming up, and the old will seem new again one day.

Conclusion

Looking back at these big topics a pattern emerges. These anti-scientific movements seem to gain a foothold – either leveraging a hot issue, a celebrity backer, or a dramatic event. Or they simply get funding and fine tune their rhetoric. They make gains for a while, but eventually their rhetoric runs out of steam. It’s hard to push a wrong idea indefinitely.

Also, with their success comes the backlash. The skeptical community is usually on the forefront of these issues (it’s what we do) but the mainstream media and the scientific community eventually get on board. And then the serious push back eventually marginalizes the pseudoscience.

They never go away entirely. We can look at past issues, like facilitated communication, as examples. The pattern seems to be the same.

The amount of time it takes can vary wildly, however, as is the damage they do in the short term. And once marginalized, such movements wait in the wings for their time to come around again.

The price of science seems to be eternal vigilance.

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