Dec 08 2016

Scientists – Welcome to the Skeptical Movement

sterling-law-buildingDonald Trump has just named Oklahoma attorney general, Scott Pruitt, to head the EPA. Pruitt is a known denier of the science of anthropogenic global warming, and in fact has spent much of his time as attorney general suing the EPA over the issue. The conspiracy theorists are now running the show.

This is just the latest in what has been an eye-opening year, which has seen “post-truth” named as word of the year, and has also seen a surge in the notion of “fake news”.

In a recent editorial published in Nature, scientist Phil Williamson argues that:

Challenging falsehoods and misrepresentation may not seem to have any immediate effect, but someone, somewhere, will hear or read our response. The target is not the peddler of nonsense, but those readers who have an open mind on scientific problems. A lie may be able to travel around the world before the truth has its shoes on, but an unchallenged untruth will never stop.

He recounts that his awakening occurred after he had a run-in with Brietbart news over their gross misrepresentation of the science of global warming and ocean acidification. Now he is on a crusade to fight back against pseudoscience online.

For greatest effect, I suggest that we harness the collective power and reach of the Internet to improve its quality. The global scientific community could learn from websites such as travel-review site TripAdvisor, Rotten Tomatoes (which summarizes film and play reviews) and alexa.com (which quantifies website popularity), and set up its own, moderated, rating system for websites that claim to report on science. We could call it the Scientific Honesty and Integrity Tracker, and give online nonsense the SHAIT rating it deserves.

While I completely agree with Williamson that this is a problem and the scientific community should take responsibility for it, I was struck by the complete absence of awareness in his editorial that there is already a movement of scientists, science communicators, and science enthusiasts who are doing this – the skeptical movement. 

Ivory Tower Syndrome

It has been my experience that there continues to be significant pockets of full-blown ivory tower syndrome – academics can become intellectually isolated in their institutions, talking only with each other, and out of touch with the general public. In fact, ivory tower syndrome may be more the rule, with occasional individuals who actively engage with the public.

I have had senior academics tell me directly that it is not worth confronting pseudoscience. There is also the very clear sense that doing so is somehow beneath a real academic. It sullies the reputation.

There are definitely pitfalls in fighting back against pseudoscience, ones that activist skeptics have learned the hard way over the years. Confronting nonsense is a double-edged sword. You can inadvertently legitimize nonsense or its purveyors by giving it attention. Directly debating cranks tends to be a losing proposition (unless you really know what you are doing). Con artists and true-believers do not tend to play fair, and you have to be ready for dirty tricks you will not likely encounter within legitimate academia.

In short it has been my experience that academics largely lack the knowledge and skill set to be effective activist skeptics. Knowing the science, unfortunately, is not enough. You have to know the pseudoscience you are confronting, and the ways in which they twist logic and engage motivated reasoning.

Williamson acknowledges one challenge we face:

Most researchers who have tried to engage online with ill-informed journalists or pseudoscientists will be familiar with Brandolini’s law (also known as the Bullshit Asymmetry Principle): the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than that needed to produce it.

True, but that is just scratching the surface of the challenges faced by confronting pseudoscientists.

If 2016 has had any positive outcome it may be a wake-up call to the scientific and academic community. This is not business as usual, with a constant background of nonsense in popular culture that academics can safely ignore. The rules have changed, and (sorry for the overused metaphor) the lunatics are running the asylum. While you were toiling away in your ivory tower, the world has changed under your feet.

Welcome to Skepticism

Science is only useful if it serves society, which means society must have a certain level of support for science. There still is a good level of support for science and scientists, but that trust has been massively subverted. As I wrote yesterday over at Science-Based Medicine, surveys show that the public will simply disagree with scientists when the science conflicts with their ideological beliefs. The specific issue of the recent Pew survey was food and GMOs. Those who have a high interest in GMOs and think they are unhealthy simply dismiss the scientific consensus as being too influenced by industry, or they simply believe that there is no consensus that GMOs are safe.

What is the use of having a robust scientific consensus on an important issue facing the public if the public is systematically misinformed about what that consensus is. Those misinformed members of the public have recently shown they are enough of a block to elect a conspiracy theorist as president, who will appoint cabinet members who are hostile to the mission of the institutions they will now lead.

The science of climate change only matters if the public, and through them politicians, know and accept the science.

There are vested interests who find the scientific consensus on many issues to be inconvenient. They have found that they don’t need to win the scientific battle within science journals and universities. That’s too much work, and they can’t win that fight anyway because reality is not on their side. They realized, however, that they don’t have to win over scientists and change the consensus, they can just create websites (blogs, news outlets) that lie about the consensus and sow doubt and confusion. This is the whole “fake news” phenomenon.

The mainstream media was never equipped to deal with this, and their resources, if anything, are dwindling. They have largely been outcompeted by fake news and blatantly biased advocacy, and in many cases have merged with it. They are being absorbed by the blob. There are individual journalists and outlets who seem to have a clue, but they are so far fighting a losing war.

The scientific community has largely ignored the problem. Again, some individuals have had their wake-up calls, but they are few and far between. Williamson is now added to their ranks, due to his personal confrontation with Brietbart.

The good news is that there is already a group of people who have been confronting pseudoscience for decades and have developed some significant knowledge and skill in how best to do it. We don’t have the magic formula, but at least we have already worked through the basic pitfalls.

What we need now is for academia to institutionally wake up. Individuals are welcome, but that is not enough. The institutions of academia need to place a priority on outreach to the public, on engaging with the public conversation, pushing back against pseudoscience, communicating real science, and advocating for higher standards in science news reporting.

This is, in my opinion, a massive problem faced by academia and they are currently failing. Fully engaging with social media is one thing they can do. Fixing their own PR departments is another. Educating scientists on how to communicate with the public, and how to confront pseudoscience, is yet another. Systematically correcting the public record on what is the current consensus of scientific opinion is also critical, as is getting more involved in science education at every level.

Scientists need to be out there, in force, confronting politicians who are advocating pseudoscience, publicly exposing them, and setting the record straight.

The game has changed. Academia needs to change if it is going to remain relevant. An editorial in Nature is nice, but we need much more. We need a profound awakening within academia to the new reality. Trump is not an aberration, he is the new normal.

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