Science denier indicators – the pseudoscience bullshit meter

As anyone who reads this blog regularly, it doesn’t take a genius to know I have little or no respect for science deniers. Over time, I’ve come to understand that dedicated science deniers don’t know or understand science, and live in a world of delusion that keeps them firmly planted in their anti-science dogma. And there are certain science denier indicators that can help you see the worst of the offenders.

I realize that there are lots of people out there who are legitimately confused by the safety and effectiveness of vaccinations, the obvious reality of anthropogenic climate change, the fact of evolution, or the safety of GMOs. And there are plenty of blogs out there that try to gently walk them through the logic, helping those who are confused with knowledge.

However, the Skeptical Raptor is more of a carnivore. The goal of this blog is to mock, belittle, annoy, ridicule and taunt the true science deniers. Those deniers who form a cult of science denialism while bathing in their Dunning-Kruger cognitive biases.

These science deniers, who are on both the left and right of the political spectrum sadly, are generally hateful, with a good dollop of antisemitism thrown in frequently.

And don’t let science deniers co-opt the word “skeptic.” Let’s be clear – real skepticism is based on real science. And a denialism is not.

There are three really good science denier indicators – which are used by my science denier radar (patent pending) – that can be used by anyone to separate the naive or innocent, still looking for information, and those with dogmatic opinions. Please keep this checklist handy.

The three science denier indicators

 

Just three. Honestly, there may be more, but I wanted something that would let you check off three boxes quickly, sometimes within a sentence.

So what are these indicators?

  1. They have no clue what constitutes the scientific method. They believe in faith, anecdotes, and special pleading.
  2. They pride themselves on being scientifically ignorant, and relying upon all sorts of logical fallacies.
  3. They think that the scientific consensus is actually a conspiracy that is against their beliefs.

See. Not so complex. Let’s look at each one in a bit more detail.

Denying the scientific method

 

I think many people who are not scientists think that science is some form of magical belief system. It is not. Science is a system, using the scientific method, to answer questions about the natural universe. It is not dogmatic. It is not based on faith. There is no religion of science.

I wanted to find the simplest diagram to show what constitutes the scientific method, just so that I can illustrate the beautiful of science.

science denier indicators
The scientific method, simplified.

 

So here’s how it works, in more detail:

  1. Observations–this is the subjective part of science. Do we observe trends or anomalies? Does a physician notice that every patient from a town or neighborhood exhibit the same disease? A lot of science arises from observations of the natural world.
  2. Define the question–this could be anything from “does this compound have an effect on this disease?” or “how does this disease progress?”
  3. Research–investigate other research done on the question and observations.
  4. Hypothesis–using the observations, create a hypothesis that can be tested. Generally, this is a binary (yes/no) type of question.
  5. Experiment–simply, the scientist then tests the hypothesis with experiments and collects the data. The experiments are not designed to solely validate the hypothesis but may also attempt to refute it. In real science, experiments are often designed to retune the hypothesis. If you can’t refute it, it becomes more solid.
  6. Draw conclusions–once the experiments are completely, the results need to be carefully analyzed and interpreted. Does the statistical analysis of the data support or refute the hypothesis?
  7. Publicize–in today’s scientific community, scientific data and analysis is subject to the scrutiny of other scientists before it can be published, a process called “peer-review.” Peer review isn’t a limited step, it is ongoing forever. Someone might repeat the experiment under other conditions and come to a different conclusion. That’s what makes science great.

This is not a linear set of steps. At each point, a real scientist will stop and go back one or more steps because they got an unexpected answer. Or just that they find that they were wrong.

And it isn’t easy. Sometimes it fails. Sometimes a colleague points out an error.  Sometimes, people don’t think it’s important.

But, despite all that, science doesn’t stop. More studies under slightly altered conditions may provide similar results. Or they may not.

But after enough research is done (there’s no magical number), after enough repeating of experiments have been accomplished, at some point the scientific idea moves to a general consensus (we’ll discuss this below) then to a scientific theory. But even at those points, once new data or evidence is brought to the body of work, those ideas can  be set aside, or can evolve to a better theory or consensus.

Once again, the basis of the scientific method is evidence derived from experimentation. They are not beliefs. They are not magic. They are not invented. To make it clear, bring high quality evidence to the discussion, or you’ve got nothing.

The “pseudoscientific method” is the mirror image of real science. It is based on belief, faith, and ignorance.

  1. Make vague, exaggerated or untestable claims.
  2. Extreme reliance on confirmation rather than refutation. Like I mentioned above, real science allows for the possibility that the claim can be shown to be false, a concept called falsifiability. Moreover, the pseudoscientist looks to data or information that confirms their beliefs, rather than
  3. Lack of openness to testing by other experts. Pseudoscience researchers evade peer review before publicizing results, occasionally using press conferences to share their ideas.
  4. Absence of progress. Pseudoscience usually fails to progress towards providing or even searching for additional evidence of its claims. Once pseudoscience makes a claim, it becomes dogma, despite any contradictory evidence.
  5. Personalization of issues. Pseudoscience is often composed of closely tied social groups, and usually includes an authoritarian personalitysuppression of dissent, and groupthink.
  6. Use of misleading language. They try to create scientific-sounding terms to add weight to claims and persuade non-experts to believe statements that may be false or meaningless.

If you look at the pseudoscience of “vaccines cause autism,” which has been utterly refuted and demolished by real science, you can check off each of the dogmatic steps of science denial. There are just no pieces of evidence, derived from a true scientific method, that support the belief that any vaccine is causally related to any case of autism.

But there are other ways where I differ from the pseudoscientist. Bring evidence, and my conclusion will change. If there were robust evidence, published by a broad range of researchers who are qualified to study epidemiology, that show a causal link, I would be openminded and modify my acceptance of the consensus about vaccines and autism.

On the other hand, if you bring evidence to the pseudoscience believer, they will ignore it unless it fits their beliefs. Scientific ignorance is at the core of the deniers, and it’s hard to walk them back to reality.

Sam Harris, an American philosopher and neuroscientist, once wrote:

Water is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. What if someone says, “Well, that’s not how I choose to think about water.”? All we can do is appeal to scientific values. And if he doesn’t share those values, the conversation is over. If someone doesn’t value evidence, what evidence are you going to provide to prove they should value it? If someone doesn’t value logic, what logical argument could you provide to show the importance of logic?

If at the basic level, the pseudoscience believer rejects real science, it’s really hard to convince them of the validity of a scientific idea. And, this is why I cannot treat these people with any form of civility. But let’s go to point two.

Rely on logical fallacies

 

One of my personal tropes about pseudoscience is that once you have no evidence to support your point of view, you default to logical fallacies.

What are logical fallacies? They are essentially errors of reasoning in making an argument. There are all kinds of formal and informal logical fallacies. And some people, myself included, add in some cognitive biases, like selection or confirmation bias, as a part of logical fallacies.

I have written a partial list of logical fallacies, but there are a few that have attracted my attention as being in the armamentarium of pseudoscience.

  1. Appeal to authority. The pseudoscience believer bases that belief on the claims of authority figures, generally false authorities who may have the appearance of expertise. But are generally not.
  2. Argument from ignorance. In this case, the pseudoscience believer will claim that something is true if it hasn’t been proven false. And sometimes, they’ll claim it’s true even if it has been proven false.
  3. Cherry picking, selection or confirmation bias. Although not formally logical fallacies, they all form the same basic logical  problem – picking data that supports a preconceived belief, rather than looking at ALL of the data and coming to a reasonable conclusion.
  4. Post hoc propter ergo hoc. Often called the “post hoc fallacy”, it is an illogical belief that if one thing follows another thing, they’re obviously related. Maybe every time you stub your toe on the coffee table, you find a lost dollar in your pocket, then you might conclude that stubbing your toe creates a dollar. Or that every time a person catches a cold after getting the flu shot, obviously the flu shot causes the cold. People will often state that “correlation does not imply causation.” Maybe, depending on a lot of factors. But the post hoc fallacy doesn’t even provide correlation.
  5. Appeal to nature and Naturalistic Fallacy. Basically, these say “nature is good, artificial is bad.” Since “nature” is random, and is not a directed occurrence, it has no value one way or another. And nature gave us viruses, asteroids destroying life, and many other things. No thanks.
  6. Special pleading. This is a form of argumentation where the pseudoscience believer includes favorable details or excludes unfavorable details by alleging a need to apply special considerations or exemptions from typical analysis.

There are so many more that are popular with the pseudoscience crowd. Again, it’s because they lack real scientific evidence, so they need to create tortuous, and illogical, pathways to reach their preconceived ideas. This isn’t science.

There are some writers, who also don’t curry much favor with the science denial crowd, have written that ego is a part of the construct for the illogical beliefs. People don’t want to be wrong about their conclusions, so damn the torpedoes, and full speed ahead. They’ll stick to their dogma whatever the evidence says.

The scientific consensus is a conspiracy

 

As I’ve written, getting a conclusion using the scientific method is hard. And it’s subject to review and re-analysis. And it needs to be repeated over and over again.

At some point during the accumulation of evidence, a consensus of the experts in the field is formed based on the evidence, almost exclusively from peer-reviewed and published data. Since science is not a democracy, there is no formal vote, although respected scientific societies will often publish a public statement on the scientific consensus for a particular issue.

There is a solid, almost irrefutable, body of evidence that supports the fact of evolution.

There is a solid, nearly unanimous, body of evidence that supports the fact of anthropogenic climate change.

There is a solid, nearly unanimous, body of evidence that supports the fact of the safety of genetically modified organisms.

There is a solid, nearly unanimous, body of evidence that supports the fact of the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.

There’s even a solid body of evidence that supports the consensus that aspartame is safe.

Despite the fact that these consensuses are based on publicly available, large bodies of peer-reviewed evidence, almost always the pseudoscience believer will state – it’s a conspiracy. I wrote an article about the consensus behind the safety of GMOs, and the comments section is filled with odd conspiracy theories.

For example, the scientific societies don’t represent all scientists. Or that Monsanto somehow got all of them to do their bidding, because scientists are so easily bought by Monsanto money. Or that only Americans think this.

With all the ironic laughter I can  muster, the anti-GMO pseudoscience believers use the exact same ridiculous arguments as the climate change deniers.

Again, it’s so difficult to even pretend to be civil to these people. They only deny science, and again, like Dr. Harris states, once one does not value science, there’s no way to continue the conversation.

So there you go. My personal bullshit detector for science denier indicators. I hope it helps.

 

The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor
Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!