Skeptical Raptor's Blog hunting pseudoscience in the internet jungle

How science deniers use false equivalency to pretend there’s a debate


Science vs BSIf you read a news article, Google a scientific topic, or watch TV, you’d think that some scientific principles were actually being debated by scientists. From listening to the screaming and yelling, you would think that scientists aren’t sure about evolution, vaccines, global warming, and the age of the earth (or even the age of the universe). There are even those who think there’s a debate that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS.

Part of the problem is that the public falls for the false equivalency logical fallacy. They think that to be balanced, both sides of a scientific argument are equivalent in quality of opinion and evidence. But rarely is this true, especially in scientific principles that have been well-studied and supported by a massive amount of evidence. 

Part of the problem is that some people think that science is unapproachable and too hard to comprehend. It isn’t. Now, that doesn’t mean it’s easy, because it shouldn’t be.

To become a world class architect and to design a skyscraper isn’t easy, but we non-architects can observe what we see, and accept that the building isn’t going to topple over in a hurricane. Do we presume to know how the foundation has to be built to support the building? Or what materials are used to give flexibility in a wind, but strong enough to not collapse? Mostly, we don’t, we trust that there isn’t a massive conspiracy to build unsafe skyscrapers because architects are being paid off by Big Concrete to use cheaper materials. 

It’s the same with science. We can accept scientific principles without doing the research ourselves. But, and it’s a big but, if you want to dispute accepted science, then you have to bring science to the table not a “debate.” Science isn’t hard, but it isn’t easy either. You cannot deny basic scientific facts without getting a solid education, opening a scientific laboratory staffed with world-class scientists, and then publishing peer-reviewed articles that can help move the prevailing scientific consensus. You cannot spend an hour or a day or even a week Googling a few websites and then loudly proclaim that the scientific consensus is wrong; no, you need to do the hard work. Until you do, those of us who are skeptics and scientists get to ignore you, and we get to continue with the current consensus.

Let’s be clear about some key science. Evolution is a fact. Yes, it is called a theory, but I’m going to assume the typical reader knows what constitutes a scientific theory. Anthropogenic global warming is a fact. Vaccines are safe and effective (see my articles, here, here, here, or here, if you need evidence with lots of peer-reviewed articles). The earth is 4.5 billion years old, and the universe is 13.75 billion years old. And HIV causes AIDS.

Science denialists try to create a false equivalence through several methods:

  • Claim science is a democracy. Evolution deniers tried to create controversy with A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism, where creationists got “scientists” to sign a document that said “We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged. There is scientific dissent from Darwinism. It deserves to be heard.” It now has over 1200 signatures, which sounds impressive, except for a few problems, such as fewer than 20% of the “scientists” are biologists. But the bigger issue is that 1200, even if we accept that they all have an intimate understanding of biological evolution, represents less than 0.03% of biological scientists in the United States (let alone the whole world). If this were a democracy, this election is a landslide. 

Science is built upon the scientific method, which is a logical process of observation, experiment, analysis, and publication. It is simple, but it requires work. Over time, after numerous experiments, nearly always published in peer-reviewed journals, followed by frequent repetition (and sometimes failure) of the experiments and results by other scientists, scientists arrive at a consensus about the evidence that supports a particular set of principles about the science being researched.

As the evidence accumulates and the science becomes more predictive, a scientific theory, which is a series of statements about the causal elements for observed phenomena, is formed out of the accumulated knowledge and predictability. These theories explain aspects of the natural world. They are predictive. And they can be tested through the scientific method.

Arriving at a scientific consensus is not something that happens overnight, but it is rather glacial in pace. That’s a good thing. It keeps out poorly supported ideas, but gives strength to ideas that have lots of evidence. From those basic principles, science expands or improves it over time. One does not decide that the consensus is wrong through a debate or argument–changing the consensus requires as much research based in the scientific method, as many peer-reviewed publications and as much critique, repetition, and review as the evidence that built the original consensus.

Unfortunately, at the world convention of denialists, they shared their ideas about this imaginary democracy of science. Not to be left out, the global warming denialists have their Oregon Petition, which has signatures of about 31,000 “scientists” who deny the existence of anthropogenic global warming. Of course, it’s impossible to verify any of the names, because the signatures are on little pieces of paper and no one has been able to determine if the names are genuine. Furthermore, even if we were to assume that all the signatures were valid, only a tiny number (less than 10%) are actual scientists with expertise in the fields of climatology, geology, or something relevant to the climate sciences. Once again, if the vote were held between all Ph.D.’s in those fields, the vote would be overwhelmingly in favor of climate change as a scientific fact. 

  • Appeal to authority. Closely tied to the claim that science is some sort of democracy, denialists rely upon the Appeal to Authority, a logical fallacy which provides an argument from an authority, but on a topic outside of the authority’s expertise or on a topic on which the authority is not disinterested. So, when trying to create a false equivalence (and thus a public debate), denialists will bring individuals with credentials (whether valid or not) to the debate. But again, one authority person does not outweigh the vast numbers that are usually on the other side of the argument. Vaccine denialists love to pull out Joe Mercola or Sherri Tenpenny, physicians who, in general, claim that vaccines are either ineffective, dangerous, or both. Of course, neither have any real knowledge of scientific research, and have never studied vaccines at the level of real biomedical researchers. But because they have “Dr.” before their name, the antivaccination pushers use them as their “proof” of vaccine problems. Of course, they ignore the vast majority of “authority” figures who are on the other side of the fence.
  • Conspiracies. And tied to both the above, denialists love claiming that there is some conspiracy between all the world’s scientists to suppress or fabricate evidence. This incredible leap of irrationality would depend upon all the millions of scientists working together to make it appear that evolution is true. That global warming is happening. That vaccines are safe and effective. That the earth is 4.5 billion years old. In today’s world, with all of the social media, and desires to be famous, you’d think that out of those millions, a few would want to become famous by outing the conspiracy. But this just hasn’t happened. A few years ago, emails were hacked at the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia in the UK. The emails were taken out of context, and used by climate change deniers to “prove” there was a conspiracy. Of course, there wasn’t, there was typical discussion of data by real scientists that were frank and honest. And the data discussed was a small part of the total mountain of data supporting global warming, but in the world of false equivalency, this one set of emails, which proved nothing that was claimed by the deniers, was considered as an important justification to deny global warming, while ignoring all of the other evidence.
  • Manufactroversy.  Sometimes denialists will manufacture or invent a controversy, what is sometimes called a manufactroversy. Journalists frequently fall for this invention, and attempt to create a false balance between both sides. The vaccine denialists have done a good job trying to create an illusion that there is some sort of scientific debate ongoing with regards to vaccines causing autism. The thoroughly and scientifically debunked link between vaccines and autism continues to appear, because journalists make it appear that there are two equal sides of the debate. There is one side, the science side that has literally dozens of clinical research studies that show there is no link. The antivaccine side has nothing.

Evidence matters. Quality of evidence matters. Science matters. There’s an old saying that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Well, if someone wants to create an extraordinary dispute, it will also require extraordinary evidence. 

For evolution, global warming, HIV/AIDS, vaccines, the age of the earth and universe, there is no scientific controversy. There is only a public debate, where one side is using science, and the other side is inventing stuff. But in the real world of logical science, there is no debate. We’ve moved onto uncovering more mysteries of the universe.

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