This article has been updated and can be found here.
If 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. The unfiltered information about important scientific subjects allows the science deniers to use a false equivalence to make it appear that the often minority, and scientifically unsupported viewpoint is equivalent to the scientific consensus which is based on huge amounts of published evidence.
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. It’s because some news sources think there’s a debate, so bring one person to represent one side, and one for the other, and the person screams the loudest often wins.
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. Answering questions about the natural universe requires, demands that scientist approach it with the least amount of bias and the most amount of evidence. And sometimes it is complex and nuanced, but why do people give false balance to someone, without the expertise or education in the field, as if they know more about the issue than does the scientist.
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. We don’t question the architects’s motives or whether there are solid engineering principles, probably outside of most of our understanding, that were employed to make that skyscraper.
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 false 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.
Part of the problem is that the public falls for the false equivalence logical fallacy. Presenters, whether it’s the news or giving us a pseudo-debate, think that to be balanced, both sides of a scientific argument are equivalent in quality of opinion and evidence. Just watch a presentation on any of the major news outlets on anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change (ACC).
They’ll have one talking head, usually a scientist who is trying to present nuanced data, usually uncomfortable with public “debate,” going up against a photogenic, possibly a scientist (but in a field totally unrelated to climate studies), who uses logical fallacies and manipulated data to make a point. Then the viewer might think that half the world’s scientists are equally split between both sides of the “debate” regarding ACC. However, the real balance would give us 97 scientists supporting anthropogenic climate change and 2-3 against. Yes, a high impact factor, extremely well respected journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, analyzed climate change science, and determined that 97-98% of researchers in climate science supported the tenets of human influenced climate change.
Katie Couric and false balance reporting
In December 2013, Katie Couric, a fairly popular USA-based journalist reported, on her own eponymous, recently-cancelled, TV talk show, Katie, about Gardasil (formally known as the HPV quadrivalent vaccine and also called Silgard in Europe). Essentially, Couric interviewed several individuals who claim, without any evidence (and lacking any clue about statistical analysis that is necessary to determine correlation and causation) that Gardasil harmed their children.
Then, Couric gave about a minute of time to ONE physician to explain the safety and effectiveness of Gardasil – as opposed to the heartbreaking, but ultimately anecdotal (and therefore, scientifically irrelevant), stories from parents who needed to blame something for what had happened, and chose Gardasil as the guilty party. As opposed to depression, diet soda, bottled water, air pollution, bad TV shows, or that fake butter that the movie theaters use. In other words, I could find literally hundreds of environmental causes for these children’s symptoms that appear to be superficially correlated, but statistically, just random coincidence.
As I have written before, Gardasil is incredibly safe, as shown in massive and well-designed epidemiological studies. It prevents HPV (human papillomavirus) infection, a sexually transmitted disease. And in case you think it’s just some benign virus, HPV is directly responsible for cervical cancer, anal cancer, vulvar cancer, vaginal cancer, oropharyngeal cancer and penile cancer. These are all deadly, disfiguring, and potentially preventable cancers through the use of HPV vaccines.
In other words, Couric, in the ultimate example of false balance, believed that both sides of a scientific “debate” 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. The safety and efficacy of vaccines is supported by the vast consensus of real science. The antivaccination side has no evidence, so it must rely upon logical fallacies and cherry picked data, and they lack any real, world-class contingent of scientists who have stepped up to change the consensus with real evidence.
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 climate change or global warming is a fact. Vaccines are, in fact, 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.
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Science denialists try to create a false equivalence through several methods:
1. 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, the election for “Evolution is a fact” would win in a scientific 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 supporting 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.
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 use Joe Mercola or Sherri Tenpenny, physicians who, in general, claim that vaccines are either ineffective, dangerous, or both, as their authoritative source for vaccine dangers. 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. If we were to have a vote on the safety and effectiveness of vaccines amongst the professional authorities on vaccines, immunologists, epidemiologist, physiologist, public health officials, microbiologists, and virologists, the election would be another landslide of epic proportions.
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 invent data to show 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. All the antivaccine conspiracists would love to get together and contribute to paying for a whistleblower. But funny thing is–it 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 any conspiracy, but there were typical discussions of data by real scientists who 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 equivalence, this one set of emails, which proved nothing that was claimed by the climate-change deniers, was considered as an important justification to show that there was a massive conspiracy to fake data about climate change. Except for a few facts like–the emails didn’t say what the deniers think they say, and that even if there was a problem with the data, it was on one tiny little corner of the whole mountain of evidence supporting anthropogenic climate change. The science behind anthropogenic climate change is unchanged, and powerful.
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, right out of the thin air of the internet.
The vaccine deniers 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 between vaccines and autism. None. The antivaccination cult has nothing.
Evidence matters. Quality of evidence matters. Quantity of quality evidence matters most of all.
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 that there is actually an extraordinary dispute going on.
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 data, cherry picking research out of low quality journals, or just simply yelling the loudest. But in the real world of logical science, there is no debate. We’ve moved onto uncovering more mysteries of the universe.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in December 2012. It has been completely revised and updated to include more comprehensive information, to improve readability and to add current research.
- Anderegg WR, Prall JW, Harold J, Schneider SH. Expert credibility in climate change. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2010 Jul 6;107(27):12107-9. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1003187107. Epub 2010 Jun 21. PubMed PMID: 20566872; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2901439. Impact factor: 9.737.
- National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (2010). The Evidence That HIV Causes AIDS.