Science denialists, whether they are creationists, global warming deniers, or anti-vaccinationists, are pseudoskeptics, who reject or ignore vast amounts of real evidence, just to maintain their point of view. Discussions with these individuals are generally frustrating because the denialists base their arguments on a very limited amount of education or background. As I’ve said before, at least with respect to vaccine denialism, they have spent no more than a few hours of research on the internet. Then using logical fallacies, whether it’s ad hominems, or appeals to nature, or cherry picking data, they attempt to discredit the vast scientific and medical body of work, patting themselves on the back for their incredible skills in winning a scientific argument. Of course, most of the science against which they’ve been arguing has been performed by individuals with years of scientific education, training and professional research.
Is this research perfect? No, it isn’t. Nature has reported that a Japanese anesthesiologist, who authored over 200 “peer-reviewed” papers, is suspected of fraud on an epic scale. Over half of his papers are being retracted, and he has been dismissed from his faculty position in Japan. How he got away with this level of fraud is subject to a long discussion in the Nature article, but suffice it to say, there was a massive breakdown of the peer-review system at the level of his own university (which may be cultural in Japan) and by the way he published in a wide variety of journals, some of lower quality. I constantly point out that there are differences in journals, based on their impact factor (which is one way of measuring the amount of influence a journal has within the scientific community). However, and this is important, science is self-correcting, and in this case, it has corrected itself. Based on this one story, it would be insane to assume that ALL science is fraudulent. Even assuming a significant minority of science is fraudulent would be improper and not supported by any amount of evidence.
Even though I do have a strong scientific background, one that I would hypothesize is stronger and more developed than the vast majority of denialists that I engage online, do I claim to be an expert on all of these fields? No way. In fact, I haven’t sat in a science course since many of the anti-vaccine cultists were born. And my research background is in a very specific area of biomedicine.
But I have several advantages over the denialists, from a scientific perspective. Basically, I accept the essential theories of science, because scientific theories “are large bodies of work that are a culmination or a composite of the products of many contributors over time and are substantiated by vast bodies of converging evidence. They unify and synchronize the scientific community’s view and approach to a particular scientific field.” A scientific theory is not a wild guess, like you would hear while playing Clue, “I have a theory that Colonel Mustard killed Professor Plum in the Library.”
To overturn a scientific theory, you would need to provide an equally high-quality body of negative evidence that built a consensus over time. This isn’t something that you state in some internet chatroom and win your battle. You would need to provide vast amounts of published data. The time period to make a change in a theory is so long, that it usually takes a large number of scientists to join in the process.
I accept theories, not because I blindly accept science, but because of the vast body of science and data behind them. Theories have been vetted for decades or even centuries, and they are considered facts. The Theory of Gravity is a fact. Denying that theory would be amusing. In the principles of science, theories are at the highest. They are higher than Scientific Laws (which is a common misconception). A Scientific Law generally tells you what will happen scientifically. A theory tells you how it happens, which then allows you scientifically predict results.
For biology, there really are only three key theories that are accepted, but they are critical to our understanding of medicine:
- Germ theory– microorganisms are the cause of many diseases.
- Cell theory–cells are the basic unit of structure in every living thing.
- Theory of evolution–the change in the inherited characteristics of biological populations over successive generations through the processes of natural selection or genetic drift.