Editor’s note: This article was originally published in December 2014. It has been revised and updated to include more comprehensive information, to improve readability, or to add current research.
The name of this blog, of course, is the Skeptical Raptor. I’m not sure how I invented that name, but I like raptors, either the fossil dinosaur version, or the living dinosaur versions, birds of prey. They both actually work as a metaphor of what I try to do–provide scientific and knowledgeable analyses of the scientific consensus or critiques of beliefs and pseudoscience. Usually one leads to another.
Of course, I don’t pretend to be very nice about my critiques, probably another reason why I chose to put “Raptor” in the blog’s name.
So, you know I’d get super annoyed by those who reject science, then misappropriate the word “skeptic” (or for those of you who prefer the Queen’s English, sceptic). A denier is not a skeptic – the former actually reject the rationality and open-mindedness of real skepticism (and science), but they pretend they are the real skeptics. Oh really?
The problem with the word “skeptic” is that it is used differently in different circumstances, much like the word “theory” has a different meaning in a formal scientific context than it does in common vernacular. How many times have we heard that “evolution is just a theory.” Actually, from a scientific perspective, “just a theory” means that it represents the pinnacle of scientific knowledge, because it describes causality for observed natural phenomena–we can state, with little doubt, how single-celled organisms are related to complex life like mammals, birds, reptiles, and earthworms.
An important component of a scientific theory is that it provides explanations and predictions that can be tested, an important concept that relates back to the scientific method. In other words, a theory is not just a guess or a random thought–it is based on mountains of evidence. Skepticism has a similar issue with definition.
In ordinary usage, skepticism has one of three meanings:
- an attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity either in general or toward a particular object;
- the doctrine that true knowledge or knowledge in a particular area is uncertain; or
- the method of suspended judgment, systematic doubt, or criticism that is characteristic of skeptics.
In other words, this definition of skepticism is simply doubt or distrust. It’s not really a process or even logical, it’s almost a pre-defined point of view
True scientific skepticism is the noble pursuit and accumulation of evidence, based on the scientific method, which is used to question and doubt claims and assertions. A real scientific skeptic will hold the accumulation of evidence as fundamentally critical to the examination of claims. Moreover, a true skeptic does not accept all evidence as being equal in quality, but, in fact, will give more weight to evidence which is derived from the scientific method and less weight to poorly obtained and poorly scrutinized evidence.
Most importantly, alternative claims, that are advanced to reverse the established scientific consensus, must be “scrutinized, tested, tortured to see if it really holds up.” If you’re going to say that vaccines cause autism, then it has to withstand harsh criticism. Saying that criticism is “unfair” or “it’s part of a conspiracy” or whatever logical fallacy you choose, is basically the whining of pseudoscience. But the point is that it’s not officially skepticism if the person making the statement is unwilling to provide evidence, either in favor or in opposition, to the any claim.
One last thing. A true scientific skeptic cannot be an expert on all fields–it’s nearly impossible to do so, especially as the sciences have become more specialized and more complex as we answer more questions about the universe. I could talk about vaccines and evolution all day long, but if you want me to explain how the Big Bang started, forget it–there are smarter people out there in the field of astrophysics (or whatever it is). But I generally know who the leading authorities are in the Big Bang, so if they say that it occurred in a tiny fraction of one second 13.8 billion years ago, I’m going to accept that. And if some other researcher, who has no expertise in the area, attempts to contradict the Big Bang, then they better have the same quality of evidence as the proponents. It’s the rules, not invented by me.
Thus, a true scientific skeptic can accept an expert’s conclusion, as long as that expert has long subjected themselves to scrutiny and have credentials that indicate that they themselves have gone through the torture of gaining an education and authority in a particular field. These individuals need not have degrees from Harvard or may be researchers at a small state university. It’s only that their research was done scientifically and holds up to the critical analysis of others.
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These individuals who pretend to be skeptics are really pseudoskeptics. They pretend to use scientific skepticism, but in reality they wouldn’t change their minds with any amount of evidence. It is useful to note that these pseudoskeptics irrationally attack any evidence that rejects their preordained beliefs, but refuse to critically review any evidence that they think supports their point of view. They cherry pick evidence, seemingly from top level sources, to support they pre-existing bias.
So-called global warming “skeptics” use this form of the word, in that they doubt that global warming is real, without being very scientific about it. Sadly, even respected news sources, such as the Washington Post, misuse the term skeptic when applied to global warming deniers when describing individuals who are simply not skeptics. Basically, many of these right wing politicians deny human caused climate change for political expediency. Or because they’re ignorant of the volume of science that supports the science.
There are other groups of pseudoskeptics–for example there is an antivaccination cult called the Real Australian Sceptics, which is merely a front organization for an Australian antivaccination group. There’s a lunatic on Facebook, who goes by the name of “Vaccine Skeptic Society,” who knows nothing about vaccines and wouldn’t know how to define “skeptic” in any case. I’ve heard “evolution skeptics” and “Holocaust skeptics,” the latter of which isn’t necessarily a scientific issue, but one of factual history.
GMO “skeptics” refuse to accept the broad range of evidence of the safety of GMO crops to humans, animals and the environment, while making outlandish claims about GMO’s that make most scientists cringe or laugh (or both). It’s important to note that so-called climate change skeptics use the same anti-science tactics as do the so-called GMO skeptics–ironically, those two groups are at the opposite ends of the political spectrum.
Denialism, deniers, and denying
It is clear that all of these groups are misusing skepticism to try to invent some scientific legitimacy to their cause. This is actually the opposite of true scientific skepticism and is often called denialism, which is a culture of denying an established fact, scientific theory, scientific law or any of evidence supporting a well-established discipline. More often than not, this denialism occurs in spite of overwhelming evidence, and is almost always associated with motives of convenience to the denier. Denialism is often subject to and powered by confirmation bias.
According to the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, “denial is the a priori rejection of ideas without objective consideration.” In other words, the deniers’ beliefs cannot be changed, so they reject any evidence or knowledge that contradicts their beliefs. But to appear “scientific”, they search for any evidence, no matter how ridiculous or how unscientific, to support that belief.
There’s the old saying attributed to Carl Sagan: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The safety and effectiveness of vaccines, the safety of GMO’s, the fact of human caused climate change, the scientific fact of evolution, the fact that HIV causes AIDS, and many others are supported by extraordinary evidence. Not one paper published in an obscure journal, but hundreds, if not thousands of articles. There are at least 3000 papers published since 1991 that explicitly endorse human caused global warming (and less than 100 that reject it). Using Google Scholar, I found over 100,000 journal articles that explicitly support evolution.
I have no clue why people choose ignorance over evidence, but they do. I guess it’s easier to say “Monsanto poisons us with GMO’s,” rather than actually spending more than a few minutes on Google, but get really educated in agriculture, genetics, plant biology, and other areas of science, then read every article, and put them into piles of “support” or “against.” And if the pile that supports is substantially larger than the pile that doesn’t (and I’ve done this, the support pile of papers far outnumbers the against papers), then is the only argument going to be “Monsanto controls all the scientists.”
In today’s world of social media and hackers, what makes anyone think that, if Monsanto execs had written a bunch of emails showing that they were buying off scientists, those emails wouldn’t be public now? Alternatively, maybe all the scientists in the world ate GMO crops and now are pod people.
I’m going to shock most of the readers (sarcasm intended) that I don’t particular like science deniers, no matter what their form. I’m consistent–deniers of climate change, evolution, HIV/AIDS, GMOs and vaccines are all pretty much the same kind of people. They are ignorant of the facts and evidence, even if highly educated. They are dangerous, whether keeping us from important scientific discoveries or letting us travel down the path of self-destruction as the world warms. Or allowing once scarce diseases to return with a vengeance.
A recent article, published in the high impact factor journal, Vaccine, found that attempting to correct individuals who believed in myths about the flu vaccine was probably not going to be very productive. In fact, it appears that even if the were convinced that myths about the flu vaccine were false, they would be less likely to vaccinate. Nevertheless, there is some value to putting the information out into the world, because it might convince some individuals to vaccinate.
In a recent commentary for Nature, Yale University’s Dan Kahan complained about the “polluted science communication environment” that has deeply polarized the climate debate between political camps. He wrote, “people acquire their scientific knowledge by consulting others who share their values and whom they therefore trust and understand.” Kahan has actually criticized me personally for being too tough on science deniers, because he’s convinced that even though a writer can be scientifically correct, calling the deniers onto the carpet for their science ignorance could be counterproductive.
Kahan and the research about the flu vaccine probably are right. Moving a denier from their beliefs is probably not done with my tone of voice.
But I’ll be blunt. I’m not sure that it’s my goals with this website. I haven’t completely decided what my audience should be, but angering poor little science deniers because they are foolish and completely ignorant of science is of little concern to me at this time. Even some pro-science/pro-vaccine/pro-GMO bloggers and writers have either directly or indirectly asked that I move a bit towards the civil side. But that would be writing in a style that is uncomfortable to me, so I would then be doing this as a “job” rather than as a hobby, which should be fun.
The ironic thing is that for subjects like vaccines, the battle is won. Nearly 95% of children are vaccinated in the USA (as well as most of the developed world). And at least in the USA, of the 5% who aren’t vaccinated, only around 1% are because of parental refusal. Therefore, vaccine deniers are just a tiny lunatic minority of people, usually clustered in certain parts of the USA. They make a lot of noise, but they really spout nothing but nonsense. I enjoy calling the vaccine deniers (and GMO-deniers, since on the Venn diagram of pseudoscience, they overlap quite a bit) out for their tactics, beliefs, and general stupidity.
I’m here partially to convince people about the science, but I’m choosing areas of science that are so overwhelmingly supported by the body of evidence that mocking the deniers is the most effective way in pointing out their misinformation, misdirection and lies.
Now, here’s where I do wish I could write two blogs: snarky version and the civil version. There are a few people we are “convincible,” especially about vaccines. I get enough emails from people who changed their point of view, that I’m quite pleased. I’ve read a few articles by parents who “switched” based on something I wrote. Or use something I’ve written here as evidence to counter a myth they used to hold dear.
But really, my goal is to bash pseudoskeptics intellectually with as much humor and ridicule as I can muster. On the column to the right, I’ve listed a few websites, especially for vaccine information, that are written by angels. Red Wine and Apple Sauce, Voices for Vaccines, Moms Who Vax, and Nurses Who Vaccinate are just some of dozens of websites and blogs that discuss vaccines in a much more civil and sweet manner.
My point is simple. I’m here to educate about scientific skepticism and pseudoskepticism in a way that might be off-putting, but I hope it provides knowledge and information. As much as I won’t buy into the belief that marijuana is safe, I won’t buy into the belief that vaccines cause autism.
There you go–all you need to know about skeptics, deniers, and my curmudgeonly writing style.
- Nyhan B, Reifler J. Does correcting myths about the flu vaccine work? An experimental evaluation of the effects of corrective information. Vaccine. 2014 Dec 2. pii: S0264-410X(14)01542-4. doi: 10.1016/j.vaccine.2014.11.017. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 25499651.