Alternative facts – skeptics have been dealing with this for years

Alternative facts

Alternative facts, what most of us would call outright lies or misinformation, are the new standard of truthfulness coming out of the Donald Trump administration. It started when Kellyanne Conway, one of the numerous Trump talking heads who think Americans are stupid, said, “You’re saying it’s a falsehood. And they’re giving … alternative facts.”

Alternative facts seem to be pretty close to the Nazi propaganda technique, called the Big Lie. It is about the use of a lie so colossal that the public would not believe that someone would have the audacity to distort the truth so impressively. Except, I’m going to reiterate most Americans (an non-Americans) aren’t that stupid. And sorry for going Godwin so early in the article, but sometimes, it is necessary to point out the obvious.

I’ve been fighting alternative facts as skeptic for nearly three decades. It started when I got into an argument with a school board candidate in California who said that “evolution is just a theory.” Now, those of you with scientific understanding accept that a theory, at least in science, is approximately equal to a fact. What he should have said is, “evolution is just a fact,” but instead he was making “theory” a pejorative which implied evolution wasn’t a fact.

He and I must have argued for 20 minutes, when he finally claimed that science was a religion that required faith, which, of course, is the exact opposite of what science represents. I told him that he apparently lacked any education in science, so why should he be on the school board. He lost, though I take no credit for it.

Over the years, I have evolved (pun intended) into other areas of scientific skepticism, like GMOs, vaccines, and alternative medicine. See, even the junk medicine quacks grasped that “alternative” label long before Donald Trump walked into the national spotlight.

Let’s look at my favorite alternative facts of science.

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Donald Trump and vaccines – he’s wrong

Donald Trump and vaccines

Donald Trump is technically the Republican candidate in the 2016 election for President of the United States. There’s a lot that he says that disgusts me personally, and the public generally. But there’s one area that may indicate the depth of his ignorance. Donald Trump and vaccines – his views are just plain wrong.

Trump isn’t alone on this matter – dangerous comments about vaccines were made by Republican presidential candidates during the campaign. Ben Carson (ironically, a neurosurgeon) and Rand Paul (we’ve laughed at his vaccine denial before) also pontificated about the dangers of vaccines.

I’ve written previously about Republican candidate’s views on vaccines, back before we actually thought that Donald Trump had a real chance to become the Republican nominee. Feels like eons ago.

As I wrote recently, there’s really only a slight, probably not statistically significant, difference between the acceptance of mandatory vaccination. So the views of Donald Trump and vaccines is way over on the side of crackpot. This is why we can’t have good things.

Let’s look at some the things that Trump has said about vaccines on Twitter, his preferred method of communicating.

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Antiscience Donald Trump elected President – man the science barricades

antiscience donald trump doesn't know science

I disappeared for a few days after the election of a man who espoused racism, xenophobia and misogyny as the reasons to vote for him. His actual policy proposals were threadbare and, if he really believed them, we are looking a historical dismantling of all that is special about the USA. It’s hard to choose what scares me most about this sexual predator’s policies, but the antiscience Donald Trump ranks pretty much at or near the top.

Generally, the Republican party is quite antiscience. Republicans deny climate change. Republicans deny evolution, while Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, is hypercritical of evolution. And of course, Republicans have shown themselves to be vaccine deniers. There’s a lot more, but many of us consider those topics to be in the top 5 list of science denial. Frankly, if someone said that Trump believed in alien visitations and Sasquatch, and he was sending tax money to investigate them thoroughly, I wouldn’t be surprised.

On a broader level, a Trump administration will probably gut science research by cutting funding to National Institutes of Health and NASA programs in basic scientific research. There are probably areas, where Trump will appoint directors who are opposed to the years of science that form a basis of policy.

Despite the press tacitly being in bed with Trump, never really investigating him, Hillary Clinton won the election based on the popular vote, with a several hundred thousand vote lead over Trump. I think most Americans wanted a President who supported science. Sadly, Trump won the election because the USA uses an antiquated and anachronistic method to actually choose the president. A method that is based on needs of 250 years ago and on the negotiations required to get slave holding states to agree to the new Union. But, I’m not a political scientist, and the arguments for and against the Electoral College system of voting would be far beyond what are topics for this website.

Let’s just look at the antiscience Donald Trump, sticking to the key issues of climate change, evolution, and vaccines.

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Climate change denier is accurate – AP stylebook disagrees

climate change denier

I’m going to guess that a discussion of the AP stylebook isn’t a typical subject discussed in a skeptic blog. But the AP is worried that “denier” is too pejorative, and recommend that the term not be used, which made me take notice. I’m going to take umbrage with their recommendation and state emphatically that “climate change denier” is an accurate description.

Sure, it may be pejorative, but it’s based on the fact that those who deny real science, that is, the conclusion derived from a powerful and robust consensus of expert scientists in a field of study, willfully ignore said evidence and invent their own pseudoscience. Not only do I state that a climate change denier is a factual representation of those beliefs, I also think that a GMO denier, a vaccine denier, an evolution denier, and a Holocaust denier are essentially equivalent – each ignores the massive and robust mountain of evidence to come to an unsupported conclusion.

I think the use of “denier,” to anyone who rejects the scientific consensus, is accurate and acceptable. And it’s like several of orders of magnitude better than the “climate change skeptic” used by the deniers to make it sound like their denialism is actually scientifically based. Because real scientific skepticism is an honorable pursuit in which constantly questioning and doubting claims and assertions is based only on the accumulation of evidence. It requires the use of the scientific method, where claims, facts and theories are relentlessly tested and reviewed.

Deniers attempt to co-op the word “skeptic” when they really are just doubters and cynics who can’t be bothered with evidence or cherry pick just enough evidence to support their pre-conceived notions.

I want to look at what the AP Stylebook has recommended. I would like to know if my pre-conceived notion that denier is an accurate description for anyone who rejects the scientific consensus.

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Bernie Sanders views biotechnology – aligned with Republicans

Bernie Sanders views biotechnology

I admit that I judge politicians on their science credibility. And I’m rather black and white about it – politicians don’t get to pick and choose what science they “believe” or not. How Bernie Sanders views biotechnology seems irresponsible. And that it’s aligned with Republican anti-science viewpoints is unacceptable.

I’ve written previously about Sanders’ nascent anti-science views, especially with complementary and alternative medicine, which isn’t medicine. Although I haven’t written about it specifically, Sanders is in favor of GMO labelling, which is part of the pseudoscience surrounding GMOs. Let’s be clear, the overwhelming scientific consensus about GMOs is that they are safe for human consumption and the environment. To real science, denying GMO safety (and it’s related labeling laws) is no different than denying climate change.

For me, the litmus tests for science in our politicians are evolution, climate change, GMOs, vaccines, and cloning/stem cell research. There are a few other science policy issues that are abeyond the scope of this website – fracking (limited science available at this time) and nuclear power. I haven’t the time or the desire to review the consensus on either, but for many people they are also litmus tests for science credibility of politicians – and not in the way you think it would be.

Recently, a journalist took a look at how Bernie Sanders views biotechnology – especially in comparison to Hillary Clinton. And Sanders comes up short in this key area of science. In fact, he has previously aligned himself with right wing Republicans on some scientific issues, something that should cause any pro-science progressive some pause.

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Science deniers use false equivalence to create fake debates

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.

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Mashing up the Walking Dead and science denialism

The Walking Dead and science denialism

I am really impatient with science deniers, so I saw something that will allow me to mash up two of my favorite subjects – the Walking Dead and science denialism – and it makes me happy. I know, you want to know how I can possibly combine the Walking Dead and science denialism – you’re just going to have to read on!

I know it’s shocking, but I find it difficult to be really civil towards science deniers. Partially, it’s because no matter how much evidence you present, science deniers rely on logical fallacies like strawman arguments, arguments from ignorance, post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacies, and so many others.

Or they rely upon all of their biases. Confirmation bias, yes. Selection bias, yes. Cognitive biases, yes. And that logical fallacy that’s also a form of bias – cherry picking. The denialist’s favorite fruit has got to be cherries, because they’re picking them all day long.

Then toss in a big dollop of Dunning-Kruger effect, and it’s really difficult to take any science deniers very seriously. They take themselves seriously, despite their total lack of affirmative or negative evidence.

The only thing that matters in science is evidence. That’s it, that’s the beginning and the end of the story. I don’t care if you’re a man, woman, alien, immigrant, liberal, conservative, a janitor, a professor, black, white, or a Nobel Prize winner. If you lack evidence, you have nothing.

If you think there are debates to be made in settled science, that means you get the denialism card, no matter who you are. If you are an MD, and think that vaccines don’t work, then why should I consider your opinion on anything in medicine to be valid, when you’re denying some of the basic principles of medicine – the Germ Theory, for example.  Continue reading “Mashing up the Walking Dead and science denialism”

Bad for science and academic freedom: harassing Kevin Folta

If you don’t know about the case of anti-GMO activists harassing Dr. Kevin Folta, Professor and Chairman in the Department of Horticultural Sciences at the University of Florida, I’ve written about it extensively over the past few months.

Dr. Folta  is considered to be an expert in plant genetics including genetic modification of plants. He has been studying this field for nearly three decades, published extensively in real peer-reviewed journals, and has trained legions of graduate students. He should be considered a real authority figure in GMO research.

In 2012, Dr. Folta was “targeted” by a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request from an activist to get all of Dr. Folta’s emails about GMOs. If you are unfamiliar with this particular tactic, it is used frequently by climate change deniers to harass and bully climate change scientists.

This will be a repeating theme of this article – the science deniers who are harassing Kevin Folta are almost exactly the same as the science deniers who attack climate change scientists. They must be proud of this.

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I call it as I see it–a denier is not a skeptic

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? Continue reading “I call it as I see it–a denier is not a skeptic”

Opinion – science denial harms humanity

This is part of my series of opinion pieces. As I’ve written, it is not meant to be supported by evidence or data – unless I link to evidence. Then it is. On the other hand, my opinions are based on tons of reading and data, so there’s that.

Recently, I read an article where Alabama, a US state with either the worst or second worst educational system in the country, had decided to enter the 21st Century – The Alabama state board of education voted unanimously to approve a new set of science standards on September 10, 2015, according to National Center for Science Education.

Surprisingly, the Alabama board stated that evolution is described as “substantiated with much direct and indirect evidence.” Is it possible that pigs are flying? Let me check.

But like all stories when it comes to science denial, the story isn’t perfect.

According to a story in the Washington Post, “state officials will have to decide what to do about the adhesive label that every high school biology textbook has been required to carry since 2001, a warning emphasizing that evolution is a ‘controversial theory’ that students should question.”

Let me remind the reader. There is absolutely no controversy about evolution, it is considered a scientific fact. The only controversy is amongst ignorant Republican presidential candidates, lead by someone who is ostensibly educated in science, Ben Carson.

Of course, as Theodosius Dobzhansky stated,  “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.” And as medicine is a branch of biology, it’s clear that our knowledge of evolution helped Ben Carson – not just generally, but in very specific ways that were part of his medical career.

Whatever Dr. Carson says to pander to his ignorant, science denying Republicans, his medical career was filled with evolution of all types.

Science denialism is more than just a cultural discussion between two political groups. It’s dangerous. Science denial harms humanity – we should do all we can to end this absurd belief.
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