In the hierarchy of scientific principles, the scientific consensus – that is, the collective opinion and judgement of scientific experts in a particular field – is an important method to separate real scientific thought from junk science, pseudoscience, cargo cult science, and other fake beliefs.
I often discuss scientific theories which “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 and arbitrary guess, but it is built upon a foundation of scientific knowledge that itself is based on evidence accumulated from data that resulted from scientific experimentation. Generally, a scientific consensus eventually leads to a scientific theory.
I am a scientific skeptic. It means that I pursue published scientific evidence to support or refute a scientific or medical principle. I am not a cynic, often conflated with skepticism. I don’t have an opinion about these ideas. Scientific skepticism depends on the quality and quantity of evidence that supports a scientific idea. And examining the hierarchy of scientific evidence can be helpful in deciding what is good data and what is bad. What can be used to form a conclusion, and what is useless.
That’s how science is done. And I use the hierarchy of scientific evidence to weigh the quality along with the quantity of evidence in reaching a conclusion. I am generally offended by those who push pseudoscience – they generally try to find evidence that supports their predetermined beliefs. That’s not science, that’s the opposite of good science.
Unfortunately, today’s world of instant news, with memes and 140 character analyses flying across social media, can be overwhelming. Sometimes we create an internal false balance, assuming that headlines (often written to be clickbait) on one side are somehow equivalent to another side. So, we think there’s a scientific debate, when there isn’t one.
I attempt to write detailed, thoughtful and nuanced articles about scientific ideas. I know they can be complex and long-winded, but I know science is hard. It’s difficult. Sorry about that, but if it were so easy, everyone on the internet would be doing science. Unfortunately, there are too many people writing on the internet who think they are talking science, but they fail to differentiate between good and bad evidence.
But there is a way to make this easier. Not easy, just easier. This is my guide to amateur (and if I do a good job, professional) method to evaluating scientific research quality across the internet.
When I write, I usually stick to scientific fact. Because I can be rather blunt about a scientific topic, for example, stating that evolution is a fact, it may sound like I’m saying “my opinion is that evolution is a fact.” When it comes to opinions vs scientific facts, there is a difference, a huge difference.
An opinion is a preference for or judgment of something, generally supported by weak evidence. Or sometimes no evidence. A scientific fact only exists because there is a vast amount of supporting evidence.
My favorite color is blue or green, depends on the day. I think that mint and mushrooms taste horrible, and I can’t imagine what they’d taste like together. Doctor Who is boring. Soccer is even more boring to the point of inducing depression. These are all my opinions, meaning that evidence, especially the scientific kind, probably could not be found to support any of them (see Note 1).
Opinions may be unique to me alone or massively shared across the general populations but they all have one thing in common – they cannot be verified by evidence, except that I believe them.
There’s nothing wrong with an opinion on those things. The problem comes from people whose opinions are actually misconceptions. If you think vaccines cause autism you are expressing something factually wrong, not an opinion. The fact that you may still believe that vaccines cause autism does not move your misconception into the realm of valid opinion. Nor does the fact that many others share this opinion give it any more validity.
On the other side are scientific facts, which only exist because of evidence – unbiased evidence, along with well-designed experiments that gives us that evidence. Let’s take a look at opinions vs scientific facts, just in case you think they are equivalent.
In my writing, I often refer to the scientific consensus, which is the collective opinion and judgement of scientists in a particular field of study. This consensus implies general agreement, though disagreement is limited and generally insignificant.
The major difference between a scientific theory and a scientific consensus is that the theory is essentially fact. It is so predictive, it is supported by so much evidence, and it is so well accepted, it takes an almost ridiculous amount of data to refute it, though it is possible.
In the hierarchy of scientific principles, we often mention scientific theories which “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 and arbitrary guess, but it is built upon a foundation of scientific knowledge that itself is based on evidence accumulated from data that resulted from scientific experimentation.
We want to focus on the scientific consensus, describing what it is. Take a deep breath, because this is a complicated one.
Since I started this website, nearly four years ago (that’s 50 internet years), I’ve noticed a serious problem – some skeptics, even scientific skeptics, are lazy, trying to take the easiest way to accept or refute a claim. It is difficult to be a real scientific skeptic (see Note 1). It’s not impossible, but it takes more than using some intentional or unintentional bias or fallacy.
This lack of real skepticism has manifested itself in some incredible meta memes: “vaccines are dangerous,” “gluten is dangerous,” and “GMOs are dangerous,” even in groups who are ostensibly “pro-science.” However, if I replied to them, “wow, you must be a creationist too,” generally, their indignant reply would make a sailor blush.
Scientific skepticism is hard, not because of the complex science (even though, that is part of the issue), it’s because searching for the evidence that supports or refutes some claim is often nuanced, and contradictory. And researching it isn’t easy.
Thus, as a self-proclaimed scientific skeptic, I thought I’d write an article to help anyone learn more about what interests them, how to discriminate between bad and good research, and where to find good information. Sit down with your favorite internet consuming device, grab your favorite snack and drink, and enjoy.
Now, you might be asking yourself, “self, why is this feathery dinosaur getting all cranky about whether these people are called skeptics or deniers?” Because skepticism, even to the lay person, implies that the person has some legitimate beef with the science of a topic based on a thoughtful and unbiased review of said science. That is actually the furthest thing from the truth for these so-called vaccine skeptics.
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.
I was going write a profound scientific skeptical topic topic. I was trying to choose a topic from amongst vaccines, GMOs or moon landings. First of all, since I am a father, I will just say that everyone have a Safe and Happy and Skeptical Fathers Day.
Maybe, that should an effective sentiment.
As fathers, we should and must teach our children well. I have three daughters, one of whom is wildly interested in science. She questions everything, and she uses here scientific mind to good use – she’s already rejected the nonsense of Donald Trump. I consider that a good start.
And she’s getting pretty adept at scientific humor and sarcasm. I will, of course, always deny it’s that funny.
So as fathers, what can we do to make the world a little bit better for them? I don’t know. I am the wise man on the mountain who cannot tell you the meaning of life. Furthermore, I’m very certain that the meaning of life eludes me for my life.
Skeptical Fathers, here’s your duty for the next few weeks:
First step, I recommend that you check if your kids are full vaccinated. This is easy. You can check their records. Afterwards, you can relax if you did it all right. Or you can make an appointment to get them vaccinated. Consequently, you can then let your children go out into the world. They can be safe from diseases that should have been gone by now, such as measles and chickenpox.
In addition, you should encourage your children to aspire to a strong and quality education. If you compare college educated and non-college educated groups, researchers have established that the more the the more educated children will eventually lean toward more liberal and educated ideas.
Additionally, the in-class education can develop team-building skills, critical thinking, and competitiveness. As a result of all these factors, you child will have a leg-up in scientific research.
You can motivate you children to develop critical thinking skills. Consequently, they will have many of the skills that can help reject the lies and foolishness of science deniers.
Most of all, you should let your kids experience real science. I took my daughters to the aquarium in Baltimore, many years ago. As a result, one of my daughters fell in love with the science. Even at my advanced years, going to a natural history museum is like reading an encyclopedia – I can choose a random topic, and then consume it all.
I want every father to have a Happy and Skeptical Father’s Day. We can eat some BBQ, share times with family. And we can push our children towards loving science and critical thinking.
On Sunday evening (8 May 2016), John Oliver, the English comedian and political satirist, talked about science and how we should embrace it during his HBO show, Last Week Tonight. The upshot is that John Oliver promotes real science – and critical thinking about bad science. And states that vaccines don’t cause autism.
Oliver is one of the best satirists on TV. His attacks on stupidity in politics and culture are classics. He’s been doing his shtick for many years on American TV, being one of featured correspondents for the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I always looked forward to his reports, though always funny, they were generally pointed and quite intelligent.
His recent segment on science on his HBO show was a classic. And let’s take a look at how John Oliver promotes real science – and why it’s kind of sad that a comedian has to hit it out of the park.