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Science does not require faith

Last updated on June 17th, 2021 at 01:03 pm

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:

That’s it. These are the basics of biology, and by understanding these three principles, you understand a big chunk of biology and medicine. However, evolution and vaccine denialists reject a lot of this out of hand. Creationists, of course, have nothing to do with evolution. Vaccine denialists not only reject germ theory, with their curious beliefs on how diseases are transmitted, but based on some of their beliefs on how to treat diseases and how the human body works, they obviously reject cell theory. Most accept things like homeopathy, which is an absolute rejection of not only the basic theories of biology, but the basic theories of physics and chemistry too.
So right from the beginning, these discussions with science denialists, like anti-vaccinationists or creationists, become difficult because the essentials of science are rejected by the these pseudoskeptics. No matter what they say, it would require years and years, plus hundreds, if not thousands, of articles from dozens of researchers to overturn these theories. There are Nobel Prizes awaiting researchers who could do that. It’s not overturned by some rhetoric by someone with a google education. If one of these theories are going to be set aside, it’s going to be done by real research provided by real researchers.
Outside of these basic theories of biology and medicine, all of the other research is subject to our own biases and fallacies. And that’s where it gets complicated. Do we trust the researchers who have studied vaccines? Well, we do get good research and then we get Wakefield’s research. Since even well educated and expert researchers are really experts in one narrow field, how do we then interpret data?
As I’ve stated before, we must, to a certain extent, trust the quality of the data. Secondary publications, based on meta-reviews, are the best quality data to which we have access. It clears away cherry picking, research bias, and confirmation bias. To contradict conclusions made by secondary research, that contradictory data must be of equivalent or better quality. And this is where the denialists fail. They often rely upon anecdotes. Or cherry-picking research (ignoring dozens of studies, while choosing the one that meets their biases). Or misusing sources (picking through vaccine package inserts, which, by statute, make no attempt at determining which adverse event is actually related to the drug). Or conflating causation and correlation. In other words, because denialists are almost always scientific amateurs, they don’t understand how to use scientific sources. And because they often deny the basic theories of science, it becomes impossible to converse logically with them.
Lastly, the denialists will attempt to compare science to religion. They will state that science requires faith, no different than religion. Well, that’s just plainly wrong. Science does require assumptions. I assume that the data from various researchers are correct. I read them carefully, if I can, and see if they make sense. But I accept that assumptions are subject to testing and updating over time. If new data were available, and our predictions were wrong, then we would discard that assumption. If new data were provided that were incontrovertible and clear, we could even change our basic theories of biology (although by their nature, they’ve been through many rounds of testing and critical analysis).
Science stands up to criticism, and if it is valid, it throws out its old ideas and brings in new ones when the evidence demands it. Science based medicine is like this. When the evidence shows something doesn’t work, they don’t continue to do it because they have “faith” in it. They stop it, and revise their methods. Or try something else. Faith is believing in something without regards to evidence. Science changes because of evidence.
And that’s the difference between science and pseudoscience. Between real skepticism and pseudoskepticism. And between the scientific method and faith.
Michael Simpson

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