Many of us on the evidence side of science discussions will often throw out the phrase that XYZ is settled science. Of course, this causes the science deniers, especially the vaccine and climate change deniers, to get all indignant while throwing out there science ignorance wrapped in their usual ad hominem personal attacks. I use it frequently, about 25% of the time to troll the science deniers while about 75% of the time to make a point.
So this article is going to review what we mean by “settled science,” and it doesn’t mean what the pseudoscience loving world thinks it means. In fact, pseudoscience fans think the only “settled science” is their fake evidence and fake conclusions. But that’s not science and it’s not “settled science.”
Now, you might ask about why I chose climate change and vaccines as the two settled science examples. There are good reasons – conservatives who accept vaccines often reject climate change, even though the evidence supporting both are overwhelming. And there are those on the left who get angry about climate change denial, yet accept every pseudoscientific argument, conspiracy theory, and lie about vaccines. It makes my brand new irony meter blow up.
What is “settled science?”
Let’s be clear right up front – all scientific ideas, theories, laws, and consensuses are provisional. That is, all scientific conclusions can be overturned – not through debate, rhetoric, or logical fallacies, but with evidence. And the contradictory evidence must be of the same quality AND quality as the evidence that supported the original conclusions.
Settled science is roughly equivalent to the scientific consensus, the collective opinion of scientific experts in the field, based on superior evidence, usually published in peer-reviewed journals. It’s only about the evidence.
Because it’s often ignored by the science deniers, it’s important to note that science is not a democracy, so there is no formal vote in some cocktail party to develop and create a scientific consensus. Occasionally, respected scientific societies will often publish a public statement on the scientific consensus for a particular scientific idea. There are consensus statements on GMOs, climate change, and vaccines – this constitutes settled science.
This scientific consensus derives from a huge body of scientific evidence that all agree with and support one another. It is based on public, published evidence that has been repeated a number of times. Settled science results from this consistent evidence, not because of their personal opinions or a priori conclusions.
What settled science does not mean:
- The scientific consensus is not dogma that can never be changed. Again, bring evidence to change it, and it will be reviewed, repeated, and become a part of the body of evidence. Prior to the 1980s, there were numerous hypotheses as to why the non-avian dinosaurs (remember, birds are dinosaurs) went extinct. Eventually, the K-Pg bolide impact event became the explanation for the extinction event, although there are a couple of scientists who think it’s something else – it’s not a debate since the vast bulk of evidence supports an impact event.
- It does not mean one can resort to the old Argument from Ignorance, that is, just because we can’t find evidence of something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It’s a bastardization of the old “the absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence.” Except it does, especially if you look very very very hard.
- It does not mean that science says “game over,” time to move on to something else. Science is constantly adding data to the body of knowledge of everything. In fact, I’m sure a Nobel Prize is awaiting the scientists who bring a powerful body of evidence showing that evolution is wrong. But please don’t hold your breath, the body of evidence supporting evolution is equivalent to millions of articles, books, and lectures, a literal mountain.
The settled science of climate change
My background isn’t in climate science – all of my education is in the biological sciences (with big chunks of chemistry, physics, and mathematics, since all of those are the basic foundations of biology). I am not arrogant enough to dismiss or accept the scientific theory of human-caused global warming without thought.
The most important point is that there is a vast and powerful scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change. The National Academy of Sciences, one of the USA’s oldest and most prestigious scientific organizations, and one of the most respected in the world, published this statement (pdf) about climate change:
The scientific understanding of climate change is now sufficiently clear to justify taking steps to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
The also wrote (pdf):
There is unequivocal evidence that the Earth’s climate is warming…. The consensus among climate experts is that it is extremely likely that the main cause of recent warming is the ‘greenhouse’ gases (GHGs) emitted by human activities, in particular, the burning of fossil fuels —coal, oil, and gas — and the destruction of forests.
These are powerful declarations that the Earth is warming and it is likely caused by humans. These statements weren’t written by a bunch of politicians sitting in a bar. They weren’t written by people with high school education after spending two hours getting their University of Google degree. They were written by leading unbiased and uncompromised scientists who are experts in the field of climate science – individuals with tens of thousands of hours of study, research, and experience.
THAT is settled science.
The settled science of vaccines
On the other hand, my background does give me the skills and background to comprehend the science of vaccines. But let’s not trust me, because I could be some random feathered dinosaur who are all over the internet.
Once again, the National Academy of Medicine (a body within the National Academy of Sciences which is funded by the US Government and whose members are not compensated for their work for the organization) has written an extensive report about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines. Their consensus statement is:
Vaccines offer the promise of protection against a variety of infectious diseases. Despite much media attention and strong opinions from many quarters, vaccines remain one of the greatest tools in the public health arsenal. Certainly, some vaccines result in adverse effects that must be acknowledged. But the latest evidence shows that few adverse effects are caused by the vaccines reviewed in this report.
In my review of this report, written by experts with hundreds of thousands of hours of education, research, and publication, the settled science of vaccines is clear – vaccines are very safe and very effective.
Settled science denialism – it’s about money
This is a common ad hominem of science deniers everywhere, but I see it in the world of climate change and vaccines all of the time. I always laugh at this trope, because it relies on a belief that everyone can be bought at some price. No one has ever offered me $1 trillion dollars for me to sell out my scientific integrity, but I’m thinking that’s the price that would buy me. Maybe a few thousand dollars short of that mark, because I don’t want to come across as greedy.
I’ve always assumed that the science deniers think scientists can be bought because the accusers themselves lack integrity and ethics – the deniers can all be bought for a cup of coffee and croissant.
A typical climate change scientist may receive a million dollar grant for studying the science, but that doesn’t mean that scientist is receiving $1 million in cash to spend on a new Ferrari and mansion on an isolated island in the Pacific (as if they would, since they know with climate change the rising sea levels will destroy that island). In fact, a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation may mean that around $25 thousand goes to the salary of the researcher. The rest of the money goes to overhead to the university (paying for the buildings, electricity, administration, etc.), salaries to lab techs and grad students, supplies, computers, travel, statistical analysis, and hundreds of things I don’t even remember.
The same goes for vaccine research. First of all, most vaccine research is done without funding from anyone. The CDC, which does a big chunk of vaccine research, is an independent federal agency. I know, there are anti-vaccine lunatics who want us to believe that the CDC profits from vaccines, but they don’t. Any research that’s done with grants from Big Pharma, it’s the same story as with climate change. A $1 million grant has to pay the overhead, salaries of techs and researchers, statistical analyses, travel, and dozens of other costs that are critical to research. Again, the lead researchers of a clinical study aren’t cashing $1 million checks, no matter how much the crackpot ideas of the anti-vaccine religion.
One of the regular attacks regarding money and vaccines is usually against Dr. Paul Offit, one of the heroes of vaccines. He invented the vaccine against rotavirus, a disease that kills 250,000 children a year across the world, even in developed countries like the USA. So Dr. Offit invents a vaccine that can prevent a quarter of a million deaths each year, but that’s ignored by the anti-vaxxers. I wonder if any of those people have saved even a single life.
Settled science denialism – science is split
The whole point of the scientific consensus or settled science is that there really is no split – the evidence overwhelmingly supports the consensus. And I cannot repeat this enough, the only thing that matters is evidence.
The near unanimity in the settled science of climate change and vaccines overwhelms the quacks and gadflies that deny that science. For example, research published in the peer-reviewed Environmental Research Letters found that over 97% of papers discussing anthropogenic global warming accepted the fact that humans were the cause.
The settled science deniers then grab onto the minority opinions like a large cephalopod holding onto its prey, trying to convince the world that the overwhelming consensus is wrong. The deniers cherry pick bad studies or non-consensus viewpoints trying to claim these studies are more important than the consensus.
By doing so, they ignore important issues like:
- They ignore the quality of the research. In the vaccine world, these bad studies are often published in low impact factor predatory journals.
- Many of the articles have been retracted because they are junk.
- The studies have such poor methodology and analysis that they are junk.
- The studies don’t actually reject the consensus.
- The studies don’t actually test the hypothesis.
Anthropogenic climate change and vaccine safety and effectiveness are settled science not because I say so. It’s because all of the evidence and a super-majority of scientists agree. Unless, of course, your University of Google cherry picking and false balance is much more important.
Settled science denialism – anecdotes are superior to data
Science deniers love their anecdotes and post hoc fallacies. Like when a US Senator, James M Inhofe brought a snowball to the Senate floor to convince everyone that global warming was fake. Or when someone claims serious injury as a result of a vaccine, so the HPV vaccine is dangerous.
In the former case, weather is not equivalent to climate. But most of you who know science understand this point – climate change, like all good scientific theories, can make predictions based on the model. Global warming can lead to more variability in the weather, with more severe weather events – but all of the data show that the average temperature of the earth is increasing, thanks to mankind’s pouring carbon into the atmosphere – this is settled science.
In the latter case, medical conditions, including severe ones, happen to children, irrespective of vaccine status. Sometimes children die because of genetics, random chance, or a terrifying disease. But science tells us there are generally no links. How do we know? Because of numerous published and peer-reviewed clinical and epidemiological studies. That helps us find potential causal links and vaccines – ironically, we have found so few, because vaccines are one of the safest medical procedures ever.
There are reasons why people give more weight to anecdotes than science. For most people, scientific data is too impersonal and complex. A story from a friend about vaccine dangers, the usefulness of acupuncture, or the weather seems to be real data, more important than data derived through the scientific method. But it isn’t.
Anecdotes are polluted by confirmation bias, selection bias, and, to be honest, every single cognitive bias that clouds people’s thinking about causality in whatever direction their bias pushes them. So they think people telling them that vaccines caused a child’s autism, that acupuncture cured their pain, that taking a few supplements destroyed their cancer, or that a snowball means that global warming is a scam are all more powerful than scientific evidence.
Settled science denialism – none of this matters to me
Of course, there are a large group of people who simply shrug their shoulders and tell us that it doesn’t matter whether people vaccinate their kids. Or whether the earth warms a few degrees.
The problem with this type of denialism is that it does matter. The problem is that people seem to forget about the past and can’t see future consequences.
If we stopped vaccinating, and I don’t mean we drop to 0% vaccination rate, I mean just drop down to 70-80%, enough to destroy the herd effect, children (and many adults) will die of diseases that disappeared from our cultural memory decades ago. Measles will come back and kill children. Chickenpox, polio, rotavirus, Hib, and so many others will become a part of our daily lives. Go check a cemetery from 1900 or earlier. Look at the family plots with 5 or more children who died young – that’s because they lacked vaccines.
The future of climate change is just as harrowing. It’s not just that coral reefs will die out, or low lying areas will get flooded. It’s more powerful hurricanes and polar vortices killing people. It’s droughts that will destroy crops causing famine everywhere. It’s tropical diseases moving north into the USA and Europe. Not to be scary, but a world where the average temperature only increases by 5-6ºC (9-11ºF) will probably mean the extinction of almost every animal on the planet, including humans. And as of today, the average temperature has increased by 1.5ºC (2.7ºF) over just a couple of decades, so we’re on our way there.
Settled science doesn’t mean that’s a scientific consensus is forever permanent. That’s how the pseudoscience crowd works. It means that the vast wealth of evidence supports the consensus of expert scientists. Of course, if someone brings an equivalent amount of evidence of equivalent quality, then the settled science becomes unsettled.
So right now, based on the evidence derived from scientific studies, vaccines are safe and effective. And humans cause global warming. If you want to deny that, it doesn’t mean you’re smarter than thousands of expert scientists. It just means you’re ignorant. I hope you’re proud of that.
When those of us use the term, “settled science,” maybe you can understand it. It’s about the evidence, and that evidence is overwhelming.
Wait. Maybe vaccines cause global warming. Think about it.
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