How pseudoscience makes its case. Part 4.

This is my continuing multi-part discussion about how pseudoscience uses logical fallacies, strawman arguments, and other rhetoric to make its case, rather than real science.  Just click on the links to read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

The other day I engaged in a discussion with a well-meaning pharmacist who claimed that vitamin C could treat colds and prevent other diseases like  “cancer” (I always get annoyed  by people who lump all cancers together, when there are over 200 different cancers, all of which have different histologies, genetics, and causes).  Of course, there are a number of well-controlled clinical trials that show that vitamin C has no effect on the common cold and has no effect on cancers so far studied (see this, this, this and this).

During our discussion, she said “science should be neutral,” with the implication that I wasn’t neutral.  I happen to agree, science should be neutral and it should balanced.  But science should be based upon the scientific method not rhetoric and not using science-y words, at which the writers of Star Trek were well-versed.

So, when I say that I am (or any evidence-based real scientist), “scientifically neutral”, that means I’m willing to weigh the evidence and publications on real scientific issues.  I am not a geologist nor a paleontologist, but I was studying biochemistry when the earliest theories on what caused the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event 65.5 million years ago, where all the dinosaurs (well, not all, since technically modern birds are surviving dinosaurs from a cladistic point of view) and some 75% of all extant genera died out or were killed.  In 1980, Luis Alvarez, a brilliant theoretical physicist whose career was extraordinary, along with his son, Walter Alvarez (a geologist), and Frank Asaro, published an article that describe a sedimentary layer across the world that included a rare element, iridium, usually found in extraterrestrial objects like meteors and comets.  The layer fell right at the geological boundary layer that defines the extinction event, so they proposed that the dinosaurs were wiped out by a huge comet or asteroid.

Today, this accepted as a scientific theory with tons of confirming evidence (although some scientists aren’t fully convinced, though they still propose some natural event).  But at the time, it was ridiculed, and scientific meetings were quite energetic in discussions.  The point is that the impact theory displaced the prevailing scientific theory of the extinction event (well, there were several).  One theory replaced another not by rhetoric or appeals to antiquity (that one theory was around forever) or anything else.  In fact, one scientific hypothesis was replaced by another and eventually developed into a solid theory.

We should be neutral in science, reviewing the evidence, then coming to conclusions.  The Alvarez father-son team provided that, and eventually there was overwhelming evidence with the finding and dating of the Chicxulub impact crater in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico.

Using scientific neutrality, vitamin C doesn’t work, not because I have an opinion, but because there is no science supporting its efficacy.  There are some articles that support its use in preventing or treating colds, or megadoses for curing cancer, but those articles are in low-impact (meaning obscure) journals or with poorly designed, or non-blinded trials.  My friendly neighborhood pharmacist was stating that I should be neutral between real science and well, nothing at all.  That’s not balance, that’s a close-mindedness to science and the scientific method.  That’s using opinion as the balance to scientific knowledge.  The only thing that should balance scientific knowledge is more scientific knowledge.

Don’t fall for the trap that you should be “open-minded” or neutral to anti-science or pseudoscience.  Open-mindedness and neutrality are expectations that you will balance real scientific evidence, not treat the rhetoric as if it has equal weight to scientific method.