Conspiring against science

By Grant Jacobs 17/06/2010

There has been much written about conspiracy-style alternatives to science and how to best address them. Writing in EMBO Reports, sociologist Ted Goertzel offers his opinions (Open Access; PDF file).

I invite people to read the article for themselves. Some readers more familiar with scientific-related conspiracies may wish to skim over the introductory passages. Below I offer a few quotes from the article as starters for discussion. I’ve offer a few quick words to some of them.

On the Wakefield/MMR story:

The media highlighted the story, despite the study’s very small sample size and speculative causal inferences, and the public reaction was much larger than the medical and public health authorities anticipated. The reasons for the public reaction included resentment of pressure on parents, distrust of medical authorities and the potentially catastrophic nature of possible risk for a vulnerable population. […] While the authorities responded by citing findings from large epidemiological studies, much of the press coverage highlighted anecdotal accounts and human-interest stories. The recovery of public confidence in vaccination might have been due more to revelations of a conflict of interest on the part of the physician who published the original article–which was eventually withdrawn by the journal–than to the overwhelming evidence for the lack of a relationship between vaccination and autism rates.

Here I’m not so much interested in the science, but what drives these sorts of concern in the public and what resolves them. What do you think best resolves these issues. In the case of the Wakefield/MMR ’affair’ how effective do you think the research studies have been at putting this to rest? (Or is it the communication of these that matter more in your opinion?)

On ‘two sides’ and media ’balance’:

Dissenters from mainstream science often invoke a meme that there are two sides to every question and each side is entitled to equal time to present its case. George W. Bush famously suggested that students be taught both evolution and ’intelligent design’ theories so that they could judge which had the most convincing argument (Baker & Slevin, 2005). Similarly, climate change ‘sceptics’ demand equal air time for their side of the argument and, at least in the beginning, the media were more than willing to grant it in the interest of ‘balance’.


This advocacy meme is used widely in law courts and political debates and it can work well when the question at hand is one of taste or morality. It does not work well for scientists because there are objective right and wrong answers to most scientific questions.

It strikes me that this effectively exploits the mainstream media’s ’standard’ practice of presenting ’alternative views.’ (I worry sometimes that the/a main reason is to ’justify’ that they have ’correctly investigated’ an issue. In New Zealand I have seen apologetic remarks to this effect on current affairs programmes.)

It’d be good to see media not fall for this. In the case of material based on evidence, if an ‘alternative’ has little evidence, it deserves little or no air-time. If it’s not backed by substance, it’s not an alternative but an opinion and for fact-based stories it is what is known that matters, not opinions.

On having a better theory:

[…] This meme is frequently introduced with the example of Galileo’s defence of the heliocentric model of the solar system against the orthodoxy of the Catholic Church. […] But being a dissenter from orthodoxy is not difficult; the hard part is actually having a better theory.

That last sentence deserves repeating a thousand times, especially the final phrase: The hard part is actually having a better theory. The article cites Thomas Gold as an interesting and less often cited example of succeeding in the face of contrary orthodox thought.

On advocacy:

Scientific expertise is usually quite specialized, and scientists who advocate for political causes only tangentially related to their area of specialization have no special claim on the truth.

On ’proving’ a theory wrong:

Conspiracists often seem to believe that they can prove a scientific theory wrong by finding a flaw or gap in its evidence. […] The more important test of a research programme is whether progress is being made over a period of time, and whether better progress could be made with an alternative approach.

This deserves expanding on; Goertzel’s article does a little, but I feel there is scope for an article on this topic alone. In some areas in particular it is expected that individual findings won’t fit, particularly before the full basis of the new findings are understood. Climate science would be one obvious candidate; many areas of biology, too.

On presenting a consensus:

Scientists will never reach a consensus with the ‘flat-earthers’ or with those who believe the earth was created in 4004 BC. Nor do they need to; all that is required is a clearly specified degree of consensus among scientists who base their conclusions on empirical data. Efforts to reach consensus on important questions have been discouraged by the influence of philosophers of science who emphasize conflicting research programmes, paradigm shifts and scientific revolutions (Franklin, 2009; Stove, 1982). While these events do occur in the history of science, they are exceptional. Most sciences, most of the time, progress with an orderly, gradual accumulation of knowledge that is recognized and accepted by specialists in the field.

Instead of advocating evidence on it’s own, the author advocates presenting a consensus of the evidence. As a scientist, I’m happy with the former, but perhaps the latter is easier for the public to concede to?

Final paragraph:

But scientists can be more effective if they avoid falling into the trap of debating science with polemicists and clearly separate their scientific work from their political advocacy as citizens.

I’ve too minds about this. How to speak out if you don’t speak out? I do think that people need to better understand the two different memes involved (debating and scientific). If time permitted, perhaps introduce the different approaches as the context, then present what you have to say in this context? Without giving it this context, the science may be too readily dismissed or otherwise misused?

Readers may wish to read Kens post Alarmist Con and Peter Gluckman’s speech (NZ Science ADvisor to the PM) in the context of Goertzel’s article. And Alison’s pseudoscientific gambits for a little levity!


Conspiracy theories in science Goertzel, T.

EMBO reports advance online publication 11 June 2010

doi:10.1038/embor.2010.84 (Use the direct link if the paper is not yet available this way.)

Other articles in Code for life:

Media thought: Ask what is known, not the expert’s opinion

Consensus, evidence, wikipedia and blogs

Three kinds of knowledge about science and journalism

Science journalism–critical analysis, not debate

To link or not to link: mainstream media and no links at all

0 Responses to “Conspiring against science”

  • Thoroughly agree with the statement about media ‘balance’. If you’re debating about the virtues of new laws or sports, that’s fair enough. However to suggest that that views of a professor that’s spent half his/her life studying immunology is the same as a panicking mother who has just read Wakefield’s garbage is absolutely nuts.

  • However to suggest that that views of a professor that’s spent half his/her life studying immunology is the same as a panicking mother who has just read Wakefield’s garbage is absolutely nuts.

    A point of difference is that, that professor doesn’t need to express “opinion,” they can (and I think should) be explaining what is known.

    (To complicate matters, in science “opinion” generally means what is beyond the evidence, what might be true with further research, a speculation of where the research might head.)

  • Peter Gluckman, writing on the Office of the Prime Minister’s Science Advisory Committee blog, has weighed in with some thoughts on anti-scientism, e.g.

    “[…] because scientific knowledge can challenge our biases and our beliefs is not a reason to reject it. Anti-scientism is illogical—it is rejecting the only process we have for obtaining reliable (but not necessarily complete) knowledge of the world we live in and have created.”

    There’s also my earlier article taking it’s lead from Paul Nurse’s remarks that for some reason I didn’t link: