Why (some) people don’t trust science

By Grant Jacobs 14/06/2011 67


A commenter, John, wrote in another thread–which is really about another topic entirely–offered this (quoted in full):

I think the bigger question is, why don’t people trust science anymore?

Maybe…

1. It’s been wrong before (asbestos, 245-T, etc)

2. Potential corruption (by funders, politicians, government departments, etc. AFTER the scientists release it)

3. Public’s lack of time to research evidence, so decide based on perceptions (easily swayed)

4. ‘The man’ — science is cold, establishment, authoritarian.

New Agers present a much more attractive image — peace and love. True they don’t do rigorous tests, but then they don’t make as many ’scientifically proven’ promises the way science does. Little wonder they earn more trust.

Maybe science is antiquated and out of alignment with how society thinks now? Many other industries are having to adapt to survive — music, journalism, museums, etc. Has science made any radical, fundamental changes to try to gain the public’s trust?

I’d like to offer some very quick starter thoughts. I haven’t had time to think this through (work to do), but I hope this might seed useful discussion. Free-form rumination rather than an essay, if you will.

I’d suggest it’s not science itself that is ‘wrong’, but that the interface that science has with the public that might benefit from change.

The ’scientifically proven’ slogan is more a icon of media and marketers rather than (modern) science. Modern science deals with uncertainty and in probabilities. The likelihood that something might happen, rather than a certainty that it will.

Peter Gluckman once pointed out that the public may not appreciate (fully) the implication of science dealing with complex subjects, compared to the simpler one-element focuses of the past. Among other things complex subjects involve modelling. A typical feature of modelling complex systems is that the model is repeated many times with slight variations on the input to assess the most likely outcomes and which outcomes appear to be reliable outcomes of the model for that data.

Another is the sheer amount of knowledge that lies behind even seemingly simple statements. I’m not trying to put science on a pedestal here. If you’re a scientist, peering into another field has this effect too! What at first seems trivial quickly proves to have an awful lot of things to cross-check.

As for the new-age ’peace and love’ message, in my experience scientists in general are strong pacifists. (Maybe others have a different experience – ?)

Getting back to John’s comment, there is a perception v. reality element here. If you look at the points, bar the first, none of them are about the outcome of science itself.

Alison wrote recently: ’I think the fact that media reports tend to ignore the tentative nature of a lot of scientific finds/rulings/statements does us a grave disservice.’ As she is saying, I think there is a need to present science as it actually is. I’ve touched on aspects of this before, how the state of play is presented, what it is that is disputed, and so on. (More links after this article rumination.)

There is a tendency in science communication–sometimes including in some efforts by science journalists writing blogs that cover a wide scope–to over-simplify, creating more certainty than there is. Certainly the mainstream reporting is guilty of it.

There is a balancing act here. Too much detail puts people off, unless the reader or viewer already is committed to the topic at hand. Too simple and people (sometimes rightfully)  complain of being fed an answer.

I read somewhere–I forget the source now–that once a story ‘takes’ it many editors move it off the science writers to the feature writers. I don’t think I need to tell you that, if true, I have mixed feelings about that.

Then, very briefly on each of John’s numbered points above as quick conversation starters:

  1. It’s been wrong before (asbestos, 245-T, etc) Sure. So has everyone else! One issue here is that science doesn’t give ’the’ answer, it gives the best answer at the time and it’s able to move on past it’s mistakes.
  2. Potential corruption (by funders, politicians, government departments, etc. AFTER the scientists release it) This is more about how science is used by others. (Correct?) I’m not excusing it, it’s a fair point, one that annoys scientists no end. It’s one reason I like Peter Gluckman’s call to better use of evidence in policy formation. It’s a big topic, one I had meant to write about. (I did once suggest a NZ Science Party!) A point here may be that it’d be helpful to have some way to present–open to the public–’the data’ without strings so that they might see the underlying issues without the framework others wish to cast them within.
  3. Public’s lack of time to research evidence, so decide based on perceptions (easily swayed) I have a lot of sympathy for this. It’s one reason why science blog articles can take a long time to write! It brings up the issue of reliance on authority. One tack at it I had was for media to ask what is known, not the expert’s opinion. The point here is that while the short time frame limits presentations to a few people speaking, it directs the responses to the substance, rather than opinions.
  4. ‘The man’ — science is cold, establishment, authoritarian. I think this is mostly perception. Take a look at Mark Quigley speaking on the earthquakes in and near Christchurch over the last year. Cold, establishment, authoritarian? Or for that matter some fellow writers here at sciblogs who have been in the media. To me if there is a ‘real’ face to this, it’s the formal advisory, written in terse language. One important distinction is authoritative, as opposed to authoritarian.

Another element that might contribute is for mainstream on-line media to link to original sources and resources.

But – enough from me! Feel free to comment.

Update: This video might interest some readers – How does science work?


Other articles on Code for life (most of these are quite old; my views may have moved on or elaborated since!):

Conspiring against science

Three kinds of knowledge about science and journalism

Consensus, evidence, wikipedia and blogs

Of use of the active voice by scientists

Sidebar scientists

Scientists can’t write?


67 Responses to “Why (some) people don’t trust science”

  • On your #4 – I think there’s a bit more to it than this. (Look! I’m dissenting! LOL)

    While a reasonable number of scientists are moving into the area of science communication, & doing it very well, you also get a reasonable number who probably do come across as John describes them. They are, after all, the experts; they’ll deliver the information; everyone else should simply listen & accept it./end slight snark. Or they’ve had no media training, & as a result come across as distant & cold (when in fact they’re just nervous & awkward as anything).

    An example would be someone writing the press release as they think it should be, & demanding no change from the journalist – OK, perhaps they’ve had a bad experience previously with journalistic licence, but that’s no reason for writing a rather boring, formal impersonal piece that leaves the exciting bits to the end, & expecting it to be snapped up. (And this isn’t a hypothetical example, incidentally.)

    So maybe it’s partly perception, but I think there’s a certain reality there as well.

  • Good answer(s).

    The lack of funding for education also plays a big part. Science teaching in schools has suffered greatly under funding pressures and the general public is not well-equipped to understand the scientific method, let alone the results and discussion.

    Scientists also spend too much writing funding applications and milestone reports, when they could be effectively communicating their findings.

    Also, what rational person would ever support war as the best solution to a problem?

  • Alison,

    On your #4 – I think there’s a bit more to it than this. (Look! I’m dissenting! LOL)

    Hahaha. These are just starters. If I wrote everything I thought on this subject it’d turn into a book! LOL I’ll get back to you properly this evening – cooking beckons. Quickly though – you’re right, I just wouldn’t cast that on everyone. I suspect the issues you raise are true of any industry when some of it’s members front up to media.

    On a joking note, what about the economists (etc.) presenting financial forecasts or updates? They’re full of jargon, just-so statements and rest of it… To my ears, anyway. But as you were. (This is a bit of a sideline.)

  • When it comes to communicating science I think the challenge is explaining often complex concepts in a way that they can be understood, without oversimplifying them, which is something you have mentioned above, Grant.
    This is where the challenge comes with pseudoscience. It usually involves very simple (albeit illogical) concepts or oversimplifications of the physical world.
    Just look at most creationist debates – while an evolutionist tries to explain a complex concept, the creationist has usually delivered a number of simplistic and erroneous comments.

  • dozntmatter,

    “Scientists also spend too much writing funding applications and milestone reports, when they could be effectively communicating their findings.”

    I agree with the first part of this comment but not necessarily the second. I think when people expect scientists to engage in communication as well as doing research (and applying for grants) they are expecting too much.
    Scientists are judged by their research output and their funding depends on their research. Science communication takes time away from their research therefore potentially weakens their research e.g. PBRF rating.
    Also some scientists are not good communicators and dont have the interest or personality for it.

    Possible solutions for these issues would be for
    1) the PBRF to be adjusted to allow science communication activities to be considered
    2) Scientists interested in communication are encouraged and given some sort of dispensation to be engage in science communication (not sure how this would work though)

    I think one of the problems is, that despite the rhetoric, about science communication, many in the science community still consider it to be relatively unimportant.

  • Free-form rumination… I like that… “Peter Gluckman once pointed out that the public may not appreciate (fully) the implication of science dealing with complex subjects, compared to the simpler one-element focuses of the past.”

    Personally, I find Professor Gluckman a very poor communicator of science. I think this might explain why in part. The public lives in a world where humans have historically appreciated the complexity of subjects; it is science that tries to talk in one-element dimensions. For example… ‘science’ denies the existence of God, claims that GE foods are just the same as non-GE foods, that nuclear power plants and vaccines are safe, and that vitamins and organic foods aren’t. I suggest that the implication of science dealing with complex subjects, such as humans, has a long way to go. Life, as a rule, can not be reducted to black and white leggo blocks. during the past 140 years since DNA was discovered in 1869 scientists have argued that ethnicity is determined by genes. Complex subjects, such as humans, smile politely to themselves when scientists recently claimed that they could not find a gene to explain ethnicity. Science keeps changing its mind about waht is, what isn’t; what works, what doesn’t. Meanwhile, complex subjects such as humans just go on with life. When these scientists start dictating what people can/can’t, should/shouldn’t do then complex subjects such as humans get annoyed.

    Peter Gluckman, may well be on the right track, but I suspect reality is that scientist may not appreciate (fully) the implication of science dealing with complex subjects, such as humans, compared to the simpler one-element focus of science.”

  • Here’s my two cents as a non-scientist who’s very interested in science issues – humans are very much social creatures and have historically devoted most of their brain power to decoding social interactions – we’re wired for other people. Because of this, social things like argument from authority bugger up a clearheaded consideration of the evidence. Even Clever Hans the horse used his social skills to work out when to stop counting. So in a way, proper science involves divesting ourselves of social considerations. The teenager who told his Crohn’s support group about the dangers of Miracle Mineral Solution found himself banned for his social trespass of questioning the dearly-held beliefs of other members. Frankenstein’s monster followed closely on the heels of the Enlightenment.

    If you can find a way to regraft the social back into science, at least in its outward-facing communications efforts, then that goes a long way to solving the problem. One example is finding individuals to personify data like Mark Quigley. Perhaps it’s using argument from authority, but it’s using it to convey info rather than to determine it in the first place.

  • Trouble,
    I think what you are saying makes a great deal of sense. As scientists we are trained to focus on the rational, remove bias, social considerations etc.
    Yet when we attempt to engage the public we need to take into some of these aspects back into the equation so to speak?
    So we actually may have to use some of the techniques we often criticise (argument from authority?)
    I think you are probably right but this is a challenging concept to deal with.

  • Just bringing Michael’s comment—not mine!—on the other thread over so everything is in one place (hope that’s OK, Michael!):

    Michael Edmonds:

    John,

    “Maybe science is antiquated and out of alignment with how society thinks now?”

    So what is the alternative? Do we reject science and all that it has provided us with and start consulting astrologers, homeopaths and crystal healers?

    I suppose it would at least help with our overpopulated world by drastically increasing the mortality rate.

    I think science communicators are trying new ways of communicating science, e.g. blogs and youtube etc, however, you can only change the style of delivery so much without skimping on the substance.

    Do you have any suggestions on fundamental changes that could be made to gain the publics trusts

    (Having said that from a recent NZ survey it appears that trust in scientists in NZ is reasonably good anyway (I’ll see if I can find a link)

    Michael Edmonds:

    A blog I wrote on New Zealanders level of trust in scientists
    https://sciblogs.co.nz/guestwork/2010/10/20/science-and-the-new-zealand-public/

  • Thanks all for engaging.

    When I said ‘antiquated’ I didn’t necessarily mean the scientific method, science is vital to our future, but I was meaning more that maybe the wider approach the science community has may need a re-think. Modern science is only, what, a few centuries old – it originated in the industrial age… we are now in the communication age – a VERY different environment, and of course just in the last decade or so there has been significant changes across society.

    * We now live in an expectation of conspiracy – 1984, X Files, Michael Moore – it’s no wonder people don’t trust anything coming from ‘the man’

    * New Age thinking has been around for decades now and widely permeating society (TV shows like Lost, X-Files, or Joan of Arcadia aren’t considered weird anymore) yet, in general, science doesn’t seem to be investigating these alternative viewpoints, they are perceived to blindly dismiss them and instead put all their energy into attacking them (which seems against the spirit of scientific openness of thought)

    * The Internet and Social Media means the public can now have on-par expertise, AND a public voice, in ways never possible before (LOL, I even got my own thread in a science blog). Note that scientists aren’t the only previously-considered-authoritative profession being undermined.

    As Ron pointed out, people trust the science within the science’s own worldview, but they now also subscribe to other worldviews and know sometimes science’s viewpoint is too narrow – “I trust science has worked out how to contain nuclear fission, but I don’t trust it has worked out how to keep the reactor safe from a Taniwha”. 🙂

    Entire industries are having to re-think their paradigm as the public is no longer a passive audience. The only way to survive is to be much more about working in partnership with the public. This means thinking about the public differently – of course the biggest lesson is understanding that the public is not rational 🙂

    If the scientific method is failing evaluating alternative viewpoints/worldviews, is there some way it could be adjusted? Observation is sacrosanct – um, but why? If a scientist could validly incorporate non-observed occurrences, now wouldn’t that be a significant milestone (worth international recognition)?!

    Absolutely Grant and Alison, the new discipline of science communication is taking good strides (like this blogs site), but I can’t help wonder if there are some more fundamental aspects that also need to be questioned.

    As Michael pointed out, it’s not easy. Is it a good idea for scientists to learn to be better communicators? Musicians have a similar dilemma – the web allows direct sales but to do this they need to learn to do business, marketing, and customer liaison – is that realistic?

    Unfortunately, no I don’t have the answers, but I have faith science can find them. Science has the whole Social Sciences branch to call on for figuring out what’s going on in society and how science should react. 🙂

  • John,

    “If the scientific method is failing evaluating alternative viewpoints/worldviews, is there some way it could be adjusted? Observation is sacrosanct – um, but why? If a scientist could validly incorporate non-observed occurrences, now wouldn’t that be a significant milestone (worth international recognition)?!”

    Can you elaborate or perhaps give an example of what you mean by an “incorporate non observed occurrence”? I’m not quite sure I understand.

  • Um, I’m not sure I do either Michael!

    I was thinking how science is usually based around observations in a controlled environment, but (alleged) occurances from alternative viewpoints are often not observable by that science (as yet, at least), therefore they cannot be included as evidence. Due to this lack of evidence, the alternative viewpoints are often just dismissed (or even ridiculed) – I’m thinking here of the recent Taniwha post here, homeopathy, etc.

    Just because they aren’t observable by today’s science doesn’t mean they don’t exist (think of the discovery of sub-atomic particles). What if science more routinely included non-observable beliefs in their conclusions – to propose multiple possible outcomes? Currently I don’t think this course of action would be considered a ‘valid’ science research outcome.

    I’m not sure how it might work, but there has been some movement in medical science to integrate with traditional medicinces and practices (though probably still only at the scientifically-observable level).

    I was also thinking how indigenous (and religious) beliefs were often originally created to explain observed occurences (both physical and supernatural), so presumably there an element of ‘truth’ in these beliefs somewhere, they’re not all complete fantasies.

    Maybe I’m suggesting acceptance of even more of the humanities under the science banner??

    Maybe it’s too radical an idea, but then again, maybe science needs something like this to grow with modern society. Religion had its heyday, science took over the mantle, but its dominance is now starting to slip – will it continue to slide or be reborn working in partnership with the new age?

  • John,

    “Just because they aren’t observable by today’s science doesn’t mean they don’t exist (think of the discovery of sub-atomic particles).”

    Yes, but by the same token there are a lot of things that aren’t observable because they don’t exist. The existence of sub atomic particles were proposed on the basis of observations.

    Because the human mind is so amazingly creative there are a lot of things that we can imagine might exist but cannot observe. In time we will probably find evidence for some of these things but not for the majority of them, because they don’t, in fact, exist.

    When we have something like homeopathic solutions which would be observationally indistinguishable in both appearance and utility from bottles of unshaken distilled water then why should we accept the concept that the water can retain the properties of molecules when there is no evidence? If I were to present you with bottles of water that had been “blessed by fairies” with no evidence to back that up would you believe me?

    I guess what I’m trying to say is if we cannot rely on observation (and experiment) to work out what is real and what is not, then what else can we rely on?

    And is science’s dominance really starting to slip? If so what do you think it is being replaced with?

  • I was thinking how science is usually based around observations in a controlled environment, but (alleged) occurances from alternative viewpoints are often not observable by that science (as yet, at least), therefore they cannot be included as evidence

    This is a common argument, but I’m afraid it’s just rubbish. If taniwha were physical beings we could go and observe them, if homeopathy worked we could measure its effect.

    If “alternative view points” aren’t trying to explain physical phenomena then they’re not in the same sphere as science; if they are trying to explain physical phenomena then they need to use evidence if they want to be taken serisously by science

  • “This is a common argument, but I’m afraid it’s just rubbish. If taniwha were physical beings we could go and observe them, if homeopathy worked we could measure its effect.”

    We can only measure things/their effects if we know how. Legionella was only discovered when a media was developed that enabled it to grow. I recall as late as the 80’s when women experiencing abdominal pains of no known aetiology were labelled as having a psychogenic disease… then they started testing for chlamydia and using erythromycin treatment. The fact that chlamydia was once not known to cause such infections doesn’t mean it didn’t… science mostly follows reality, it does not determine what is real… it just opens doors to our understanding of reality.

  • Ron,

    What’s that got to do with claims, like “homeopathy works” or “vaccines cause autism”. If someone makes a claim about the physical world, I’m only going to believe it if their is evidence for it.

  • David,

    “If someone makes a claim about the physical world, I’m only going to believe it if their is evidence for it.” Let’s start there… I read that there is a gismo containing magnets that transforms new wines in seconds to ‘old’ wine. Is that true? Do I align with a belief system that only sees/believes if there is evidence for it?

    There is still a multi billion dollar industry based on gastric acid inhibitors despite there being evidence/proof that most ulcers are caused by helico bacterium easily treated by antibiotics… I’d be more concerned about the lack of evidence-based medicine prescribed by licensed doctors than people using homeopathic treatments for continuously runny noses.

  • And in any case, if homeopathy did what it claims to do – ie cure all sorts of ailments – then the evidence should be there whether we know how it works or not. But it’s not – no better than placebo.

  • David, here’s my closest experience with hoeopathics. My mother-in-law is 92, fully independent, still drives regular 200km journeys to visit family, walks 3km into town with a backpack to do shopping… when 90 she had a continuous low grade runny nose… it had developed over several years and had visited her GP a number of time… been prescribed various pharmaceutical products including antibiotics, antihistamines, etc, etc. Every time she wanted the product to work, so if placebo was going to work it, had plenty of opportunity. Finally, the GP wrote the name of a product on the prescription form, like he’d done many times, and mum trotted off to the pharmacy, as she’d done many times, and was given the ‘prescription’ as she had many times… guess what? Within a day her nose had stopped running… a week later, still dry… she ran out of the prescription and decided to see if the dry nose was permanent… sure enough, she was cured… Nothing could convince her otherwise. She asked what the drug was, so I did some homework. Guess what, to my surprise, it was a homeopathic product…

    She believes that this homeopathic product cured her whereas the pharmaceutical products hadn’t. At the time she used it, she thought it was another pharmaceutical product.

    A question for you… is her belief evidence based?

  • It would be a reasonable supposition if the only available evidence was her now non-running nose. But, of course, that’s not all the available evidence – we have a massive background of evidence that shows homeopathy doesn’t work.

    Assessing a claim without regard to background information is a serious flaw in reasoning.

  • Ok, David, you concede that for my mother, who does not read science, she has every reason to believe that the evidence available to her is that this remedy worked… one assumes this can be given more credibility given that it was her GP who prescribed it. As I scientist, I have no doubt whatsoever that it was product that cured her… and I base that on good science.

    Read these two papers… I’d be interested in yours and others comments.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2724430/?tool=pubmed

    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/o/cochrane/clsysrev/articles/CD006394/pdf_fs.html

    I agree, Assessing a claim without regard to background information is a serious flaw in reasoning. By assessment and opinion has regards to relevant background scientific information…

  • Oops… should read, My assessment and opinion has regards to relevant background scientific information…

  • Alison, I’m not disagreeing with your comment… “But it’s not – no better than placebo.”

    Is there background information to enable you to reach that conclusion? What sort of evidence would have been used?

    Ron

  • Ron,

    You are basing your supposition that homeopathy works on a single anecdotal occurrence.
    An alternative hypothesis for why your mother’s nose stopped running is that her body finally sorted out what the problem was.

    “The fact that chlamydia was once not known to cause such infections doesn’t mean it didn’t… science mostly follows reality, it does not determine what is real”

    Ron, I think you are approaching science all backwards.

    Science, through observation allows us to determine that many things that are real. However, for any hypothesis for which there is no evidence, it does not enable us to determine whether it is real or not.
    e.g. prior to the discovery of chlamydia bacteria – the disease could have been psychogenic, due to infection or any other cause. It is only with evidence that its cause became understood.

  • Ron,

    “There is still a multi billion dollar industry based on gastric acid inhibitors despite there being evidence/proof that most ulcers are caused by helico bacterium easily treated by antibiotics.”

    Gastric acid inhibitors are used to treat conditions such as acid reflux.
    Do you have any evidence that doctors prescribe gastric acid inhibitors for ulcers rather than antibiotics?
    Can you provide evidence/literature to back up your comment above?

  • Michael, I haven’t made any claims that homeopathy works. I said, “As I scientist, I have no doubt whatsoever that it was product that cured her… and I base that on good science.” I never claimed that homeopathy works… I provided another scenario that I think is more plausible…

    HOWEVER… based on personal experience, a 92 year old was prescribed a product by a medical practitioner, and as far as she is concerned, it worked… she didn’t know it was a homeopathic product… I pointed out to her that the ingredients on the label were 0.9 sodium chloride and it was labelled as a homeopathic product. My personal belief is that the saline solution did the trick… Her personal conviction is that it was the homeopathic product that did the trick…

    How many times have you been to a GP who has said, try this and if it doesn’t work come back and we’ll try something else.

  • (Excuse not joining; lots I could say, but I’m just too short on time.)

    Ron,

    We can only measure things/their effects if we know how. Legionella […]

    To add to what others have said, your examples are not of measures or effects, but of finding underlying causes, and as David pointed out they don’t relate to the discussion.

    Ok, David, you concede that for my mother,

    My reading is that David did essentially the 180Ëš opposite. I suggest you re-read.

    As I scientist,

    I believe you’ve never been a research scientist, and you certainly aren’t one now. (You’re inflating your status, something you have done too often. Reports elsewhere are that your degrees are in theology and a masters in business management. I realise you claim to have spent time working in a medical lab somewhere in your past.)

    here’s my closest experience with ho[m]eopathics. My mother-in-law […]

    You bring your “mother-in-law” example again – I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen it. (I believe you brought it up on this blog before, too.) You’ve been told before—including in replies to offering the same story—that anecdotal accounts (like her’s) are not evidence, that there have been surveys of homeopathy, etc. These aren’t new to you because you’re offering it again!

    Is there background information to enable you to reach that conclusion?

    You could do your own work to find those papers, they’re not exactly hidden away and they’re no harder to find than the ones you present… Why not make an effort to check you are right first.

    I haven’t time to elaborate (I’ve a lot of work to do for good or bad), but a couple of quick pointers: What the UK House of Commons Evidence Check on homeopathy concluded and Ernst Med. J. Aust. 2010. There are plenty of older ones; both will probably cite some of them.

  • Grant… interesting comments… I have, indeed, referred to my mother-in-law before… but rarely and only because it is my only ‘experience’ with its use…

    This topic is titled, why-some-people-don’t-trust-science. The problem with RDBPC trials is that they never relate to individuals… always averages and statistics. Are you saying that if, for example, someone has had diabetes for life, and their doctor infuses pig pancreatic cells into them and they no longer have diabetes and are considered cured, that that doesn’t count as evidence?

    My mother-in-law had tried many treatments prescribed by her GP… none had worked… this one did… Michael may well be correct… her illness may have been about to resolve and the timing was coincidental… but we will never know that… and as far as my MIL is concerned the product worked… and she didn’t know that it was a homeopathic product that contained saline.

    Now, let’s look at evidence another way… If a new drug was given to a patient and they had a heart attack soon after, would it be reasonable to link the drug to the heart attack? Should we put warning labels on the drug because of that event?

  • Ron,

    Now, let’s look at evidence another way… If a new drug was given to a patient and they had a heart attack soon after, would it be reasonable to link the drug to the heart attack? Should we put warning labels on the drug because of that event?

    If a new drug was given to a patient and on the same day they had cornflakes for breakfast for the first time, and then later on they had a heart attack would it be reasonable to link the cornflakes or the drug to the heart attack?
    Neither.
    It would certainly be reasonable to consider the possibility of either (or even both) being the cause and further inquiries should be made but to immediately assume a link would be erroneous.
    This is why drug trials in their latter stages are carried out on as many people as possible/practical. Looking at single patients is fraught with difficulties. it also why even after a drug is released there is an attempt to monitor any adverse reactions.

  • Michael, there is a well defined process for assessing causality which also includes plausibility… given the very long history of safe use of cornflakes and the lack of evidence supporting their causing heart attacks, any reasoned risk analyst would certainly not give any significant weighting to such an hypothesis. On the other hand, a causal link to the new drug would be given a great deal more weighting. Phase III studies rarely detect occasional or rare adverse events. Most drugs are licensed with about 1,500 subjects having been included on the drug arm of clinical trials which are powered to pick up adverse events in about 1/500 subjects.

  • Ron Law,

    “there is a well defined process for assessing causality which also includes plausibility”

    Not quite sure what you mean by “well defined process for assessing causality.” Could you elaborate further?

  • Whoa, I wasn’t planning to get into the usual us vs. them debate. I was hoping we could find some new pathway through this.

    Cards on the table time… Personally, I know there’s a helluva lot we DON’T know about this existence, so I strive to keep as open a mind as possible so I don’t overlook non-common ideas. While it’s true you could say I DO want to believe alternative viewpoints, I won’t believe them blindly, I need some convincing – the difference is I don’t require that convincing to ONLY be science-based. That probably makes me like a sceptic, except I bat for the other team 🙂

    We all make a personal belief choice like this – some people choose to only believe (traditional) religion, others believe only science, others New Age philosophies, others a mixture. Beliefs are beliefs (opinions), not facts, so there’s no ‘right’ belief – scientists’ (or any other) view of the world is no more ‘correct’ than any other, it’s just ‘a’ viewpoint.

    Michael, yes, I think science’s dominance is starting to slip – these kinds of debates were virtually non-existent (in the mainstream) a generation ago – and ‘New Age’ thinking is gradually seeping in (ever since the 60s ‘Age of Aquarius’). What science calls ‘pseudo-science’, more and more people are now accepting as being ‘real’. It will never replace science (just as science never replaced religion), but more and more people are being swayed away from a holding a science-only (or science-dominant) personal belief. I was merely thinking if science presented itself as more sympathetic to other viewpoints, it could regain some lost ground.

    Though, it was heartening to read in this morning’s post that scientists are still well-trusted in New Zealand. https://sciblogs.co.nz/molecular-matters/2011/06/20/woohoo-the-most-trusted-new-zealanders/ It was interesting to note that “they are scientists who have stepped out of the lab and gotten involved in the wider community” – which is similar to my advocation above to being more aligned to society’s current thinking.

    On your other point Michael, I agree it can be hard to distinguish fantasy from unobservable reality, but I don’t want that to be a reason not to try. You asked what else can we rely on apart from scientific observation? Not sure. I’m happy to rely on scientific observation within its domain (the physical world) but not beyond that (the metaphysical world). I think the problem is, the physically-based observation method, as it currently stands, is insufficient for meta-physical investigations (for those with a not-only-science worldview belief). I’m wondering if maybe there are observation methods in other cultures that could help extend the scientific method? It appears many cultures’ traditions aren’t purely fantastical but based on their own forms of observation, possibly they have developed other sensitivities that allow them to observe more than we can??

    Yes, it would be hard to achieve a real change in the Western scientific method, I still think there would be a lot of recognition for the clever person who figured it out.

  • Michael, it’s called Good pharmacovigilance practice… something I’ve been significantly involved in for more than a decade. It is an internationally recognised process that has existed for decades.

    In brief, Causality Assessment of Suspected Adverse Medicine Reactions is described here.
    http://www.medsafe.govt.nz/profs/adverse.asp

    For some strange reason, this is not applied to vaccinations…

  • Though, it was heartening to read in this morning’s post that scientists are still well-trusted in New Zealand. https://sciblogs.co.nz/molecular-matters/2011/06/20/woohoo-the-most-trusted-new-zealanders/ It was interesting to note that “they are scientists who have stepped out of the lab and gotten involved in the wider community” – which is similar to my advocation above to being more aligned to society’s current thinking.

    I suspect it has much more to do with recent TV exposure.

    It is a bit of a paradox when scientists get excited about a non-scientific study reflecting peoples ‘feelings’ and non-measurable emotions. No doubt thousands of Readers Digest readers trusted Blue Chip and Hanover…

  • This topic is titled, why-some-people-don’t-trust-science.

    Yes – that’s right, the article is about the broad question of how people understand science, not the specifics of how drugs are tested, etc. (Read: you’re pushing your own agenda, really, rather than addressing the topic at hand. Not stopping you, but you’re not really addressing the topic as you’re making out here.)

    but rarely

    Sorry, but I disagree – you presented it many years ago too.

    (I have to admit I’m looking at the list on Ken’s latest post and see several that match what you’re doing.)

  • John,

    I would prefer to avoid an “us vs them” debate as well, and certainly have found your comments and questions thought provoking and not adversarial in any way. What is clear is that we both view the world quite differently.
    I can understand your desire for science to be able to reconcile with what are currently considered to be less than scientific ideas. My view is that as science learns more some of these some may be accepted by science while others will be confirmed as unscientific.

    “Beliefs are beliefs (opinions), not facts, so there’s no ‘right’ belief – scientists’ (or any other) view of the world is no more ‘correct’ than any other, it’s just ‘a’ viewpoint.”

    I’m going to have to disagree with you somewhat here. Beliefs will typically be based on certain facts. If one’s facts are incorrect then it is quite possible to have a “wrong” belief.
    For example, if one believes that a holy document allows them to denigrate women, enslave or cause physical harm to others then I would say that that is a wrong belief based on the erroneous “fact” that holy documents cannot be wrong.

    Also with regards to Sir’s Ray Avery, Peter Gluckman and Paul Callaghan, while they have certainly engaged with the public, I doubt that the science they have carried out has strayed from the scientific method.
    Engaging better with the public does not mean embracing pseudoscience.

  • John,

    “Michael, yes, I think science’s dominance is starting to slip”

    Possibly, though this mornings news about our three most trusted NZers being scientists has certainly heartened me.

    However, I don’t see this being due to new-age beliefs. Rather the abuse of science by politicians and a greedy and unethical industrial sector have, in my opinion, lead to a decline in interest in science.
    Also, I’m not sure science has ever really “dominated”. Rather, it has played an important role in modern society which has been recognised to different extents at different periods in history.

  • John,

    Whoa, I wasn’t planning to get into the usual us vs. them debate.

    I agree. It’s partly why I pulled your comment out from the thread it was in. (Ron is pushing his own interests in what has to be described as his usual style.)

    Must get back to you (!) but until I find more time, you might be interested in this video hosted in an older post of mine: How does science work?

    I doubt the scientific method needs to change; you’re welcome to suggest a better alternative. Not being dogmatic – but because it was developed for reasons. While there’s nothing stopping further developments (better consideration of prior plausibility comes to mind as one example), but I doubt it’ll ‘soften’ to allow the sort of thing you favour. It has to be rigorous and hard-nosed.

  • John,

    This seems to be the crux of your point:

    I think the problem is, the physically-based observation method, as it currently stands, is insufficient for meta-physical investigations

    Science isn’t ‘insufficient’ for understanding meta-physical claims, it’s just not for metaphysics. I don’t see how new-age beliefs could be included in science because they don’t make testable claims on the physical work (or do the extend that they do they fail) so we can’t choose one from the other.

    It’s certainly true that traditions have developed in many cultures that, in part, explain parts of the physical world. They might be a starting point for scientific investigation, as in ethnobotany, but you’re still going to have to apply the rigorous standard science has developed if you want to really understand the world.

  • David: “but you’re still going to have to apply the rigorous standard science has developed if you want to really understand the world.”

    One’s understanding of the world surely is driven by one’s belief system.

  • “but rarely

    Sorry, but I disagree – you presented it many years ago too.”

    Are these in disagreement… besides, it wasn’t MANY years ago, it only happened 2 years or so ago… It is my ONLY ‘personal’ experience with homeopathic products… I don’t use them, I don’t advocate them… so what is my agenda? SImply pointing out that peoples view of what works for them is based on personal experience. If a new cancer drug is rated as a great success because it prolongs life in, say, 20 percent of patients, is classed as scientifically effective… 80 percent of users and their families would disagree… when it comes to death, averages are irrelevant.

  • “It has to be rigorous and hard-nosed.”

    Rigorous I have no problems with… the hard nose bit is what constitutes the politics of science and it is what upsets many people… Most people don’t want to be treated like ignorant serfs… Many people resent hard-nose ‘bullies’ and disconnect… hence, this is a reason many people disengage from ‘science’ and don’t trust it.

  • Ron,

    something I’ve been significantly involved in for more than a decade

    Your contributions at kindest would be described as modest, certainly compared to those who work full-time, and would be accurately described as unhelpfully trying to push an agenda (cause, whatever) rather than assist as you imply out here. I’d suggest you don’t inflate yourself or make yourself out to be someone you’re not. (Second time I’ve had to point this out in this thread.)

    It is my ONLY ‘personal’ experience with homeopathic products

    So? I didn’t say otherwise. I recall you saying similar words, btw.

    so what is my agenda?

    You have been involved in anti-vaccine activism and have been tilting against at this and that medical practice for many years, etc., etc. It’s boring having to elaborate because you won’t – drop the pretence.

    the hard nose bit is what constitutes the politics of science

    No, it’s not what I said (and you do know that). What I referred to isn’t ‘politics’, nor did I imply treating people “like ignorant serfs”, or bullying. Just that you can’t be wishy-washy about determining what is right or not.

    In my experience if there are bullying in the science/medicine arena, it is the more extreme advocates of natural remedies, anti-vaccine proponents, etc.

    Some of what you have written in public in the past opposing medical would be well described as bullying for that matter.

    (Lift your tone, too, please.)

  • You have been involved in anti-vaccine activism and have been tilting against at this and that medical practice for many years, etc., etc.

    Actually, I have never, ever been involved in anti-vaccine activism. I did involve myself with the MeNZB fraud, which wasn’t anti-vaccine, but was about pro good policy… pro evidence-based medicine, anti-use of inflated disease figures to justify a $250 million public health campaign… I do challenge non-evidence-based statements and claims about many aspects of life. In the case of measles, for example, the Health Select Committee stated that before the measles vaccine was introduced 60 people died in New Zealand each year. I got hold of MOH data going back into the 19th century… the data is quite telling… I got vaccination rates from MOH publications and plotted them on timeline graph… the data is even more compelling…

    I guess I must have been doing something right to get appointed to a MOH working group to advise the DG of MOH on the reporting and management of medical injury in the health system.

  • Actually, I have never, […]

    “I’m not anti-”. Ha. Either way, I’m not interested. Write on topic please.

    I guess I must have been doing something […]

    My impression is that they were obliged to invite a representative of the natural health industry.

  • John,

    New Age thinking has been around for decades now and widely permeating society (TV shows like Lost, X-Files, or Joan of Arcadia aren’t considered weird anymore) yet, in general, science doesn’t seem to be investigating these alternative viewpoints, they are perceived to blindly dismiss them and instead put all their energy into attacking them (which seems against the spirit of scientific openness of thought)

    I suspect if you asked a science historian, they’d say that these things were in fact investigated quite some time ago. There are more modern investigations of (some) them too. Obviously they’re not major fields—I think it would be far to say that many or even most scientists consider money spent on examining these is money wasted (poor prior plausibility [to be polite], advocates might put their own funds into this, etc.). I’m more familiar with those related to medicine; certainly likes have homeopathy have no evidence of working beyond a placebo effect and it’s common knowledge that the various claimed “special forces” have been looked at (I couldn’t give you details, I’m afraid – just not something I follow).

    Also, few scientists “put all their energy into attacking them”. Most simply have nothing to do with them either way. There are a few are vocal (erm, verbal?) souls on-line but there are—literally—millions of scientists.

    These things are also inconsistent with well-established science, which therefore sits as indirect evidence against them. That’s a lot of well-established that would have to be over-turned, i.e. exceptionally unlikely. (Being polite, again!) This, of course, brings it to ‘devil in the detail level’, which most non-scientists won’t be familiar – but it’s there – lots of it, too.

    I need some convincing – the difference is I don’t require that convincing to ONLY be science-based. That probably makes me like a sceptic, except I bat for the other team 🙂

    Where this falls down is that unless you’re basing a position on evidence and sound analysis, it’s prone to being lead by beliefs, rather than following from whatever the data reveals. Scientific methodology was developed in part with this in mind.

    these kinds of debates were virtually non-existent (in the mainstream) a generation ago – and ‘New Age’ thinking is gradually seeping in (ever since the 60s ‘Age of Aquarius’).

    Actually neither is true from what I understand. “These kinds of debates” where common in Victorian times, even set up as formal debates, for that matter. Most of the so-called ‘New Age beliefs’ trace back at least the same general period of history, with some tracing back a long time ago. My strong impression is that they’re mainly (very) old myths renamed or retold in new ways. Looking back to history is helpful for a lot of these things.

    I agree it can be hard to distinguish fantasy from unobservable reality, but I don’t want that to be a reason not to try.

    I’m not quite sure what you’re trying to say here, but science routinely works with things it can’t directly observe. As for distinguishing fantasy, until you can show it’s there it is just a notion.

    I’m happy to rely on scientific observation within its domain (the physical world) but not beyond that (the metaphysical world). I think the problem is, the physically-based observation method, as it currently stands, is insufficient for meta-physical investigations (for those with a not-only-science worldview belief).

    Sorry about this, but this approach is essentially is ‘special pleading’, asking that a favourite thing not be examined by offering an excuse that it ‘can’t possibly’ be examined. Used like that it becomes a self-justification for not questioning and not examining.

    Another sort-of-related issue is that if you concoct a potential therapy, it’s only the hope or wish for a therapy until you demonstrate that it works. But that’s getting away from the core topic!

  • Interesting video Grant – it would appear we are discussing here what SisyphusRedeemed mentioned about Empiricism, Maths, and Social structure being in conflict with each other.

    Michael, you say beliefs are based on facts, but no fact is absolute – many scientific ‘facts’ have been overturned by subsequent discoveries, and we can’t know which ‘facts’ may turn out to not be (maybe I watched The Matrix movie too much!) Without getting too existential – therefore, what is a scientific ‘fact’ is actually an opinion, and whether it is ‘true’ or not is dependent on your beliefs (if your dominant belief is in science then you believe it is true, if not, you just believe it as a ‘possibility’).

    And so Grant, I think even when we base our position on evidence and sound analysis, that itself is built on top of our personal belief system (worldview). And also therefore, the split between what is fantasy and reality is also based on your beliefs (just because science regards something as fantasy today doesn’t mean it is in an absolute sense in the long term).

    I’m reminded of Abbott’s ‘Flatland’, where each world viewpoint finds it difficult to fully comprehend other viewpoints…

    Well… thank you all for this VERY interesting discussion.

    My takeaways are:

    * We all have differing worldviews and often they conflict with one other

    * There are no absolutely absolutes, so each worldview places a stake in the ground so it can function – it’s not necessarily ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, it’s just a pragmatic decision (to try to make understanding our existence more possible)

    * It’s hard to see how the worldviews could become more integrated, though there are probably still opportunities for them to learn from one another

    * Maybe integration would be a bad idea anyway – best if each ‘sticks to its knitting’ – each are very powerful in their own right, better to not dilute them?

    * But they DO need to co-exist better – ideally ‘agree to disagree’ and be more tolerant of other worldviews – is there a word for racism about beliefs/philosophies/worldviews?

    * Often it’s not problems with the philosophies or the people working on them, it’s how other people twist their output in the media/economics/politics. The field of science communication is starting to address this but it is still early on

    * The other problem is the public’s perceptions, which is often not completely rational!

    * My personal choice for physical evidence will be (mostly) science, but not for metaphysics – I just can’t see science ‘getting’ karma (within my worldview at least) 🙂

  • “My impression is that they were obliged to invite a representative of the natural health industry.”

    I wonder if you could explain to readers of this list why the Director General of Health would feel obliged to appoint a representative of the natural health industry to a working group to advise her on how to report and manage medical injury in the public health system?

    Toward Clinical Excellence: Learning from Experience
    A Report to the Director-General of Health from the Sentinel Events Project Working Party.
    http://www.moh.govt.nz/moh.nsf/49ba80c00757b8804c256673001d47d0/008deb2fa836ba68cc256ad000804456?OpenDocument

  • “I’m going to have to disagree with you somewhat here. Beliefs will typically be based on certain facts. If one’s facts are incorrect then it is quite possible to have a “wrong” belief.”

    Many societies in the world look back to the future, not forward as we do in judeo-christian cultures. When I studied this from a scientific point of view I concluded they were quite logical in their worldview/belief…

    It is a fact that what we can see is in front of us… we simply can not see things behind us… we have seen our past so therefore what we have seen is before us. Therefore we look forward to the past… we look back to the future because we haven’t seen the future and what we can’t see is therefore behind us.

    Meanwhile in the enlightened Western world, we still talk about the sun rising, when the evidence has proven that is false… it is an illusion as the earth actually rotates… the sun does not rise.

    John is nearly spot on… somethings are right, somethings are wrong, somethings are just different… of course, the wisdom of Solomon is required to know when to make an issue out of a difference.

    Traditionally, worldviews have shape our beliefs, beliefs have shaped our behaviours… as we adopt and adapt aspects of different cultures/belief systems, the world becomes more complicated, not simpler. Differences become more difficult to understand because whilst behaviours are easy to see, beliefs and worldviews are not.

    Some people have difficulty with science dogma because some proponents of science are like fundamentalists… their way is right… others’ ways are wrong.

    Science communicators need to be a little less focussed on conversion, and little more focussed on cultural understanding and translating issues using concepts rather than literals. Even Bible translators understand that. In Papua New Guinea the Bible was translated that it was more difficult for a pig to go through the eye of a needle as the locals had no concept of a camel.

  • Perhaps you might like to explain to readers of my blog* why you persist blowing your trumpet & pushing your own interests after I’ve already asked you to write on-topic? Strike one.

    As I wrote in my ‘About’ page, I would like to encourage well-mannered open discussion. Your persistent argumentative (snarky, trolling…) approach is unpleasant for everyone and doesn’t fit with my aims for my forum. If your argumentative approach is one you feel you “really must” take, I suggest you find another forum.

    * Not ‘this list’.

  • The topic header is; “Why (some) people don’t trust science.”

    Grant, your blog is, I believe, funded at least in part by tax payer money to facilitate the communication of science to mere mortals.

    According to sciblogs, “Sciblogs brings together the best science bloggers in the country on one website, creating a hub for scientific analysis and discussion and facilitating reader interaction.

    The website is for scientists who want to reach out to a general audience to explain their science and how it relates to society. Some Sciblog contributors spend most of their time in the lab or buried in research. Others are authors or entrepreneurs. All of them know what they are talking about and have an interest in engaging in discussion on the big science-related issues facing society.”

    Comments such as “My impression is that they were obliged to invite a representative of the natural health industry” is not evidence-based and all I was doing was asking for an explanation of your belief system that would enable you to reach such an impression. If asking for evidence and leading folk to evidence that would lead to an alternative viewpoint is a sin, then I’m sorry and would expect to be struck off forthwith!

    “All of them know what they are talking about and have an interest in engaging in discussion on the big science-related issues facing society.”

  • So? This doesn’t mean commenters have a free rein to demand things from writers (or bully them), or that the writers are obliged to stand there in the face of whatever others toss at them! 🙂

    It says clearly next to the “post your comment” button that these forums are moderated. You’ll have seen it every time you commented here…

    Writers’ contributions are voluntary, there’s no money in it for the writers. Writers will look at what works for them, as would be expected in most voluntary situations. For myself, I have other readers and I try think of everyone. You’re just one person.

    (The ‘mere mortals’ is a bit silly, btw – setting up a straw-man position we don’t hold, etc.)

    Comments such as “My impression is that […] is not evidence-based

    I wrote “impression”, that’s clear and simple. There isn’t some silly “law” that everything written here “has” to be evidence-based. Obviously you’re not going to get far discussing science without evidence, but that’s a different story.

    Grant, your blog is, I believe, funded at least in part by tax payer money to facilitate the communication of science to mere mortals.

    The source of funding hasn’t much to do with moderation (or not), as should be easy to see from my earlier remarks. Regards funding, while you might have been right in the past, on the same page you quoted from is: Sciblogs is funded by advertising revenue and an AMP Scholarship grant. Neither advertising or AMP are tax payer-funding. If you are quoting as you are, you should have read this. Or should I have replied—paraphrasing you—“Comments such as “Grant, your blog is, I believe, funded at … to mere mortals” are not evidence-based”, hassling you for not citing evidence – ?

    This funding is for the infrastructure; none of the blogs have ever had funding, unless someone is hiding their pots of gold from the rest of us 🙂

    I’m going to let you sit out the rest of this thread to think about things a bit. Perhaps your many years of attacking people and institutions in the medical/health sphere is showing.

  • John,

    Bit disappointed that you’d chose to summarise a position with having hardly conversed! (Sorry I haven’t had much time, too.)

    many scientific ‘facts’ have been overturned by subsequent discoveries, and we can’t know which ‘facts’ may turn out to not be

    The way you’re presenting this implies that scientists think that things are absolute in a way that they don’t really. (Well, most anyway.) Rightly put, science aims for the best model given available evidence, i.e. the best you can do at the time.

    what is a scientific ‘fact’ is actually an opinion,

    Nope, very big difference 🙂 Opinions are not based on evidence. Evidence has a particular meaning, it’s not ‘what one person observed’ in the everyday sense – which is anecdotal.

    and whether it is ‘true’ or not is dependent on your beliefs (if your dominant belief is in science then you believe it is true, if not, you just believe it as a ‘possibility’).

    Leaving aside that ‘true’, like ‘fact’, sets up the wrong case (see above), these aren’t dependent or founded on belief. As a wrote earlier: following from whatever the data reveals Data are data, your beliefs can’t make them change. If someone record data for, say, tides, whether the person believes in, say, Zoroastrianism or Bahai, won’t change the tide data.

    Beliefs can interfere with people’s interpretation of data – witness creationists as a well-known example. One of the things that a scientific approach tries to do is to work directly off the data, rather than filtering it past a belief system.

    And so Grant, I think even when we base our position on evidence and sound analysis, that itself is built on top of our personal belief system (worldview).

    See above. If you place your belief system in the middle, between data and interpretation, you’d be interfering with sound interpretation of data, so in fact I’m pointing out the opposite is the case when science is done soundly.

    You sound as if you’re harking to a philosophical thinking you’ve read somewhere (similar to what I’ve seen some theologists opine). I’m a little wary of ‘pure philosophical’ in these contexts as too often they’re used to justify a position rather than examine things critically.

    My takeaways are:

    Erm—hope you don’t mind me saying this—aren’t you asserting these regardless of what little interaction you’ve made? Several of these (by my reading, most) can’t be derived from the discussion, so they wouldn’t be ‘takeaways’, but be pre-held views of yours.

    * We all have differing worldviews and often they conflict with one other

    For science these ‘world views’ are only an issue if you insist of putting your beliefs in between the data and analysis/interpretation of it – thence the different views from different religious groups, etc., yet (relatively!) consistent views of scientists of quite different backgrounds. (New or controversial stuff aside, of course.) It’s worth remembering that scientists of quite different backgrounds agree on things derived from sound analysis. Clearly their ‘world views’ aren’t colouring what conclusions they’re drawing as they have differing ‘world views’, yet drawing the same conclusions.

    * There are no absolutely absolutes, so each worldview places a stake in the ground so it can function – it’s not necessarily ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, it’s just a pragmatic decision (to try to make understanding our existence more possible)

    This seems neither here nor there to me, really.

    * It’s hard to see how the worldviews could become more integrated, though there are probably still opportunities for them to learn from one another

    I don’t expect different religious world views to see eye-to-eye, nor devotees of different alternative remedies, etc., but as I said earlier, scientists with quite different backgrounds do agree – in large part because they’re working from data.

    * But they DO need to co-exist better – ideally ‘agree to disagree’ and be more tolerant of other worldviews – is there a word for racism about beliefs/philosophies/worldviews?

    I’ve two minds about this. I’m not a fan of intolerance, but philosophically at least (with the trouble that brings!) you could argue that since the different ideologies are the source of the conflicts, why not get rid of the source of the problem? But that’s getting to a different sphere entirely. Ken writes more on this stuff; I generally don’t.

    * Often it’s not problems with the philosophies or the people working on them, it’s how other people twist their output in the media/economics/politics. The field of science communication is starting to address this but it is still early on

    Yeah, it’s huge problem. I’ve too much to say about that (and have said about that), so I’ll say not much instead! I’d add that you’d want to include advocates from various ‘natural health’ or ‘alternative remedy’ perspectives; they’re easily as bad, if not worse.

    * The other problem is the public’s perceptions, which is often not completely rational!

    There’s a fair bit of discussion in the sci. comm. circles as to if ‘pure logic’ is a good way of reaching people who aren’t inclined that way. I’m not putting anyone down here, by the way. I think Matt Nisbet has written a bit on this. (I don’t agree with everything he says, but there you go.) Logical approaches are better for people who already care for the topic and can/will invest a few moments of their time & energy.

    * My personal choice for physical evidence will be (mostly) science, but not for metaphysics – I just can’t see science ‘getting’ karma (within my worldview at least) 🙂

    Talk to Ken about ‘metaphysics’. One (tentative, of course!) conclusion I came to was it’s just another way of saying ‘mythical’, with all that goes with that.

    [Edited to close a link (a) tag. Missing the slash key too often lately. Sigh.]

  • John,

    “Michael, you say beliefs are based on facts, but no fact is absolute – many scientific ‘facts’ have been overturned by subsequent discoveries.”

    I think you will find most scientists are quite careful about what they call facts, and seldom consider something “absolute”. This is why you see many of us talk about physical evidence more often than using the word “fact”
    However, there comes a point when the amount of evidence does make the use of the word “fact” reasonable.
    I view facts as being statements that are based on a large amount of supporting evidence. For example, if you step off the edge of a typical 10 storey building (assuming no other means of support) you will fall.

    “what is a scientific ‘fact’ is actually an opinion”

    No, As Grant has explained a scientific fact is very different from a opinion.
    Though opinions may be based on scientific facts (or they might be based on erroneous information)

    “and be more tolerant of other worldviews – is there a word for racism about beliefs/philosophies/worldviews?”

    The problem is that some world views are so different that they cannot tolerate each other. And I disagree that all world views need to be tolerated. Some are profoundly better than others.
    Should a world view that tolerates violence against women and children, one that allows assasination of those who diasgree with you really be tolerated?

    “Often it’s not problems with the philosophies or the people working on them, it’s how other people twist their output in the media/economics/politics”

    I disagree – someones underlying philosophies influence every aspect of their lives, including how they interact with others.

  • Sorry Grant and Michael, I wasn’t sure what the acceptable number of comments in a thread was so thought maybe we were overstepping. Happy to continue… I also apologise for terminology faux pas, my tendency is probably towards layman’s usages.

    Yes, my takeaways contained my previously-held beliefs, but that was because so far I haven’t been conviced to change those ones yet 🙂 It was probably more a note-to-self than a summary of the conversation, my bad.

    On fact vs. opinion, you are right – I was harking to the philosophical thinking arena, so apologies if it makes you roll your eyes. I’ll certainly go have a wander through Ken’s blog, but here’s what I was going…

    There are religions who believe the reality we experience is essentially all imagined, therefore the tides you mentioned don’t actually ‘exist’, and it is possible to completely bypass our laws of physics by altering what you imagine. It is impossible to disprove this religious point of view (any argument you make is countered with “at least that’s how it seems to work in your imagination”), so it comes down to which wider worldview you believe.

    This is what I was meaning by facts being opinions within (wider) belief systems. It’s like onion layers – you have a wider belief system, there are facts within that based on data observed within that existence, then there are smaller belief systems that affect how you interpret those facts (as you mentioned).

    So scientific ‘facts’ are assertions based upon an assumption of a particular kind of existence. Our day-to-day physical existence is so compelling that we believe that existence is all that there is, but I can’t fully discount that it may not be what we think it is. So again, I’m happy to accept science in the physical domain we are in, but there is just so much UNKNOWN-ness out there that I don’t see it as adequate to explain ‘the rest’ – it can try, but I fear the scientific method based on observation and evidence may break down within a worldview where the established law of physics don’t apply …or maybe I just read too much sci-fi 🙂

    I guess part of the problem is that often the wider and smaller belief systems are closely linked, so when discussing topics within the physical existence you can suddenly be blindsided by a question that goes beyond the physical dimension. This is why these discusions often seem irrational and/or lacking in logic.

    On the tolerance question – I agree it has to go both ways. I’m guessing a lot of hostility from alternative viewpoints comes from them seeing themselves as the minority under an oppressive majority (‘science’). You just have to look at NZ vs. Australia or Canada vs. USA – NZers are always going on and on about Australia, but my understanding is most people in Australia hardly ever give much thought to NZ! So I agree with Ron – both sides could do a lot better focussing on translation rather than conversion.

    I don’t have an answer to whether some worldviews are better than others. I’m also not keen on a worldview that promotes violence, but I think it was Tao that said: there is no such thing as right or wrong, just actions and consequences – it is current social norms that interpret the actions as being right or wrong. Even things like Human Rights Declarations are still just assertions made by current society. I guess all we can hope for is to at least strive to be tolerant. Please be tolerant of my left-wing dream 🙂

  • I wasn’t sure what the acceptable number of comments in a thread was so thought maybe we were overstepping.

    People can write as much as they like. Well, as long as they’re not spamming! 🙂 You’re fine; write away.

    (My main objections are to repeatedly throwing brickbats, persistently needling – that sort of thing. It creates an unpleasant atmosphere and puts people off commenting.)

    I appreciate the effort you’re putting in, but I need a bit more time to read all that! 🙂 Be back later tonight; work to do first, etc…

  • John,

    Thanks for clarifying some of your points. I think it is quite fascinating and educational to have a dialogue with someone who has different views. It gives a chance to iron out things such as terminology “faux pas” as you describe them. My terminology isn’t perfect either.

    “So again, I’m happy to accept science in the physical domain we are in, but there is just so much UNKNOWN-ness out there that I don’t see it as adequate to explain ‘the rest’”

    I agree, there is so much “unknown-ness” and that is why science fascinates me – it is the best tool to try and understand what we don’t know. I agree it is quite possible that there will be things we never understand or which may not be understandable by science. But we will only know this with time.
    Where I am wary of views such as I understand yours to be, is that they can be used to justify beliefs that have no evidence to support them, especially when such beliefs can be harmful, e.g. embracing “alternative” therapies instead of proven medical treatments.
    Also, when it comes to worldviews involving morality, I find Sam Harris’s viewpoint (The Moral Landscape) to be quite compelling that science can help guide morality and that certain world views are objectively better than others.

  • Ditto Michael, we don’t usually have the chance to converse with career research scientists as they’re hidden away ‘in the back room’.

    I agree science is a great tool to attempt to understand the un-known-ness, but any evidence we gather is reliant on our senses and my concern is we can’t always trust our senses (or equipment calibrated based on those senses) as I mentioned above. Or worse (from a conspiracy-theorist point of view) we can’t trust the context around the science – ie. what we are told the science discovered from the evidence.

    One thing I have learned during our conversation here is that scientists fully understand the limitations of assertions they make (e.g. based on observable evidence, based on what we know today, etc), but I don’t think the public appreciate that – it is presented as, or (falsely) perceived as, ‘this is definitive’.

    So science gives us ‘a’ picture (of the un-known-ness), but not necessarily ‘the’ picture.

    Luckily science isn’t the only tool we have – another is intuition (and ilk), which (I believe) has powers beyond those that science can measure currently, but of course it is a lot, LOT less reliable. Ironically, it is humans’ instinct that ignites scientific hypotheses, but then it is ignored in favour of just using science to attempt to evaluate them.

    I think it comes down to the nature of ‘belief’. Belief, by its very nature, implies ignoring evidence and believing something else entirely without knowing whether it is correct or not. As you say, this can be harmful, but faith is all about risk – so it is up to the individual to decide. If someone’s faith is potentially harmful to someone else, that’s more about education – if you don’t do your own background research you are taking a risk no matter which viewpoint you are influenced by.

    (Sorry, that probably wasn’t very coherent, I blame Friday-itis.)

  • John

    “One thing I have learned during our conversation here is that scientists fully understand the limitations of assertions they make (e.g. based on observable evidence, based on what we know today, etc), but I don’t think the public appreciate that – it is presented as, or (falsely) perceived as, ‘this is definitive’.”

    A very good point and nicely put.

    It is one of the major challenges of science communication to communicate enough detail to show this without overwhelming and confusing people with detail or giving them the impression that because science isn’t absolutely definitive then any belief is reasonable even those that contradict the evidence