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Snake Oil

Education Versus Nonsense

I’ve written here several times about what an education in science can do for a person, and what it can’t do. This is part of a broader topic of expertise and whose opinion is worth listening to, subset “experts in science”. But that’s a big subset, since (1) scientific topics can be quite important and (2) relatively few people have enough grounding in any given one.

That doesn’t stop some people from feeling as if they have that background, of course (see that “expertise” link above for more on this). I often think of the sinking feeling that physicians must get when they have a patient start off a conversation by saying “I was reading on about. . .” or “Well, Dr. Oz says that. . .” But even short of these folks, there are untold millions of people out there who don’t feel as if they’re well-versed in scientific or medical topics at all – they have no expertise, real or fake – and the problem is that many of them are apparently ready to believe most anything.

I got to thinking about this cohort after a couple of recent items. One was this tweet, from someone who was studying the way that news about the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill propagated. They noticed a few stories going around that made no sense, such as one about how the oil spill and the compounds being used to try to clean it up were going to wipe out all life in Eastern North America. Yeah. The source of this one, if that’s the word, appears to be this site or something like it. If you’ve never heard of “”, then join the club. A closer reading of the story sources everything to unnamed Russian scientists who determined, apparently, that toxic rains were about to destroy vast swaths of the US because its citizens were so foolish as to put any faith in their government and any of their businesses. That’s pretty much what it says; I’m not extrapolating here. The similarities to some of the “news” stories that have gone around this election season are left as an exercise for the reader, but my point at the moment is that there were apparently people who took this crap seriously, or at least had serious doubts as to whether they should or not.

On the other end of the “Oh God, I fear exposure to evil toxins” scale, you have these people in South Africa. Many countries in the region have long been afflicted with money-grubbing religious “leaders” who peddle all kinds of fake miracles, cures, and wonders. One of the current crop is claiming to cure people of all sorts of diseases by giving people a good face-full of insecticide spray, right out of the damned can. His mighty healing powers, direct from God, you see, are turning commercial “Doom” brand bug spray into something that’s good for whatever affliction you might have. Bug spray. People are lining up to get hosed down with bug spray by some loud charlatan waving a can and shouting about God. I suppose that the first sentence of this paragraph is not quite accurate, because the poor people getting a nose full of the stuff may not think that it’s bug spray, apparently, but rather a healing dose of something or another, despite the fact that it no doubt still smells and tastes like insecticide. But anyway.

One way to deal with such nonsense is to go after it head-on, pulling up evidence to show that no, these things don’t appear to be true, and here are a bunch of quite plausible reasons why they’re not. If someone is wavering or wondering, that might be enough. But it’s certainly not going to be enough for anyone who’s really invested in such thoughts (see that expertise link above for more thoughts on this as well). And at any rate, this might be dealing with the problem on a retail level, and junk like this is in endless supply.

The wholesale level, then, would be trying to make people less susceptible to it in the first place. The problem, though, is that people who will believe these two examples will believe pretty much anything that comes along, if they want to enough or if they’re afraid enough. I mean, look at this stuff. You’d think that the tiniest bit of science background would be enough to make a person wonder about whether or not half the US was about to be wiped out by an evil government/oil company conspiracy, or whether some con man can cure you of cancer by shouting about Jesus while blowing your hair back with a blast of insect killer. Or the tiniest bit of a scientific worldview might be enough – that is, asking yourself “Hmm. I wonder if that’s true? What’s the evidence like?”

That line of argument leads to two conclusions, though, at opposite ends of the scale. If either of those propositions about education are correct, then there are vast numbers of people who have no idea about anything to do with science or medicine – whatever attempts have been made to educate them have apparently failed. That’s not good, but at least it offers the hope that something else, in some other way, might get through. The alternative is that those ideas about science education are, in fact, not correct – that a lot of people are going to believe what they want to believe, no matter what their prior knowledge base. There’s good evidence for that one, too, although I still have to think that there has to be some level of knowledge that protects you from preachers waving cans of bug spray who tell you that you’re about to experience a big smelly cloud of God’s love. If someone tried to do that to me, I’d kick them right in the whatevers, so what is it that makes me different from the people who are jumping at the chance?

Well, OK, religious faith. And that gets into contentious territory, because a significant number of the world’s religions ask a person to take certain things on faith, some of which are more or less contrary to physical law and normal experience. Thinking along these lines leads you to the Jefferson Bible, Thomas Jefferson’s version of the New Testament with all the moral teachings left in and all the miracles stripped out. (C.S. Lewis, among others, would have none of that – he was a subscriber to the “Son of God or lunatic and nothing in between” school and found the watered-down versions of the faith to be worthless or worse). I have no intention of getting into a discussion of the topic, but I do have to think that there must be some way for a person to have faith without it leading to a honking blast of Doom up the schnozz. (One has trouble picturing Lewis getting in line for such, just to pick one example).

But it wasn’t religion that made some people wonder if the Deepwater Horizon spill might wipe out everything down to the bacteria once it started to rain in Louisiana. Or that vaccines are a vast conspiracy to enfeeble the world. Or that it’s worth paying for Wonder Water with negative ions or hocused hydrogens or something, or that you’d be glowing with health if you could just find the right herbal cleanse to flush the hideous toxins out of your body. Et very much cetera. Those are just plain ignorance and credulity, and while those might in fact be their own church, of a sort, it’s not one that any of us has to respect.

64 comments on “Education Versus Nonsense”

  1. DrOcto says:

    As a rational and intelligent adult I welcome anyone that wishes to correct me wherever I may hold a contradictory view on a particular topic. Alas I feel like I’m in a minority, and those ready to believe this hokum often will have strong motivation to do so. Try telling a cancer patient that has exhausted all known therapies without success, not to blow their savings on a dodgey miracle cure (or even a pseudo-scientific longshot druglike treatment with clinical trial results 2% over the placebo).

    We can see these snakeoil salesmen for what they are, usually by asking ourselves, ‘what do they have to gain?’ instead of ‘does what they offer really work?’ I still maintain that if you claim to have such an extreme unfounded belief (not to single out any particular one) then you are either ignorant or lying and in either case there are other people out there more deserved of my time.

    1. RM says:

      The problem with the “what do they have to gain?” line of reasoning is that it can easily throw standard pharma companies in with the snake oil peddlers.

      Pfizer is selling fluconazole? What do they have to gain?: they certainly will make a profit on it. The FDA approved it? What do they have to gain?: well, they get paid per drug approval …. Your doctor recommends that you take it? What does he have to gain?: he gets you out of the office quickly, and “everyone knows” that doctors get drug industry kick-backs.

      With a suitably cynical mind, everything is snake oil, because everyone has something to gain by helping cure your disease. Go too far down that route, and you’re in with the that-research-is-biased-because-Monsanto-once-donated-to-their-university crowd.

    2. Hap says:

      Most of the people doing something (or with enough knowledge to speak competently about a topic) have some investment in the content of reporting, so the potential gain may not be helpful. It would be better to start with some estimate of the evidence for a potential claim and whether the strength of statements fits the strength of the data behind them; if there is a misfit (most likely, the claims either don’t fit the evidence or the claims are much stronger than the evidence provided), then the motives of the people providing the information would be a piece of information which might explain why the information is over- (or under-) hyped. In lots of cases, people don’t have the experience to evaluate this, but the shorthand of “Cui bono?” is only reasonable when something dishonest or wrong is being done to obtain the good.

  2. Isidore says:

    You forgot to mention the many who think that medicines, including vaccines, are simply a means of evil corporations profiting from making and keeping people sick, and this is, by the way, the reason they are holding up all these cancer cures locked up in their safes. And similarly with the automobile industry sitting for decades on the designs for the car that gets 1000 miles to the gallon, because they are colluding with the bid bad oil companies. Not to mention all those alien spaceships held up in Area 51 that can fly vast distances using some type of mysterious wave technology and the lunar landing hoaxes, concocted in some Hollywood studio, because… who knows. There’s plenty of irrationality out there and, as you not, not all of it is motivated by religious fervor, in fact probably most of it is not.

  3. SP says:

    I feel like (nay, I BELIEVE!) to some extent it’s a failing of our ape brains. It’s been demonstrated many times that there is selective editing of memories to remove traumatic experiences. Something similar may apply to experiences that run contrary to prior beliefs- if something didn’t work but you believed it would, well, your brain will just edit out the contrary evidence if it doesn’t align with your belief system. It’s like we’re wired to be anti-Bayesians.

  4. amonymaus says:

    To paraphrase earlier content here and other sources, you can’t use reason to talk someone out of a belief that they didn’t arrive at by reason.

    The First Amendment is a prickly beast.

  5. mallam says:

    I’m afraid we are now living in a time where truth and facts are not important; it’s only what individuals want to believe, feel they need to believe, think they are smarter than anyone else so they know everything there is to believe, reading on line, specially on Facebook or in a tweet is always and must be truth. It could be a dangerous time, my friends.

  6. Neillos says:

    “You can’t reason someone out of a belief they didn’t arrive at by reason.” I think that misses an important point – that even people who believe in crazy things can use rrason, they just start with different premises.
    Scientists start with the premise that physical evidence needs to be explained and that the explanation should follow natural law. Creationists start with the premise that the Bible must be read literally and that to do otherwise leads you to hellfire. To change their minds, if possible at all, you need to point out how the Bible fails when read literally, and how their pastors and fellow religionists have lied, stolen and caused pain. Show them the passages where Moses tells his generals they must kill the men, women, and boys, but they can keep the girls for themselves. There is so much there that never is read by the faithful!
    Alternatively, point them to people like Francis Collins who make strong arguments in favor of science and faith. I don’t agree with Collins, but he is eloquent.

  7. Jim Hartley says:

    Is it new that stories are more important than facts?

  8. luysii says:

    Caveat emptor is 2 millennia old and counting. P. T. Barnum knew this.

  9. CET says:

    Two thoughts:
    1) Social psych has some pretty depressing things to say about the extent to which people actually use their capacity for rationale thought. IIRC, the short version is that people generally develop an opinion first, and then look for evidence to support that opinion.

    2) I think non-specialist science education generally doesn’t do a good job of training students to think like scientists. I invite the readership to think back on their HS and 1-200 level college courses – consider the amount time spent analyzing data and formulating conclusions from that data (particularly about any topic a non scientist would encounter outside the classroom), rather then just being fed content knowledge. I’d love to be able to teach a ‘scientific reasoning’ course that was based around using data to analyze a series of current topics, but there’s no curricular need for such a course…

    1. Steve says:

      rather than a curricular need to teach lots of chemical facts to a bunch of people that will never need it. Your sort of course (say Skepticism 101) should be compulsory at all schools, junior and senior.

      1. h2g2bob says:

        Here in the UK, we got a couple of “plot this correlation” experiments in Science, but perhaps more useful was the couple of English lessons about the language used in advertising. I guess it’s most useful to teach people to lie/mislead so they can spot it for themselves.

        PS, did people _really_ think all life would be wiped out, or did they think the article was hyperbolic but chemical would still likely cause some damage?

  10. Ursa Major says:

    “Or the tiniest bit of a scientific worldview might be enough – that is, asking yourself “Hmm. I wonder if that’s true? What’s the evidence like?””

    I think to some extent you’re asking university-level questions here. Before that, the answer is “because my teacher told me”. Thinking of high-school science experiments that I did, probably all were designed as demonstrations of a concept not as a test of falsifiability, and you could design a similar experiment to prove any crack-pot pseudoscience. Ok, you probably get a bit of Galileo, Newton, Darwin in the Galapagos, etc., but I’m not sure those stories are really enough to understand how gathering and processing evidence works, or to teach someone to properly evaluate sources of information for credibility, let alone the ability to extrapolate knowledge to make some reasonable assumptions about new events.

    Then when you get someone telling you something else, and they have a higher authority (e.g. a preacher), or they play up to people’s natural cynicism with conspiracy theories, it’s not surprising that people choose to believe them.

    1. tangent says:

      I think I may have told this story, but I was deeply impressed by a science sequence in sixth grade: the teacher started by demonstrating how when you lower a jar down over a candle in a pan of water, the fire will consume oxygen (they let the class explain this) and so suck water up into the jar. (Yes.)

      Then in a multi-day process, the teacher showed various things that gave hints — some demo involving a volume of CO2, something with CO2 dissolution in water as a red herring, something with rusting consuming O2 as a contrast to the candle, and finally tipped us off with the use of a hair dryer to suck a hard-boiled egg into a bottle. (Before that did they turn a steam-filled soda can upside down into water? That would be another nice red herring, as it does not suck water up through the mouth.)

      Was this an off-the-shelf piece of science curriculum? I’d like to send thanks to whoever made it.

  11. Chemperor says:

    I don’t want to get embroiled in a debate on religion & science, but I’ve always liked the quote by Henry Eyring:

    “Is there any conflict between science and religion? There is no conflict in the mind of God, but often there is conflict in the minds of men.”

    For those who haven’t taken physical chemistry yet, Eyring was an immensely talented theoretical chemist who won almost every major award that a chemist can win, short of the Nobel, A lot of people don’t realize that he was also a devout Mormon and Christian and proof that an individual need not choose between scientific rigor and spirituality on a personal level.

    1. Isidore says:

      I fully agree with you, and I am someone who has alternated between atheism and agnosticism since my teenage years (which is quite a few decades back). Over the years, in academia and in the biopharmaceutical industry, I have worked and interacted with many talented colleagues who were religious, some of the fundamentalist kind even, without this affecting their science one bit. Whether there was conflict in their minds and if so how they managed to resolve it is, of course, their won business.

  12. Vader says:

    I think what is happening is an unfortunate confluence of three things:

    1. Most people don’t really understand science, and, judging from the reaction of most students to science classes, don’t really want to take the time to. This is a phenomenon similar to rational ignorance in voters, and is therefore going to be difficult to change.

    2. Many of these people think they have reason to distrust science. Sure, science gave us Nintendo, but it also gave us Godless Communism (ask any communist and he’ll confirm it), the specter of nuclear war, the Cutter incident, thalidomide, Chernobyl, and a skyrocketing cancer rate. Of course, science has also given us vast benefits, and many of these incidents blamed on science are exaggerated or completely misunderstood, but it’s pretty clear that most people are really, really bad at weighing costs versus benefits or at spotting anomalies. In other words, this is also going to be difficult to change.

    3. Plenty of opinion leaders see something to gain in feeding 2. confident that 1. will keep them from being exposed. Well, and some of the opinion leaders are themselves subject to 1. and 2. and quite sincere in leading their followers over a cliff. Since most of these opinion leaders have vastly superior people skills to most scientists, we’re not going to outcharm them.

    In other words, I’m not optimistic anything will improve soon.

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      Not seeing too many skyrocketing cancer rates – and most of any increase, once you discount smoking-related cases, is the result of the longer lifespans that science has also provided. . .

      1. Vader says:

        Precisely. We’re seeing pretty much the cancer rate increase we’d expect of a population that is no longer dying younger in large numbers from other things. It’s a misperception.

        It is, nonetheless, a misperception widely held and fanned by some opinion leaders that reduces confidence in science.

    2. Xplo says:

      For a lark, consider how science is presented in mainstream sci-fi. How many times do we see that scientists are reckless and full of hubris, and that their ideas or discoveries lead to horrible side effects, general societal misery/oppression, or disasters (zombies, hostile AIs, nuclear meltdowns, etc)? And how many times do we see science as a noble endeavor whose fruits routinely benefit mankind? Star Trek is the only franchise I can think of that doesn’t seem to hate science.

  13. Democracy InAction says:

    “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

    -Isaac Asimov

    1. the Donald says:

      “I love the poorly educated!” e pluribus unum …

  14. dearieme says:

    “Thomas Jefferson’s version of the New Testament with all the moral teachings left in and all the miracles stripped out.” Typical Jeffersonian twerpishness. Jews in the era of Jesus believed in miracles so it’s perfectly understandable that the synoptic gospels, which present themselves as religious biographies of a prophet, should contain accounts of miracles suitable to a Jewish milieu. (On the other hand the nativity tales are obviously silly Greek intrusions into a story about Jews.)

    If you reject the miracle stories, which seem authentic to me (false, of course, but authentic) what possible reason do you have to accept the evangelists’ accounts of what Jesus said? Or even that he ever existed?

    1. Phil says:

      I think you are restating CS Lewis’ observation. Either all of it happened or none of it happened.

      I happen to value the moral lessons without believing the rest. If you take religion to be a human creation that has conferred an evolutionary advantage (just like lots of our other ape brain quirks), then there must be some wisdom there. I can’t claim to know Jefferson’s mind, but it seems plausibly un-twerpish.

      Like all products of evolution, human religion is far from perfect. It is pretty easily twisted to suit the agenda of those in power. A truly Christian nation would penalize the rich harshly (remember that camel and the eye of the needle?) and prioritize care for the poor and sick, but the “Christian” voting bloc votes with the same interests as the people Christ (supposedly) chastised.

      1. Hrolf says:

        Careful there. The moral lesson from which you’re quoting went, “You, rich person, help the poor,” not, “You, Centurion, take that rich person’s money.”

        And I’m not sure the evolutionary advantage of morality is very easily proven. How many people currently alive are descendants of Genghis Khan? Now those are some selfish genes.

        1. metaphysician says:

          The horrible evilness of Genghis Khan is rather exaggerated, it should be noted. While yes, he was an aggressive conqueror, he was an aggressive conqueror in a world in which basically every society in existence embraced aggressive conquest, to the extent they were capable. He was just better at it than everybody else til Napoleon. His conquest also tended to carry along with it things like trade and religious tolerance.

          He was no saint, certainly, but his main “sin” by the standards of his time was in having his histories be written mostly by people he defeated.

        2. Phil says:

          Hrolf: The Centurions were not working on behalf of a “Christian” nation. I am not a proponent of theocracy of any kind, I just like to point out hypocrisy when I see it. Unless you want the top 1% to be taxed at 99%, you don’t want a Christian nation (in the sense that the nation functions in a way that reflects Christ’s teachings). None of the founders wanted a Christian nation, that’s why church as state are clearly separated.

          Like any hypothesis, my assertion that morality confers an evolutionary benefit to humans cannot be proven, only falsified. However, it fits well enough with the many cases of socially acceptable and unacceptable behavior in other species that I’m willing to accept it provisionally.

          Also, remember that evolution doesn’t just work on the individual (selfish gene) level. Social adaptations work at the population level. So you bringing up the genetic descendants of pillagers (plenty of Viking descendants too!) is irrelevant. Especially since those descendants likely inherited the social adaptations of the conquered population. In fact, the Mongol invasion and Viking conquests are unfathomable in today’s global moral climate, which is further evidence that social evolution has progressed toward morality (beneficial adaptations).

        3. Hrolf says:

          metaphysician: I don’t think my point requires Genghis to be particularly “evil” or “sinful”, just that the path he chose to evolutionary advantage, viz. leveraging the power imbalance of his position as warlord to coerce many women to produce his many offspring, is not consistent with, say, the Sermon on the Mount. So if Christian morality is evolutionally advantageous, and mass concubinage is evolutionary advantageous, then it seems the term “evolutionary advantageous” isn’t saying much that’s interesting about human behavior in the context of morality.

          Phil: Sorry for not being clearer. I was trying to say that Christian morality is inherently individual and voluntary. A society in which the 1% voluntarily gave up everything to help the poor would be Christian. A society in which a majority voted to force the 1% to give up everything would not (cf. Acts 5). Someone might argue that society would be “just” or “good” or some other adjective but it would not be Christian in the sense of “following teachings from the Bible or Christian tradition”.

          As I said above, evolution doesn’t have much interesting to say about morality. Which is fine, because evolution is supposed to be describing things that happen as opposed to things that should happen. But it seems to me a confusion to say that evolution could make us “better” in the sense of beneficial adaptations to the global moral climate. “Beneficial” in evolutionary terms has to mean “more offspring”; there can’t be a separate standard of “morality” to compare it to. You clearly believe that being moral is “good”; me too. But you can’t get to that belief by leveraging anything from evolution.

          1. Phil says:

            Hrolf: Thank you for clarifying your position. It is well-reasoned and I respect it.

            You rightly point out that the Christian code is inherently individual, therefore a “Christian nation” is an oxymoron. My statement is based on the assumption that the nation could decide collectively to give up its wealth to help the poor (which would mean voting to increase taxes on the rich to feed the poor). I hope that clarifies my position, which is meant to be purely hypothetical as I agree with your assessment that morality must be an individual choice.

            I like and agree with this statement: “A society in which the 1% voluntarily gave up everything to help the poor would be Christian.”

            I offer the following modifications:

            “A society or institution that does not voluntarily sacrifice its wealth to help the poor is not Christian.”

            Sell the Vatican. Feed the world. (credit to Sarah Silverman)

            Regarding evolution, you are focused at the individual and generation level, whereas social adaptations by definition must confer benefits at the population level and usually over multiple generations. Apes, orca, wolves – these animals all have social structures that confer benefits at the population level and have nothing to do with individual fitness. And it is not true to say that beneficial only means more offspring. Natural selection can also take the form of mass extinctions that wipe out entire populations. Good job, you out-reproduced other members of your species, but your entire species still got wiped out so it doesn’t really matter. Or, imagine multiple predator species competing over the same prey. A species can make up for what it lacks in individual size and strength by banding together and gaining strength in numbers.

            Look at African wild dogs, the entire pack goes out hunting and leaves all the pups with one dog guarding them. Why doesn’t that dog eat all the pups that aren’t its own? So, I disagree that evolution has nothing to say about morality. I believe what we perceive today as morality is the manifestation of beneficial social behaviors that developed during the evolution of our species.

            Admittedly, the study of social evolution becomes more anthropological and sociological, and even the mechanism for inheritance strays far from purely biological (behaviors that are taught). So, it’s fuzzier.

      2. dearieme says:

        “Either all of it happened or none of it happened.” I think not. I’m arguing that if you want to attribute the moral teachings to Jesus, then the gospels are all you have by way of evidence. If you don’t believe that Jesus existed (because, for instance, you disbelieve the gospels in all essentials) then I don’t see the need to take your views only from the NT. Why not choose an eclectic set of views from here and there?

        1. Phil says:

          dearieme: If my previous statement suggested that you have to believe all of the Bible or none of it, it was not my intention. CS Lewis’s point about “son of God or lunatic and nothing in between” does refer specifically to what is written about Jesus in the gospels.

          I never claimed that moral wisdom can be found exclusively in the teachings of Jesus, in fact I cited religion in general as a beneficial social adaptation. I do in fact take an eclectic view, see my other comment about the Golden Rule being present in some form in nearly every religion.

          You probably know more about Jefferson’s ideology than I do. Did he sincerely believe Jesus existed?

          Personally, I agree the following Wikipedia summary of his religious views:

          “He considered the teachings of Jesus as having “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man,”[5] yet he held that the pure teachings of Jesus appeared to have been appropriated by some of Jesus’ early followers, resulting in a Bible that contained both “diamonds” of wisdom and the “dung” of ancient political agendas.[6]”

          That is to say, if this is what Jefferson believed, I am in agreement with Jefferson. Whether or not Jesus existed, the teachings attributed to him were (and continue to be) embellished and twisted to suit political agendas.

        2. Phil says:

          Further clarification: I don’t care a hill of beans to whom the teachings should be attributed. What was assembled and attributed to Jesus – call it Christian moral code – is the best set of moral teachings to be presented. However, I do not proclaim it to be perfect or complete, just a good starting point.

  15. Ted says:

    I periodically like to cast my mind back, prior to my birth, and experience the exhilaration of scientific progress. It reminds me that history is the bedrock under education. This nugget is embedded in the wikipedia article covering the pharmaceutical industry:

    “Prior to 1940 approximately 23% of all deaths among persons over age 50 were attributed to hypertension. Severe cases of hypertension were treated by surgery.[50]”

    It kind of puts ‘skyrocketing cancer rates’ into perspective…


  16. MF says:

    What’s the difference between Us & Them? Because there really is a difference, a huge one, and its majorly impactful on life outcomes.

    We’ve been talking about surface level effects, late in the chain of causation: distrust of pharmaceutical companies and ‘Western’ medicine (a.k.a. evidence-based medicine), who overweight anecdotes in making their decisions, who dislike using their intellectual faculties and learning new things. You don’t just come to think 9/11 conspiracy theories are credible – something about your whole manner of reasoning is different before you come to adopt those beliefs.

    I do not believe that the difference can be wholly biological. I’ve met plenty of people who are capable of mastering technical subjects who are worse than ignorant when it comes to science. Innate cognitive biases are a factor, but many of us learn to overcome them. I’ve also known plenty of people of limited IQ who possess the wisdom to say “well, that’s just beyond my competence.”

    Did we receive better scientific education or come from families that are more encouraging of intellectual pursuits?

    Going to university seems a bit too late; though I pursued a philosophy rather than a science degree I was already interested in evidence-based reasoning and the scientific method before I set foot on my alma mater’s quad. Neither of my parents went to university, but they have understandings of science and how we learn about the world superior to many university grads I’ve known.

  17. Dave says:

    Scientific American just published an article today in a similar vein regarding ‘Fake News’

    Whilst ignorance of science and medicine are factors, it would appear that our social media networks also play a very important role in all of this. These ‘echo chambers’ re-enforce already held views because you never see the alternatives and can actually lead to increased polarisation. Add TwitterBots into the mix…it gets out of control very quickly.

  18. doc says:

    Gell-Mann effect….

    One need not have a background in science to catch the silly stuff; one must have some ability to think critically. Common sense isn’t common. Neither is quantitative -numerate- thinking.

  19. Anon says:

    Perhaps we can sum up science as “truth before profits”?

    That is not to say that these two are mutually exclusive, just that in science, truth takes priority over profit whenever there is a conflict.

    1. Anon says:

      …or rather, “truth first” – before everything else, including profit, faith, status, or any other potential motive.

      In science, truth is the ultimate motive.

      1. dearieme says:

        “In science, truth is the ultimate motive.”

        But science needs scientists to do it. Their ultimate motives might be something quite different. It’s pretty sobering to read about the megalomaniac medical scientist Ancel Keys, and speculate on whether he shortened more lives that Mao.

        1. Anon says:

          “But science needs scientists to do it.”

          Isn’t a scientist just someone who undertakes an impartial and objective search for the truth? Or does it really require specific knowledge and training?

          Would you call someone a “scientist” just because they have formal scientific training, yet they prioritize other (subjective) motives above finding the truth?

          Science is an attitude towards finding the truth, which does not require formal training.

          1. dearieme says:

            “Isn’t a scientist just someone who undertakes an impartial and objective search for the truth?” As an empirical fact, that’s not how the word is used, is it?

  20. bhip says:

    On a related note, Trump reportedly wanted Jerry Falwell Jr. to head up the Dept. of Education ( Methinks had he accepted, the biology curriculum would have been whittled down somewhat. Evolution- hokum! Yuge grade inflation!

  21. mallam says:

    Ted (-t): Costs are only in context of the time period. I have a copy of a receipt paid by my great uncle for leg surgery on his brother (another great uncle) to remove a tumor done in 1935; the total cost was less than $30.

  22. R says:

    Unreason and anti-intellectualism abominate thought. Thinking implies disagreement; and disagreement implies nonconformity; and nonconformity implies heresy; and heresy implies disloyalty — so, obviously, thinking must be stopped. But shouting is not a substitute for thinking and reason is not the subversion but the salvation of freedom. – Adlai Stevenson, 1954

    There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge – Isaac Asimov, 1980.

    Obviously nonsense has been rampant for a long time, but now the internet spreads it very effectively. I would have to say though that the news sites of journals like Science do not help. Poorly written, no caveats, no judgement. Maybe as scientists we should clean our own house first.

  23. Barry says:

    Evolutionary biologists talk about an “honest signal” that indicates fitness because it has cost (a weak peacock with such a tail would have been eaten). We have had such a thing in media in the past. If a newspaper or a scientific journal had a record of publishing what was demonstrably false, it lost credibility/readership/influence.
    But in the 21st century, that signal is degraded. Sources don’t need investments in printing presses and staff writers/photographers. We are approaching a “Library of Babel” in which you can find an account that agrees with your biases–whatever they are–and there’s no particular signal that one account is more credible than another.

  24. Andy B says:

    On this general topic I strongly recommend G.K. Chesteron, “The Resurrection of Father Brown”:

    I’ll rot13 a summary for the tldr crowd :).

    Sngure Oebja njnxraf va uvf pbssva qhevat uvf bja shareny freivpr, naq gur pebjq tbrf jvyq naq qrpynerf vg n zvenpyr. Naq Sngure Oebja unf ab vqrn jung unccrarq–ur tbrf ba gb fbyir gur zlfgrel bs uvf bja zheqre, fb gb fcrnx–ohg ur vzzrqvngryl naq ybhqyl cebpynvzf fbzrguvat yvxr “Cbcclpbpx!” Orpnhfr, nf ur rkcynvaf yngre, nf n cevrfg ur haqrefgnaqf gur zntavghqr bs *erny* zvenpyrf, naq gurersber ur vf jryy njner gung vg vf vasvavgryl rnfvre gb snxr bar guna gb rnea bar. Vaqrrq, ur fnlf, vg fubhyq or gurbybtvnaf naq pyrevpf jub ner zbfg xrra gb qrohax snyfr pynvzf, gb orggre cerfreir gur fnapgvgl bs gur Gehgu.

  25. XKCD says:

    [citation needed]

  26. Peter S. Shenkin says:

    I’m reminded of a story someone once told me about Hans Kramers (of the Kramers-Kronig relations).

    The story goes that Kramers was involved in a lengthy disputation with a Cardinal. After many hours, he summarized by by saying, “I finally understand the difference between you and me. When you encounter something you don’t understand, you consider it a miracle. Whereas I think it’s a miracle when I encounter something I *do* understand.”

    I have known several excellent scientists who have been seriously religious. One of my favorite books is Churchill’s “My Early Life, A Roving Commission” an autobiography written in 1930. In the chapter “Education at Bangalore” one of my favorite paragraphs begins and ends: “Accordingly I have always been surprised to see some of our Bishops and clergy making such heavy weather about reconciling the Bible story with modern scientific and historical knowledge. Why do they want to reconcile them? … I therefore adopted quite early in life a system of believing whatever I wanted to believe, while at the same time leaving reason to pursue unfettered whatever paths she was capable of treading.”

  27. Empathy Did It First says:

    As an aside on the Jefferson Bible, I posit that a lot of important morality simply arises from empathy (it would suck if someone did that to me therefore I will not do it to him/her); religion as a teaching tool for this is completely superfluous.

    Tom Hobbes’ idea of the state of nature (and many economists’ rational actors) don’t account for the fact that we’re (generally, except in the case of sociopaths) hardwired to put ourselves in each other’s shoes, biblical teachings or no.

    1. Phil says:

      Agreed. Nearly every religion and/or code of ethics contains some form of the Golden Rule. Much of the rest is window dressing.

      1. GladToMoveToProcess says:

        From the Bar Mitzvah service of a friend’s son:

        “A man came to Rabbi Hillel and said ‘Teach me the entire Torah while
        standing on one leg.” Answered the Rabbi: “Do not do to others what
        you do not wish that others do to you. That is the whole Torah. The
        rest is only commentary. Go and learn it!'”

        1. Phil says:

          That’s great, I love it. Given my praise of the Christian moral code in another thread here, I will say what should be obvious: it is rooted in the Jewish moral code. The Golden Rule is central to both.

          Again, I don’t care who came up with it. We should all treat each other as we would want others to treat us.

  28. Peter Drake says:

    Some other strange Deepwater Horizon related fake news:

  29. Dole says:

    All these posts about experts raise an important question:

    As an expert, what do you do if someone who knows nothing about science or medicine starts influencing your life? It isn’t hard to imagine scenarios – what if you lived in a community of anti vaxxers, and get sick? Or if someone changes education standards and your kid no longer learns about evolution? Or simply consider climate change…

    Given some of the current political figures, I feel like a doctor who has to take medical advice from Doctor Oz. So, how can this be prevented? If people who don’t know or don’t care about science are in charge of science policy, what can you do? Can this be prevented?

  30. gippgig says:

    And people are denying there’s a STEM shortage…

  31. David Cockburn says:

    “When people ceases to believe in religion they don’t believe in nothing, they believe in anything” Paraphrased from the Duke of Wellington. But he was talking about a moderate and rational Anglican religion, not a fanatical belief in hocum.
    I agree with many of the commenters who point out that so much of the science we are taught in school is just a list of facts to be regurgitated rather than a method of thinking critically. Of course it is much easier to mark an exam which asks for facts which are either right or wrong.

  32. Dominic Ryan says:

    I think you are all missing the real issue. The phenomenon is (mostly) not about STEM or a capacity for rational thought.
    There is another element in this equation and that is *fear* and by extension strong emotional reactions.
    Think of this as a fight-or-flight reflex. When under stress humans manifest their inner instincts. Rational thought slows or stops and we react on instinct and deeply reinforced training. People buy into nutty ideas such as getting sprayed with insecticide because they have a fundamental fear for their welfare in society. This fear shuts down an ability to follow the bouncing ball of evidence to outcomes. It is preempted by a fear that *they* are lying to us motivated by greed (another powerful emotion).
    Therefore none of this will change unless and until scientists in the many groups step up and create trust. There are some practical steps that might help:
    1. Accountability in publications. This should happen in use of publications by those who benefit. Institutions that promote or rate staff based on publication counts should have claw-backs for junk.
    2. Accountability in websites. Owners of fake news sites need to be publicized and banned for respectable period. This would require a way of forcing open the hidden ownership of those sites.
    3. Accountability in journalists. We need a scoring system for news sources. I don’t just mean the organizations, but the actual bylines. This could be a kind of list. It should list authors of stories and where that is hidden the owners / publishers of those stories. When they are hidden they automatically should drop to a second tier of truthiness. I propose three: Accountable, Hiding, Deceitful.
    4. Accountability in university tech transfer / press offices. Track the wild promises of the top 100 institutions in the world and score them for their promises. “Will cure cancer in 5 years!” “Revolution in energy!!” etc. I imagine they would be particularly scared of this because a track record of failed predictions might curtail giving to their endowment fund.

    Only after we clean up our own houses can we ask the general public to just “trust me, follow the bouncing ball while I explain genetics electron tunneling to you”

    Without trust in science as a larger system there is a vacuum. We have been watching it get filled up by totally predictable human behavior and no amount of STEM education will fix that.

    1. Vader says:

      I think part of this may be the “Gee whiz” blurbs put out by university PR departments, inflating minor results into earthshattering breakthroughs which, at least half the time, fall apart under scrutiny.

      People quickly become numb to cries of “Wolf”.

      I wish scientists would make it part of their code of ethics to tell university PR departments to kiss their hairy fundaments when they come around wanting a “Research Note” or any other kind of press release. Unfortunately, too many scientists love the attention too much.

  33. AH says:

    Confirmation bias is a hell of a drug.

  34. Bob says:

    There is what I have always called the Wizard of Oz Scarecrow Dictum:

    “You Don’t Need a Brain if You Have a Diploma”

  35. David Antonini says:

    Science and faith is always a tricky conversation. I believe, yet I have serious issues with many creationists, not only because of their…naiive(?) science, but more because of their selective interpretational approaches to the scriptures. Genesis is literal, prohibitions against alcohol are literal, but the warnings about wealth/materialism aren’t? Ok…
    Many miss that Genesis, Chronicles, Song of Songs/Solomon, the Gospels, Romans etc are different genres of literature, and therefore might need to be looked at differently. Genesis may be truth, but it is not a scientific text, and interpreting it as such is maybe not the best idea?

    Anyway, miracles can be true, and yet ingesting poison can be unwise. Just because Jesus rubbed mud in one guy’s eyes and he was healed doesn’t mean that same miracle is reproducible. It’s entirely plausible for God to be real, miracles to happen, yet neither to be lab-evident, precisely because they are supernatural. If there is a God (I believe there is), and He deems faith to be important/necessary (His prerogative, being God), it’s entirely plausible that He would engineer things such that we would have to have said faith by not allowing things to work such that a lab could prove Him or His works. Nor is it also implausible that He choose to work in different ways…supernatural healing for one, medicine for another, choosing not to allow another to heal/recover. If your premise is that there is a supernatural being/God, it easily follows that He doesn’t have to follow the “rules” as we observe them on an everyday basis.

    Then again, if your premise is that nothing can exist/be true unless it can be measured and understood by you, that nothing can exist beyond what you see and understand, your conclusions will be different.

  36. flem says:

    I suspect a “gullibility” gene exists. How do you explain Ben Carson?
    This gene must interact with “malevolent” and “benevolent” genes that explains the good, bad, ugly, and evil in us.
    Oxytocin anyone?

  37. Xplo says:

    I expect anti-science has many causes. Maslow’s hierarchy probably prevents some from learning or reasoning; poor education may hamper others; subcultural norms may influence yet others (how else to explain why presumably well-educated wealthy white women seem to believe so much nonsense, e.g. quack medicine?). It may be that some people simply value empiricism and others don’t; the latter would have no use for science in their worldview. All of these require different cures, if they can be cured at all.

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