Science in the Age of Opinion

Scientific disinformation is going round like a bad cough these days, including doubts about vaccines and global warming, never mind a belief in a 6,000-year-old earth or free energy. Of course, one should always be sceptical of one’s sources, but are the basics of good science becoming derided because of the rise of the internet and so-called pockets of new authority? Are we becoming our own curators, the last arbiters about what is correct and right despite much contrary evidence? Are we living in an Age of Opinion?

The recent misinformation about vaccines can be traced to a 1998 research paper by a discredited British medical doctor, who stated that the MMR (mumps, measles, rubella) vaccine caused autism. As noted by Ben Goldacre in Bad Science, doubts about the MMR vaccine is “the prototypical health scare … It has every ingredient, every canard, every sleight of hand, every aspect of venal incompetence and hysteria, systematic and individual.” Indeed, it was determined that the work was fraudulent and that the doctor was paid. But despite vaccines being safe and effectively used since the 1940s, helping to control some of our most deadly diseases, the damage was done. The result of the chicanery is a dangerous uptick in measles throughout the United States, once thought eradicated.

In 2009, hacked emails from a University of East Anglia server purported that scientists manipulated climate data, perfectly timed to coincide with an upcoming major climate change conference in Copenhagen. The emails effectively derailed the conference – who is going to believe scientists more interested in funding than the truth? But the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations scientific body established in 1988 to stabilize human-induced greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere, has repeatedly shown that the earth is warming: “Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850. In the Northern Hemisphere, 1983–2012 was likely the warmest 30-year period of the last 1400 years.” Man-made or natural? Come on, pumping increasing amounts of waste heat into the atmosphere day after day suggests man at least has something to do with the higher temperatures. Higher Arctic and ocean temperatures are not an evolutionary phase.

So why do we have trouble believing reputable sources? In some cases, scientists have only themselves to blame. University of Utah electrochemists Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons claimed they had developed a sustained nuclear fusion reaction at room temperature, so-called cold fusion. Alas, their results could not be duplicated in any research lab around the world as per the tried-and-true Scientific Method. Energy for all may have spawned a few hopeful movies but was scientific gibberish.

An Irish company continues to tout a perpetual motion device, receiving €19 million in funding from gullible investors, despite not having produced any credible evidence. The U.S. Patent Office knows about such malarkey, and excludes patents for supposed “over unity” machines. Yet the snake-oil salesmen are given credence over centuries of scientific understanding and the laws of thermodynamics in the hopes of something for nothing.

Science writer John Gribbin wrote that the combined attractive forces of Jupiter, Mars, and the Moon—aligned in the same direction relative to earth on January 23, 1972—would be so important that he felt compelled to warn the world of impending doom. He dubbed his doomsday scenario the “Jupiter effect,” presumably to sell lots of books. Yet the day came and went without disaster. The excellent Georgia State University hyperphysics website stated that, “You change the gravity force on yourself by taking one step up a stairway more than the combined gravitational effects of both Jupiter and Mars if they were perfectly aligned!” They even show the simple calculation.

Of course, Gribbin should have known better, but add in a burgeoning cottage industry of puffed-up Google sources and one can start to sympathise with the easily led along with the natural sceptics. Is the earth 6,000 years old as determined by a 16th century archbishop counting backwards from genealogies in the Bible? Is illness the result of divine retribution as stated by American evangelist Pat Robertson? With millions more armchair analysts on the internet now, knowledge is becoming as fractured as a Cubist painting.

In fact, the earth is somewhere between 8 and 14 billion years old, determined from a number of methods: radioactive decay of uranium samples in the earth (8–11 billion years), cooling rates from the oldest white dwarves (11.5 billion years), or a cosmological model that uses the Hubble constant and the density of matter and dark energy (13.7 billion years).

If more evidence is needed about erroneous Biblical origins, the Himalayas were created by the uplift of land caused by the collision of two continents, elegantly explaining the presence of 6-million-year-old fish fossils atop Mount Everest, negating the idea of a Biblical flood as Leonardo da Vinci indeed conjectured. One needn’t count backwards from the begats in Mathew to calculate the precise date of creation “at nightfall preceding 23 October, 4004 BC” (incidentally, my birthday).

“There’s a sucker born every minute” is famously attributed to the professional showman P. T. Barnum. Indeed, hucksterism is very much alive and well in our new-fangled, contraption-filled, 24/7 world. Some seem ready to accept the most obviously flawed ideas and yet doubt our most accredited sources. It’s not all a disconnect between what a scientist says and what the general public thinks, attributable to poor communication.

In a recent National Geographic article, “Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?, Joel Achenbach asked whether the facts on fluoridation, vaccines, climate change, the moon landings, GMO, airborne Ebola, cancer clusters, and secret sauces could be faked to such a degree that every scientist in the world is in on the scam. With regards to global warming he wrote, “The idea that hundreds of scientists from all over the world would collaborate on such a vast hoax is laughable—scientists love to debunk one another. It’s very clear, however, that organizations funded in part by the fossil fuel industry have deliberately tried to undermine the public’s understanding of the scientific consensus by promoting a few skeptics.” Ah, now, there’s an underlying reason for the confusion. Someone with a vested interest in the results. Sounds more familiar – oil money at work.

Indeed, we must be wary of any source and how “science is used, corrupted and manipulated by powerful corporations to serve their own ends” as Colin Todhunter noted about Monsanto’s apparent “scientific” approval of its GMO foods and lack of interest in appropriate food labelling (“Monsanto Wants to Know Why People Doubt Science”).

To be sure, there’s a minefield of conflicting data out there, and we need our proxies to help understand, to help with the heavy lifting we can’t do ourselves. We can’t possibly verify every claim to weed out the opinion from the facts.

We can however look more critically at the data, to try and see when we’re being conned (and how and why). Indeed, many facetious inferences are made from correlating bad data, but finding valid cause and effect is never easy. We have to avoid the easy left-side graph thinking. Have homicides been reduced because a particular governor took office and enacted new anticrime laws with more policing or because of a new job creation program, as he or she might like to claim? Or have homicides decreased because of mobile phone technology that can call for help faster and improved paramedic methods that keep attack victims alive on their way to the hospital?

Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner of Freakonomics fame stated that crime decreased in the United States in the 1990s as a result of the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, which overturned state laws outlawing abortion. They argued that unwanted children are more likely to become criminals when they grow up, but because of better access to abortions unwanted children will instead be aborted, resulting in reduced crime. But crime may have been reduced because of a whole host of reasons, such as more policing, low-income subsidies, or increased incarceration levels, and even seemingly unrelated factors such as better health care and warmer weather. Just because one variable decreased does not mean it was caused by another that also decreased. Correlation does not mean causation.

They also suggested that more TV watching by young people leads to more crime, a notion they advanced from TV-watching and crime statistics in the 1960s. One could just as easily argue that poorer parents, who didn’t care how much TV their kids watched, were the likelier cause—poorer, that is, in both their ability to parent and in their income. Poverty seems to be the cause of many things we’re not willing to accept, from lower life spans to criminality. Does eating ice cream cause heart attacks?—only if there is a causal link. To be sure, not all horses pull carts.

In How to Lie with Statistics, Darrell Huff noted how easily specious inferences are made: “It is easy to show a positive correlation between any pair of things like these: number of students in college, number of inmates in mental institutions, consumption of cigarettes, incidence of heart disease, use of X-ray machines, production of false teeth, salaries of California school teachers, profits of Nevada gambling halls. To call some one of these the cause of some other is manifestly silly. But it is done every day.”

Lots of bad inference comes from small sample sizes. Malcolm Gladwell suggested that sporting success is not based on individual merit but is rather a function of “relative age,” that is, being born in the early school cut-off months of January, February, or March. However, his analysis was oddly based on only two teams with relatively small sample sizes (25 and 21)—the 2007 Memorial Cup-winning Medicine Hat Tigers hockey team and the 2007 World Cup-finalist Czech National junior soccer team—as if cherry-picking the data to fit his conclusion.

It would seem that talent, practice, and access to training facilities is what makes most athletes succeed. “Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity” as in Ockham’s razor, an early form of management-speak, such as KISS or “Keep It Simple Stupid.” The best choice between competing theories is that which has the fewest assumptions.

We know that smoking is bad, as sure as trying to walk across a busy multi-lane highway without getting hurt. Of course, you can make it but the odds aren’t good. And statistics about “the population” doesn’t mean an expected result will happen to an individual. The oldest woman on record, Jeanne Calment, smoked until she was 117, and died at 122, but are you willing to bet your life on the tail of a distribution, the one in a million?

The aim of all scientific study is a game of pattern recognition and we must be careful of our conclusions. I can go online and find reasons why the moon landing was faked, from shadows to a stiff flag (or is it lack of shadows and a wavy flag?) But the good scientist and good citizen doesn’t have the answers before the analysis. Science is not a Rorschach ink blot where one sees whatever one wants to see. The weight of a social network post is not equal to a team of scientists researching for decades.

Indeed, according to a recent American Cancer Society research program, the effects of smoking are much worse than we thought, the USDA notes that cholesterol is also no longer a “nutrient of concern,” and vitamins appear to be more useful to the $4 billion a year vitamin industry than to the regular user.

To be sure, it is easy to come up with the equations to describe the motions of the heavens thanks to the work of Brahe, Kepler, and Newton, but not so easy to work out the effects of a Federal Reserve stimulus package on a shaky economy or the new Oakland Athletics line-up after another of manager Billy Beane’s Sabermetric revamps.

But the bigger problem is when we overturn the validity of vaccines, global warming, or the results of proper scientific analysis without thinking through the politics of the sources and our own bias. Beware your sources and choose your high priests carefully.

JOHN K. WHITE, an adjunct lecturer in the School of Physics, University College Dublin, and author of Do The Math!: On Growth, Greed, and Strategic Thinking (Sage, 2013). Do The Math! is also available in a Kindle edition. He can be reached at: john.white@ucd.ie.


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John K. White, an adjunct lecturer in the School of Physics, University College Dublin, and author of Do The Math!: On Growth, Greed, and Strategic Thinking (Sage, 2013). Do The Math! is also available in a Kindle edition. He can be reached at: john.white@ucd.ie.

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