One (of the many) problems of arguing with science deniers

In a recent post I discussed some points about how to spot anti-science nonsense. Pick a subject, any subject, and there will be someone – probably Alex Jones – making an outrageous claim about it. But don’t worry, they’ll solve the problem with items available from their reasonably priced store: $1440 per litre is a bargain price for something you don’t need and doesn’t do as claimed.

Credit: Jason Hymes
Credit: Jared Hyames

Obviously scammers are gonna scam, and anti-scientists are going to not-science. The thing is once you understand that something is wrong you have some responsibility to make sure the misinformation doesn’t spread like a leaky diaper. With great power knowledge comes great responsibility. Which means you have to start discussing science with science deniers. Don’t forget to place a cushion on your desk and wear padded gloves.

Despite having the advantage of science/facts in the argument against science deniers, you have the decided disadvantage that you can’t just make stuff up (despite how tempting and financially rewarding it is). In fact you have to be better informed about not only your side of the argument but also about the science denier’s arguments.

Sounds odd, doesn’t it? You have to learn nonsense to talk about science. That makes as much sense as being pro-life and pro-death penalty. Bear with me here. Take this example of climate change denier Bret Stephens arguing against Bill Maher on Real Time:

Bret sounds convincing, doesn’t he? Bret sure thinks so. He makes some vague references to headlines from the 1930s and 1970s as dismissals of current concerns about oceans. Then he references an economic study on environmental policy priorities, all whilst looking very smug and sure of himself. These statements leave Bill at a stumbling point because he has to admit he doesn’t know what the hell Bret is talking about. The video edited out the pant-less victory lap Bret did of the studio, complete with crotch gyrations in Bill’s face, as he screamed “Take that liberal media!”

Now it isn’t a bad thing to admit you don’t know stuff. Nobody knows everything, it is arrogant to act like you do. Arrogance is of course the result of being surrounded by Knowitalls, an invisible mythical creature that looks like a cross between a unicorn and Bill O’Reilly. Anyway, I’m glad Bill Maher admitted he didn’t know about the study; if only he would do the same with his position on vaccination and GM/GMOs. But the admission did make him appear less convincing as he couldn’t directly rebut the points made.

And here is why you need to know what the anti-science people “know”. Take the first points Bret makes about the oceans dying. His two dates mentioned are actually making reference to points unrelated to the issue of climate change causing ocean acidification. The first date was reference to the Overfishing Conference in 1936 about whaling and fishery management (as far as I can ascertain), issues that were addressed by introducing catch sizes, fishing licenses, and the phasing out of whaling. So Bret is trying to justify inaction on climate change to save ocean damage by referencing an environmental concern that was acted upon. What a great argument!

His second date was the 1975 Newsweek and New York Times (and others) article about global cooling. This is a well worn climate change denier talking point/myth that has been thoroughly debunked yet has evolved beyond a PRATT point and become a zombie point. Some myths just won’t die and are constantly in search of brains to infect/affect.

We then hear Bret reference a Bjorn Lomborg study on best use of resources and where climate change ranked. Very convincing, aside from the fact that it was complete and utter nonsense. See, Bjorn doesn’t accept the actual risks and actual current changes that have occurred due to climate change. So his entire analysis and argument started off from a completely flawed position and was thus doomed to fail to draw any worthwhile conclusions. Actual experts have torn apart his work, particularly his “conference”, here, here and here. But Bill didn’t know this, thus the points made stand unchallenged and as a sort of “valid” evidence.

And this is why it is important to know your enemy. If you know the arguments they are likely to raise, then you can have rebuttals ready. In the case of citing Lomborg’s work you can point out the failings before people have a chance to take it seriously. In the case of old magazine articles, you can point out you only read them for the pictures. But it means you don’t just have to know the science, you have to know the anti-science.

It is also worth noting that Bret reeled off a string of statements that were essentially nonsense dressed up as facts. That is a tried and trusted debating tactic known as the Gish Gallop, and it is very hard to argue against. It takes a lot more energy to redress the nonsense than they take stating it, not to mention time wasted not making your own points. Also helps that science has to have facts on its side, anti-science can make it all up on the spot.

Of course the obvious thing to say here is that the anti-science movement often don’t see themselves as anti-science and will use similar tactics. They will familiarise themselves with the science in order to dismiss it. This is possibly the most annoying part of science communication, those imbedded in anti-science positions aren’t ignorant of the facts, they are wilfully ignorant of their fact-ness.

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To block or not to block: that is the question.

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The internet is a wonderful place to find information on just about any topic you can imagine and few you can’t. From the latest scientific study to the grumpiest cat, from insightful commentary to rule 34: the internet has it all. The problem is that not everyone is rational, logical, nor well informed, and they still have internet connections and the ability to make webpages and comment on social media.

As someone who tries to share science and knowledge with people, I love to engage and discuss topics. If I can help someone understand or learn something about a complex topic, then I feel like I’ve accomplished something. The more science communicators out there doing the same thing, the slightly better the world becomes. This better understanding leads to better decisions, better ideas, better inventions, better cat photos.

The problem is that not everyone appreciates being told that they are mythtaken or wrong. Others are adamant that they aren’t wrong. People will argue against the overwhelming scientific evidence on topics like climate change (real, man-made, we need to do something about it), genetic modification (breeding technique, cool innovation that is more precise and has great potential), modern medicine (seriously!?!), evolution (as solid a theory as gravity), and even the shape of the Earth (yes, flat-Earthers still exist). This anti-science nonsense is thankfully on the losing team, they just aren’t playing with a full deck.

It is these science deniers that are the most frustrating to deal with on social media and the internet. There is no evidence you can show them that won’t be dismissed – often as a conspiracy – and there is no rationality to their arguments. But they can also be very convincing to people who don’t know enough about a topic, which is how myths get started. And that is dangerous, once myths are started they are very hard to get rid of. So it is actually important to make sure that the science deniers aren’t existing in an echo chamber, which the internet has facilitated to some extent – I’m looking at you Alex Jones, Mike Adams and Joseph Mercola!

These science deniers can be a menacing drain of time, effort and inner calm. The easiest way to deal with them would be to block them, excise the wound, possibly burn the evidence of their existence. But then the science deniers have won. Their echo chamber is just that little bit more echo-y. But the echo chamber is going to keep echoing regardless, as discussed above. But won’t somebody think of the children!

I really hate blocking people on social media. The science denier drivel may pollute my newsfeeds, but blocking them also leaves me open to my own echo chamber. Sure, I might think I’m good at picking good information from bad, but if my thinking is never challenged, how can I be confident I’m not falling for confirmation bias? I guess this is the Catch 22 of the modern age, but with more cats.

Is science broken?

With the rebirth of Cosmos on TV, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and the team have brought science back into the mainstream. No longer is science confined to the latest puff piece on cancer research that is only in the media because a) cancer and b) the researchers are pressuring the funding bodies to give them money. The terms geek and nerd have stopped being quite the derogatory terms they once were. We even have science memes becoming as popular as Sean Bean “brace yourself” memes.

Sean dies

This attention has also cast a light on the scientific process itself with many non-scientists and scientists passing comment on the reliability of science. Nature has recently published several articles discussing the reliability of study’s findings. One article shows why the hard sciences laugh at the soft sciences, with the article talking about statistical errors. I mean, have these “scientists” never heard of selection and sample bias? Yes, there is a nerd pecking order, and it is maintained through pure snobbishness, complicated looking equations, and how clean the lab-coat remains.

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As a science nerd, I feel the need to weigh in on this attack on science. So I’m going to tear apart, limb by limb, a heavy hitting article: Cracked.com’s 6 Shocking Studies That Prove Science Is Totally Broken.

To say that science is broken or somehow unreliable is nonsense. To say that peer review or statistical analysis is unreliable is also nonsense. There are exceptions to this: sometimes entire fields of study are utter crap, sometimes entire journals are just crap, sometimes scientists and reviewers suck at maths/stats. But in most instances these things are not-science, just stuff pretending to be science. Which is why I’m going to discuss this article.

A Shocking Amount of Medical Research Is Complete Bullshit
#6 – Kinda true. There are two problems here: media reporting of medical science and actual medical science. The biggest issue is the media reporting of medical science, hell, science in general. Just look at how the media have messed up the reporting of climate science for the past 40 years.

Of course, most of what is reported as medical studies are often preliminary studies. You know: “we’ve found a cure for cancer, in a petri dish, just need another 20 years of research and development, and a boatload of money, and we might have something worth getting excited about.” The other kind that gets attention isn’t proper medical studies but are spurious claims by someone trying to pedal a new supplement. So this issue is more about the media being scientifically illiterate than anything.

Another issue is the part of medical science that Ben Goldacre has addressed in his books Bad Science and Bad Pharma. Essentially you have a bias toward positive results being reported. This isn’t good enough. Ben goes into more detail on this topic and it is worth reading his books on this topic and the Nature articles I previously referred to.

Many Scientists Still Don’t Understand Math
#5 – Kinda true. Math is hard. It has all of those funny symbols and not nearly enough pie charts. Mmmm, pie! If a reviewer in the peer review process doesn’t understand maths, they will often reject papers, calling the results blackbox. Other times the reviewers will fail to pick up the mistakes made, usually because they aren’t getting paid and that funding application won’t write itself. And that’s just the reviewers. Many researchers don’t do proper trial design and often pass off analysis to specialists who have to try and make the data work despite massive failings. And the harsh reality is that experiments are always a compromise: there is no such thing as the perfect experiment.

Essentially, scientists are fallible human beings like everyone else. Which is why science itself is iterative and includes a methods section so that results are independently confirmed before being accepted.

And They Don’t Understand Statistics, Either
#4 – Kinda true, but misleading. How many people understand the difference between statistically significant and significance? Here’s a quick example:

This illustrates that when you test for something at the 95% confidence interval you still have a 1 in 20 chance of a false positive or natural variability arising in the test. Some “science” has been published that uses this false positive by doing a statistical fishing trip (e.g. anti-GM paper). But there is another aspect, if you get enough samples, and enough data, you can actually get a statistically significant result but not have a significant result. An example would be testing new fertiliser X and finding that there is a p-value of 0.05 (i.e. significant) that the grain yield is 50kg higher in a 3 tonne per hectare crop. Wow, statistically significant, but at 50kg/ha, who cares?!

But these results will be reported, published, and talked about. It is easy for people who haven’t read and understood the work to get over-excited by these results. It is also easy for researchers to get over excited too, they are only human. But this is why we have the methods and results sections in science papers so that calmer, more rational heads prevail. Usually after wine. Wine really helps.

Scientists Have Nearly Unlimited Room to Manipulate Data
#3 – True but misleading. Any scientist *could* make up anything that they wanted. They could generate a bunch of numbers to prove that, for an example of bullshit science, the world is only 6000 years old. But because scientists are a skeptical bunch, they’d want some confirming evidence. They’d want that iterative scientific process to come into play. And the bigger that claim, the more evidence they’d want. Hence why scientists generally ignore creationists, or just pat them on the head when they show up at events: aren’t they cute, they’re trying to science!

But there is a serious issue here. The Nature article I referred to was a social sciences study, a field that is rife with sampling and selection bias. Ever wonder why you hear “scientists say X is bad for you” then a year later it is, “scientists say X is good for you”? Well, that is because two groups were sampled and correlated for X, and as much as we’d like it, correlation doesn’t equal causation. I wish someone would tell the media this little fact, especially since organic food causes autism.

Other fields have other issues. Take a look at health and fitness studies and spot who the participants were: generally, they are university students who need the money to buy tinned beans and beer. Not the most representative group of people and often they are mates with one of the researchers, all 4 of them. Not enough participants and a biased sample: not the way to do science. The harder sciences are better, but that isn’t to say that there aren’t limitations. Again, *this is why we have the methods section so that we can figure out the limitations of the study.*

The Science Community Still Won’t Listen to Women – Update
#2 – When I first wrote this I disagreed, but now I agree, see video below. As someone with a penis, my mileage on this issue is far too limited. That is why it was only when a few prominent people spoke out about this issue that I realised science is no better than the rest of society. It hurts me to say that.

There is still a heavy bias toward men in senior positions at universities and research institutes, women get paid less, women are guessed to be less competent scientists, and apparently, it is okay to ogle female scientists’ boobs… Any of these sound familiar to the rest of society? This is gradually changing, but you have to remember what age those senior people are and what that generation required of women (quit when they got married, etc). That old guard may have influence but they’ll all be dead or retired soon where their influence will be confined to the letters to the editor in the newspaper. After seeing the video below, especially the way the question was asked, I think it is clear that the expectations for women create barriers into and through careers in science (the racism is similar and is one I see as a big issue). So it starts long before people get into science, then it continues through attrition.


Fast forward to 1:01:31 for the question and NDGT’s* answer (sorry, embed doesn’t allow time codes).

Recently there has been a spate of very public sexist science moments. Whether it be telling female scientists they should find a male co-author to improve their science, or Nobel Laureates who don’t want to be distracted by women in the lab, it is clear that women in science don’t get treated like scientists. Which is why I find the Twitter response to the Tim Hunt debacle, #distractinglysexy, to be exactly the sort of ridicule required. Recent events seem to imply at least repercussions are occurring now.

Scientists are meant to be thinkers, they are meant to be smart, they are meant to follow the evidence. They aren’t meant to behave like some cretin who hangs out on the men’s rights movement subreddit discussion. Speaking of which, watch science communicator Emily Graslie discuss the comments section of Youtube.

Here’s another from Thought Cafe and Dr. Renée Hložek.

Update: After the first photo of a black hole was published, women in STEM were back in the headlines, with people wanting to again marginalise women in STEM – not to mention how the media love to promote the “lone genius” when science is a team thing. Vox had a great article on it which included some great graphs from Pew Research.

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It’s All About the Money
#1 – D’uh and misleading. Research costs money. *This is why we have the methods section, so that we can figure out the limitations of the study.* Money may bring in bias, but it doesn’t have to, nor does that bias have to be bad or wrong. Remember how I said above that science is an iterative process? Well, there is only so big a house of cards that can be built under a pile of bullshit before it falls down in a stinky mess. Money might fool a few people for a while (e.g. climate change denial) but science will ultimately win.

Ultimately, science is the best tool we have for finding out about our reality, making cool stuff, and blowing things up. Without it we wouldn’t be, this article wouldn’t be possible, we wouldn’t know what a Bill Nye smack down looks like. Sure, there is room for improvement, especially in the peer review process and funding arrangements, and science is flawed because it is done by humans, but science is bringing the awesome every day: we have to remember that fact.

Other rebuttals:

http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/is-science-broken/

*Wow, who’d have thought including Neil DeGrasse Tyson in this context would age quite so badly!?

Is GM corn toxic?

According to Vendomois et al, 2009:

these data highlight signs of hepatorenal toxicity, possibly due to the new pesticides specific to each GM corn.

Monsanto, fomous for its Round Up lawsuit, the manufacturer of two of the studied strains of GM corn, responded, dismissing the article, particularly by criticizing the statistical methods used. Is Monsanto’s criticism valid?

Have their been additional studies done that either support or refute the claim that genetically-modified corn has toxic effects?

Answer:

The simple answer is no.

GM corn has the BT gene that allows lower use of pesticides due to increased or the RR gene that allows the use of glyphosate for weed control. Neither of these alterations have any impacts upon the production of sugars or proteins in the plant. http://www.ca.uky.edu/entomology/entfacts/ef130.asp

The problem that can arise is from the pesticides that are now used on the crops and the timing of their application. These pesticides are known to harm mammals and if the dose is high enough can cause problems. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2793308/

Generally though, because you are removing pests and weeds the plants tend to be healthier so they are less impacted by pathogens, thus better for consumption. http://www.acsh.org/factsfears/newsID.962/news_detail.asp

There is an issue with using corn as a feed supplement in animals though. Corn is not a complete food source and is generally low in protein, especially tryptophan. This means that a feed mix is required, not just straight corn meal. http://www.ag.ndsu.edu/pubs/ansci/beef/as1238w.htm

Another issue is that corn can cause Pellagra. This is due to the niacin and B12 being bound in the corn starches and not being released in normal digestion. Tryptophan is also low in corn and can cause Pellagra.

So the problems often cited with GM corn are actually just problems with corn itself. Neither are harmful, if used correctly in a balanced diet, but pesticide residues are of concern. For more see this: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1046/j.0960-7412.2002.001607.x/full

Another point that should be made is that the paper cited is from a notorious “research” group who produce shoddy science in order to further their biased agenda against GM technology. The big problem with the paper is that it uses the wrong sort of analysis and the data has already been analysed by two other papers and found to say the opposite of what this paper says. Essentially, if you do a statistical test with a 95% confidence margin, you are saying that you have one chance in twenty of being wrong because of natural variability. So if you measure 20 variables with separate tests, you are likely to have one be a false positive result. Measure 40 with separate tests, 2 false positives. This is what the research group did, set up the stats to generate lots of false positives, instead of analysing the data correctly with tests that account for this problem. It should be noted that this is a common problem/tactic with anti-GM research papers.

Additional question: The ACSH source claims Studies Indicate GM Crops Are Safer and Healthier, but last time ACSH reported their funding, they were co-funded by what are now GMO companies. Currently they are not open about their funding at all. Therefore, their independence cannot be established. Can you back up the claim by research where all funding sources are open and independent? – gerrit

Reply: Of course there is plenty of independent data. gmopundit.blogspot.com/ has an entire series devoted to the safety studies of GM crops. The highly respected journal Nature had an entire edition devoted to the topic. But that is beside the point, the underlying mechanism of the Bt is not one that works on humans (it is even sprayed on organic farms). We don’t have an alkaline stomach to activate the chemical (ditto some insects it doesn’t impact either) which means it can’t do anything. So the concerns are completely misplaced.

Book Review: The Genesis Flaw – LA Larkin

The Genesis FlawThe Genesis Flaw by L.A. Larkin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I got a lot of mileage out of the Sydney Writers’ Festival this year. Saw a lot of great authors and presentations, picked up some fantastic books and had a good time. I’d like to see my local Perth Writers’ Festival get the same sponsorship so they could put on a big event too. I’m looking at you Dymocks!

Anyway, I saw LA Larkin talk about her writing and the book The Genesis Flaw and managed to miss out on picking up a copy. I blame the scheduling and Sydney baristas for not knowing how to make a real cup of tea. Fortunately The Sydney Writers’ Centre were kind enough to send me a copy. Yes I’m getting to the review.

I’ve read three or four GM crop themed thriller novels this year, this was the most realistic of them by far. At the Writers’ Festival LA mentioned some of her research methods, put lightly she goes to great lengths, even Antarctica (she even mentioned a hackers conference she attended and how to spot the undercover cops). A still hate the anti-GM themes in books, being a plant scientist and all.

Despite this, LA has put together a very believable and engaging thriller. I was caught up in the story and liked the more realistic ending to the novel. This was an engaging tale of David vs Goliath, people who have had their phone hacked vs Rupert Murdoch, 99% against the 1% (that’ll get the site traffic up). This book is well worth a read if you like the idea of an eco-thriller to make you think.

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