Mailbag: Contaminated Tools and the Tsunami of Unreason

mailbag letter

It is time for another entry into the mailbag series where I answer feedback email from readers and others. If you want to send me a question, comment or any other kind of feedback, please do so using the contact form on the about page.

This time, the questions comes from the commenter Skeptek. It was a little bit too long, so I have shortened it a bit to distill the main ideas but hopefully I have kept sufficient context for it to make sense. Earlier on the blog, me and Skeptek had a short discussion about the motives of quacks and cranks. Skeptek was leaning more towards considering them as conscious frauds and liars, whereas I more took the position that one should not attribute to malice that which can be credibly explained by human ignorance. Of course there are proponents of pseudoscience that are conscious frauds and liars, but perhaps that should not be our default assumption.

Additionally, you’re not the first wise person to point out, what you see as flaws in my logic – namely that I am making assumptions or improperly speculating about the motives of people who promote pseudoscience, or even their mental health. I see them as willful liars, but most others seem sure they’re simply stupid. I’ve long thought that this simply can’t be true – that my reasoning was faultless […] I do feel a strong and viscerally emotional reaction to pseudoscience in all forms. I become tense and even get snippy with those around me after reading some of the worst stuff that’s out there. “How dare these ignorant, lazy cowards attack the hard working and noble work of brilliant scientists whom I idolize as heroes?” I’m not really sure what I’m asking here, but you seem to have either been down this road already, or you’ve been able to avoid it altogether, so I’m curious how an experienced skeptic like yourself is able to maintain neutrality as you appear to do.

I detect a certain level of black-and-white thinking in this paragraph, where those who subscribe to some form pseudoscience is grouped up into a category with properties like “willful liars”, “ignorant”, “lazy”, “cowards”. On the other hand, scientists are grouped up in a category with properties like “does noble work”, “brilliant” “target of idolization”. This, however, is a cognitive simplification (a form of demonization). Reality is a lot more nuanced and complex. I have found one insight that is extremely useful for breaking up that kind of thinking: the widespread prevalence of selective skepticism. To exemplify, let us look at three specific discoveries that I had as I began to discover selective skepticism.

The first discovery relates back to when I noticed that many other skeptics (while successfully using the methods of scientific skepticism towards things like creationism and homeopathy) utterly failed to apply the same degree of skepticism towards their favorite unsubstantiated belief. These skeptics that I personally admired turned out to be 9/11 truthers, mental illness deniers, anti-vaccine cranks, anti-GMO activists, climate change deniers and so on (for a specific case, see Why Jerry Coyne is Wrong about Medical Psychiatry and the follow-up article Why Jerry Coyne is Still Wrong about Antidepressants). I was flabbergasted. Completely shocked. I asked them: “can’t you see that you are using the exact same kind of pseudoscientific debating tactics to defend your ideological belief as creationists and homeopaths do to defend theirs?” They did not seem to get it. Others understood my line of thought, but provided feeble rationalizations. Apparently, quoting climate scientist Phil Jones out of context about northern tree rings is not at all the same as Darwin on the eye out of context. Yeah right.

This discovery made it impossible for me to uphold individual skeptics (and the skeptical community at large) as uniformly science-friendly or rational.

The second discovery was when I first read about what is now known as the Nobel disease. As it turns out, not even Noble Prize winners are immune to the tsunami of unreason. Linus Pauling, a quantum chemist who won the Nobel Prize in 1954, yet he became a cancer quack claiming that large doses of vitamin C could cure cancer. Konrad Lorenz, one of the founders of behavioral ecology and Nobel Prize winner in 1973, was a dedicated Nazi. Nikolaas Tinbergen, who won the prize the same year as Lorenz, supported autism quackery (the notion of refrigerator mothers and an ineffective and coercive treatment for ASD based on restraint) in his Nobel speech. Kary Mullis won the Nobel Prize in 1993 for his improvements on the PCR reaction (standard technique in biology labs the world over), yet he became an HIV/AIDS denialist, rejected global warming and embraced astrology. Luc Montagnier, who won the Nobel Prize in 2008 for his discovery of HIV, is now a proponent of ideas that resemble homeopathy. These are just a few examples out of a long list of Nobel Prize winners who have succumbed to the allure of pseudoscience.

If Nobel Prize winning scientists cannot withstand the tsunami of unreason, how can the average scientist do it? How can I or other skeptics do it?

The third discovery came from reading two research paper. The first, published back in 2005 in PLoS Medicine entitled Why Most Published Research Findings Are False. The paper shows that most published research findings cannot be replicated and that the self-correcting mechanism of science is in full effect. Some of the proposed explanations for this includes small sample sizes, small effect sizes, more tested relationships not selected in advance, too flexible research designs, case definitions, measured outcomes and statistical comparisons, economic interest and popularity. The second paper, published in PLoS ONE in 2009, entitled How Many Scientists Fabricate and Falsify Research? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Survey Data that suggested that around 2% of scientists admitted to fabricated or falsified research data and 34% admitted to questionable research practices. Further, when asked about colleges, the rate of falsification of research data was a little over 14% and the prevalence of questionable research practices soared to 72%. The researchers consider these figures to be conservative estimates.

This, of course, does not mean that over 70% of scientists intentionally commit questionable research practices. At any rate, this third discovery undermined by belief in the relevance of single studies and also showed that I could no longer believe that individual scientists had a high degree of intellectual integrity. Finally, I could no longer reliably infer motives from behavior.

A short note on mental illness: it is very problematic with labeling ignorant people as mentally ill because the symptoms of actual mental illness usually does not resemble the behavior of cranks. There is nothing beneficial about calling cranks mentally ill as it has nothing to do with the validity (or rather lack of validity) of their beliefs. Instead, it enforces the stigma around mental illness by associating it with the behavior of ignorant cranks.

If my own observations and assessments (my tools of investigation) are contaminated, then how can I be sure of any opinions I form? I know this is hyperbolic, but to some degree I find myself questioning every word that pops into my head. “Is that my anger talking, or is that an objective fact?” And how the hell can I tell the difference if I’m looking through biased glasses? Perhaps I could just try to avoid making any comments about a person’s motivations or mental state, or even about the person at all, but I can’t help but wonder what other aspects of my view may be skewed by whatever prejudice I may have. I find myself wishing that someone could logically debate me to contradict the notion that woo-woos are all evil, money grubbing liars, but something tells me that’s not going to work that way, because I’m too “sophisticated” to be swayed.

The problem is not so much that your cognitive tools are contaminated, but that the cognitive tools used by humans are contaminated. Therefore, it makes little sense to strive for never being wrong. That seems to be a view stemming from perfectionism and it is unlikely that it can be obtained in practice. Instead, the aim should be to be less wrong. By all means, be skeptical of your own reactions, but make sure that it does not become maladaptive self-criticism. The skepticism has to be reasonable and tempered. Complete neutrality and objectivity is difficult for a single person to obtain (and I do not claim that I am completely objective either). Rather, objectivity emerges from the self-correcting nature of science.

In the end, there is very little benefit to speculating about the motives of cranks. The cognitive simplification of labeling them as “evil, money grubbing liars” may make you at ease, but it is not an argument. It likely detracts from convincing fence-sitters (who might see such a behavior as arrogant and unpersuasive) and you almost never have sufficient evidence to establish it anyway. Start with the default assumption that their beliefs are probably due to ignorance and only alter that position if solid evidence emergences (which is not the same as circumstantial evidence from their writings).

My final argument would go something like this: if we can partly explain the fact that over 70% of the scientific colleagues to other scientists engage in questionable research practices by pointing out unconscious biases, social factors etc. then these factors will probably be able to explain a sizable proportion of the dishonestly exhibited by cranks. If not, you would have to attribute the same properties (“willful liars”, “ignorant”, “lazy”, “cowards”) to a majority of scientists. However, that view probably cannot be sustained. Now this argument has limitations and the analogy is not perfect by any means, but I think it is still a useful approach.



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1 reply

  1. Thanks much for addressing my overly long letter. I appreciate your thoughtful response.

    I’m an activist skeptic because I think pseudoscience is devastating to society, and it seems so popular today – it makes me sad. In that light, debating an honest person can benefit that cause, but not so someone with a hidden agenda.

    As a card-carrying “Nerd”, I sometimes have difficulty in social situations, and can’t always read others (like most can?). This makes me look for “tells” that signify emotion and intent. Finding one is a big relief, because then I can just “know” what they’re thinking, but the method is lazy and flawed, and will inevitably lead to prejudice. I, especially, need to give extra benefit of the doubt to the other debater, because I just can’t be sure.

    So it’s kinda like fighting the urge to jump out of the car and ring the neck of someone who cut me off in traffic. If I pretend the other person is actually my sweet little grandmother, who may just be making an honest mistake, then the possibility of malicious intent becomes less important.

    However, knowing all this doesn’t make the process any easier, and I find myself still looking for signs of sincerity and veracity in every case. Does Rosanne Bar really think all that? I suspect she does, yes. But what about the Republican who claims there’s no climate crisis, or that women can’t get pregnant from rape, or…, or…? It’s easy to become jaded.

    I tell you what, being a “good” activist skeptic is bloody hard work!

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