Scientific Skepticism and Social Justice Advocacy

Note: the general idea in this post is that people who promote social injustices often make rationalizations were they perform logical fallacies, assume false empirical premises and appeal to pseudoscience. Scientific skeptics can promote social justice by targeting those flawed rationalizations for destruction without mission drift or acceptance of any specific political ideology.

Scale of Justice

This post will attempt to lay out some possible connections between scientific skepticism and social justice, give some practical examples of how scientific skepticism can be used to promote social justice without mission drift or the need to sacrifice critical thinking for political ideology (such as opposition to GM crops). Perhaps it may encourage some people to spend some time getting involved in social justice issues outside of scientific skepticism as well.

The post is divided into two larger sections. The first presents a core argument as to how scientific skepticism can be useful for examining arguments about social justice issues. I have tried to make it as minimalist as possible so that it has the best chance of convincing individuals who hold different ideas and positions on this and related issues. The core argument will be illustrated with example of conservative anti-vaccine opposition to HPV vaccination for young girls. The rest of the post will look at a couple of areas were scientific skepticism can made fruitful contributions to social justice activism: legal system malfunctions, victim blaming, anti-group bigotry and defending individuals against quack “treatments” and beliefs.

The core argument

A minimalist argument for the compatibility between scientific skepticism and social justice advocacy might look something like this. People who defend social injustices will often attempt to provide “arguments” (well, more like rationalizations) for why their position should be considered credible. These will usually contain premises, inferences and appeals to pseudoscience. Premises and inferences can be examined on logical and/or empirical grounds and appeals to pseudoscience may be countered with standard skeptical approaches. Either of these approaches are sufficient to undermine the position of the social injustice defender. In addition, a positive scientific case could be built in favor of a social justice goal (although useful, this is not strictly required to just refute the claim being made). All of these approaches do not require mission drift or the sacrifice of critical thinking for the sake of political ideology.

Let us illustrate this approach with an example. Promoting safe and effective vaccines that reduce risk of anal and genital warts as well as pre-cancerous lesions against the uninformed claims by anti-vaccine political groups can be considered a social justice issue. Some anti-vaccine conservatives oppose HPV vaccination for young girls because, allegedly, it contributes to sexual promiscuity. As a scientific skeptic, one has several different options:

(1) one could point out that the premise that getting a HPV vaccine makes young girls more sexually promiscuous is empirically false as a study published in Pediatrics showed that young girls who had gotten a HPV vaccine was not more at risk for pregnancy testing, pregnancy diagnosis, STI testing, STI diagnosis or contraceptive counseling than unvaccinated controls (Bednarczyk et al., 2012). One could also make an analogy to, say, tetanus and argue that tetanus vaccination does not make children want to hurt themselves on rusty nails, so why should the analogous thing happen with HPV vaccination?

(2) one could question the implication by explaining that even if getting a HPV vaccine did increase sexual promiscuity, this might not necessarily be a sufficiently strong argument against HPV vaccination because as long as they use protection and no one gets hurt it is probably not enough to offset the health advantages with an HPV vaccination.

(3) one could refute the appeals to pseudoscience by criticizing the anti-vaccine movement at large i.e. showing that the ideological foundations for such a position is highly dubious.

(4) one could make a positive scientific case for vaccinating young girls against HPV: it is a safe vaccine and reduces the risk of genital warts, anal warts and per-cancerous lesions and explain why it makes sense to put it on the vaccine schedule.

These approaches can be embarked on by scientific skeptics without mission drift and without sacrificing critical thinking for political ideology.

Combating legal system malfunction

Over the years, law enforcement and the legal system have been contaminated by a number of pseudoscientific notions. These include the CQT polygraph, graphology, truth serum, criminal profiling, the Reid technique, over-reliance on eyewitness testimony, hypnosis, false confessions, false memories, anatomically correct dolls and so on (Lilienfeld and Landfield, 2008). Law enforcement and the courts have taken important steps to combat these kinds of pseudoscientific beliefs, but some of them still linger an important problem. Research has also discovered that there are systematic legal biases against African-Americans, men, individuals who provide testimony via visual courtroom technology and individuals who do not appear confidence in the accuracy of their memories. Here are some additional information about some of the examples given above:

Ethnic group and death penalty: a convicted murderer is more likely to be given the death penalty if the victim was European-American compared with African-American (Baldus et. al, 1998). The more stereotypical a male American-American defendant looks, the more likely he is to get the death penalty (Eberhardt et al., 2006).

Memory confidence and accuracy: witnesses who have a high degree of confidence in the accuracy of their memories are more likely to be seen as credible. This can have major consequences as 86% of reported sexual assaults fail to be prosecuted because the law enforcement personnel believe that the testimony given is unreliable (Lacy and Stark, 2013). Some of those cases could be due to law enforcement personnel having mistaken beliefs about memory.

Combating victim blaming

Victim blaming occurs when a victim is given some of the moral blame for a wrongful behavior (e. g. crime, exploitation etc.) directed against them. This is problematic because it promotes a warped sense and morality and can lead to secondary victimization. Victim blaming is distinct from calling a victim behavior unwise. It is unwise to not lock the door when you are out, but that does not mean that you have any moral blame for any subsequent robberies. It is the robbers who violated the law and performed a wrongful act, not you. This section will discuss three possible examples of how to combat victim blaming in the context of scientific skepticism: refuting denialist claim / victim blaming complexes, talk about how victim blaming is often based on cognitive biases (such as fundamental attribution error) and what role social psychological mechanisms play in becoming a victim of psychics.

Debunking denialist claim / victim blaming complexes: A common trope often used by many denialists is to assert that individuals with a medical conditions have caused their own illness. This ranges from new age woo-woos who promote the view that negative feelings cause cancer and autoimmune disease, pH quacks who claim that cystic fibrosis is the result of eating too much acidic foods, HIV/AIDS denialists who claim that antiretroviral medication cause AIDS and anti-psychiatry proponents who claim that mental conditions does not exist (suggesting that individuals with mental conditions just need to cheer up). This type of victim blaming often occurs in a complex with a denialist claim. By debunking the denialist claim, one has effectively make the victim blaming charade falls apart. For instance, if you provide evidence that cystic fibrosis is a genetic disease and not caused by eating acidic foods, then the claim that individuals with cystic fibrosis have themselves to blame because of eating acidic foods gets completely destroyed. An argument cannot stand if a premise is false.

Explaining cognitive biases: Two key cognitive biases relevant for victim blaming are the fundamental attribution error and the just world fallacy. The fundamental attribution error occurs when individuals overestimate the impact of personal factors and underestimate the impact of situational or environmental factors for a given outcome when explaining the behavior of others. In other words, people who fall for this cognitive bias are more likely to attribute victimization to personal characteristics of the victim, rather than factors outside that individual. When someone has gotten victimized by denialist crank, the just world fallacy can bias some people into thinking that the victims must have deserved it. Combating victim blaming by spreading knowledge about how these kinds of cognitive biases can influence people when they consider cases were individuals have been victimized by denialists could be another way to promote social justice in the context of scientific skepticism.

Detailing social psychological mechanisms: Some people may claim that the victim of an alleged psychic is “ignorant” and therefore deserves it, but that is a cognitive simplification. Although ignorance probably plays an important role, such approaches do not take into sufficient consideration the manipulative social psychology skills of the alleged psychic or the increased susceptibility of psychologically vulnerable people. Talking about the social psychology of manipulation and exposing the techniques used by alleged psychics to deceive their victims could potentially diffuse some of this kind of victim blaming.

Combating anti-group bigotry

One important area of social justice issues revolve around group discrimination and anti-group bigotry, such as ethnic group, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, class, nationality, religion and so on.

Debunking myths about genetics: a lot of anti-group bigotry attempt to provide genetic rationalizations involving talk about IQ, between-group genetic variation, heritability, sex hormones, alleged differences in innate abilities and so on. Promoting solid knowledge about genetics may help to dispel some of these myths, or immunize fence-sitters from falling for them. This might be applicable to issues of racism and sexism in particular.

Debunking myths about statistics: another field that is frequently abused by individuals engaging in anti-group bigotry is statistics. Explaining statistical fallacies and talking about what kinds of conclusions are reasonable based on what kind of data (especially pointing out the problems with drawing categorical conclusions based on insufficient data) may help to combat such abuse of statistics. This could be applicable to issues related to racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, anti-immigration etc.

Debunking myths about “treatments” and treatments: this kind of approach can come in a few different versions. As a scientific skeptic, one can point out that things like gay conversion therapy does not work and is dangerous, whereas hormone replacement therapy for transgender individuals can be very useful.

Defending individuals against quack “treatments” and beliefs

Some individuals with conditions such as HIV/AIDS, autoimmune disease, cancer, depression, anxiety and so on can sometimes be vulnerable to denialism and denialist in two main ways: denialists may manipulate them reject key components of the origin and nature of the condition and/or convince them that mainstream treatments are dangerous and ineffective, whereas quack treatments are alleged to be safe and effective. This becomes even worse when it occurs by proxy i.e. when a parent treats his or her child with homeopathy for cancer or faith healing for type-I diabetes and so on.

Cognitive defense against denialist manipulation: by spreading knowledge about the nature and origins of medical conditions, about cognitive biases that are likely to be relevant for individuals with such conditions and how to recognize denialist tactics, one might be able to reduce the risk of people with such conditions getting trapped in HIV/AIDS denialism, anti-psychiatry and so on.

Criticizing quack treatments: one way to reduce the risk of individuals giving up mainstream medical treatments in favor of quack “alternatives” is to spread knowledge about clinical trials and about the lack of evidence for safety and efficacy of quack “treatments”.

Conclusion:

The promotion of social injustices usually come with rationalizations that are often logically fallacious, based on false empirical premises and appeals to pseudoscience. Most components of these rationalizations can be targeted and annihilated by scientific skeptics. Examples of some approaches include debunking myths about genetics and statistics, criticizing quack “treatments”, explaining the cognitive biases underlying victim blaming, debunking denialist claim / victim blaming complexes, exposing pseudoscience in law enforcement and the courts.

This provides a way for scientific skeptics to spend time on social justice issues without mission drift or the need to sacrifice critical thinking for political ideology. In fact, some scientific skeptics might already be engaged in social justice issues without realizing it.

References:

Baldus, D. C., Woodworth, G., Zuckerman, D. Weiner, N. A., Broffitt, B. (1998). Racial discrimination and the death penalty in the post-Furman era: an empirical and legal overview, with recent findings from Philadelphia. Cornell Law Review, 83: 1638-1770

Bednarczyk, Robert A., Davis, Robert, Ault, Kevin, Orenstein, Walter, & Omer, Saad B. (2012). Sexual Activity–Related Outcomes After Human Papillomavirus Vaccination of 11- to 12-Year-Olds. Pediatrics. doi: 10.1542/peds.2012-1516

Eberhardt, Jennifer L., Davies, Paul G., Purdie-Vaughns, Valerie J., & Johnson, Sheri Lynn. (2006). Looking Deathworthy: Perceived Stereotypicality of Black Defendants Predicts Capital-Sentencing Outcomes. Psychological Science, 17(5), 383-386.

Lacy J. W., & Stark C. E. (2013). The neuroscience of memory: implications for the courtroom. Nature reviews. Neuroscience, 14 (9), 649-58.

Lilienfeld, S., Landfield, K. (2008). Science and Pseudoscience in Law Enforcement: A User-Friendly Primer. Criminal Justice and Behavior. 35(10): 1215-1230.

Emil Karlsson

Debunker of pseudoscience.

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