Why Scientific Skepticism Should Be Intellectually Global
With the election of Donald Trump, we are now officially living in a post-fact world.
There are many factors behind why Trump won. He got a ton of free advertisement from the mass media, he exploited simmering hostility towards the establishment, a lot of democrats did not vote etc. and people are trying to figure out how it happened and how to process it all. However, it is becoming clearer and clearer that an ignorance of science and critical thinking likely played an important role. Trump promoted a large number of scientific falsehoods and a lot of anti-human bigotry that you could debunk with a minimal knowledge of science and cognitive biases.
However, people either did not do this properly or simply did not care enough about these issues. This means it is high time to restore the cultural authority of science and promote critical thinking of questionable claims. Not only that, scientific skepticism has to go global. Not just in terms of geography, but there also needs to be a push for scientific skepticism as a valid tool in all areas of human endeavor. Pseudoscientific nonsense is pseudoscientific nonsense regardless if it comes from a politician or an alternative medicine quack.
What does this mean in practice?
This post will examine some of the consequences of this commitment to scientific skepticism as an intellectually global priority. It means that there will be no more free passes or no more selective skepticism. It means defending medical ethics and human rights. It means opposing pseudoscientific bullshit from politicians and understanding that bigotry often rely on pseudoscience. It also means pushing for scientific testing of political policy suggestions.
No free passes
No issue should be given a free pass from scientific skepticism and critical thinking. There is no divide between “science and rationality” and “all other issues”. Tear down this wall. Scientific skepticism should be applied just as harshly to claims made by politicians, public policy suggestions, religion, history and ethical claims. No more free passes to pseudoscientific nonsense no matter where they can be found. This farce ends here.
No selective skepticism
Any scientific skeptics have previously (barely) tolerated selective skeptics. These are “skeptics” who apply all the tools of the trade to most forms of pseudoscience, but have one or a couple of areas (such as climate change or GMOs) where they embrace just as much pseudoscience as the average crank. This is a problem that has even plagued Nobel Prize winners. This has to end. If you understand the merits of scientific skepticism, apply it generally and evenly.
Defend mainstream declarations that are violated by quacks:
Many quacks violate medical and scientific guidelines, the Helsinki declaration and various declarations of human rights when they promote their fake “treatments” or dubious diagnostic methods. These need to be defended on top of pointing out the pseudoscience, because they are reviewed by experts and based on empirical experience.
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When politicians promote pseudoscience, their claims are fair game
If you think that something is pseudoscience if it is being promoted by Mike Adams or Mercola, but not when it is promoted by your favorite politicians, you are part of the problem. Politicians do not and cannot turn a turd into a diamond by speaking. When politicians cross the line into pseudoscientific bigotry or pseudoscience more generally, their claims should be open to being criticized by scientific skeptics. Saying “ugh, politics” and ignoring it just does not cut it anymore.
Understand that bigotry often rely on pseudoscience:
Most forms of bigotry are promoted by appealing to various forms of pseudoscience or scientific inaccuracies. This is because bigots understand that arbitrary outbursts are not really that persuasive and you need some kind of backing. This backing is typically hopelessly wrong when it comes to facts and statistics. So you can oppose bigotry even if you are only interested in opposing pseudoscience. A representative example is opposing forced anal examinations carried out by anti-LGBT governments. Even arbitrary outbursts can be examined by scientific skepticism by explaining the burden of proof, asking for evidence and so on.
Strive for evidence-based politics:
Political suggestions should, whenever possible, be subject to scientific investigation and empirical testing. If you support a particular program for creating jobs, reducing intimate partner violence or reducing pollution from a specific process, these should be tested in small or moderate scale to ensure that they actually work. This should preferably be done with a randomized control trial design with a decent sample size or higher. An example of this is the revolt of the randomistas.
What does this mean?
This does not mean that scientific skeptics should focus on debating unproductive political issues for which there is no evidence or possibility of being accurate. This does not mean that skeptics should only focus on criticizing religion. No one is asking you to become a radical feminist or a men’s rights activist just because you debunk pseudoscience or ask for evidence on issues that relate to gender, minorities or justice. Skeptics should not take the “no fee pass” as an excuse to promote bigotry against anyone.
It is just business as usual, but now with a much, much larger area to apply the principles and practices of scientific skepticism. We should go intellectually global and no pseudoscientific nonsense or bigotry should ever be able to hide from its blinding light.
Where to go from here?
If you are a scientific skeptics who has gotten tired of all pseudoscientific bullshit and bigotry, please consider starting a blog, a Youtube channel, a Twitter account or a skeptical Facebook page. We need you. This is now more important than ever.
6 thoughts on “Why Scientific Skepticism Should Be Intellectually Global”
Good stuff, Emil. May I ask for some clarification? Do you think that skeptics are justified in exercising a kind of skeptical triage? For example, Donald Trump said that vaccines cause autism and that climate change is a hoax. Clinton has long been a proponent of the pseudoscientific, “functional medicine.” Many skeptics (with notable exceptions, such as Orac) entirely glossed over Clinton’s (relatively minor) pseudoscience. Is this okay? Is it okay to look at two candidates and say, “A is so much worse than B for science that when I talk about this election I’m not going to mention B’s shortcomings at all?” Or are we obliged to say, “A is terrible, but B isn’t perfect” even if, by comparison, B is flippin Carl Sagan?
As a wrote on Twitter a few days ago:
We should be able to keep two things in mind at the same time. Yes, Clinton has promoted pseudoscience, but it is easy to see that Trump is many orders of magnitude worse than Clinton when it comes to science. Sometimes you have to make priorities. I like principle, but sometimes you are forced to be pragmatic.
Fair enough. How far can you push that pragmatism? Is it okay, for example, to only talk about the most extreme climate models, ignoring those with more modest outcomes, in an effort to scare people into action? If there’s a line between advocates and impartial sources of information, then what side should we, as science communicators, stand.
Here I think you are making a subtle shift between “objecting to larger of two pseudosciences” and “actively biasing the science”.
By all means, be an activist as much as you want, but there is a clear difference between having priorities on what kind of pseudoscience you want to focus on and sacrificing scientific rigor. Using scaremongering might superficially appear to work at first, but it is probably not a long-term effective approach. So it fails both on principle and in terms of pragmatism.
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