Mailbag: But Some Scientists Disagree!!!11

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It is time for another entry in 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 info on the about page.

A common denialist tactic to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt about some scientific model or medical discovery is to attack the scientific mainstream explanation. This is typically done by either portraying scientists and doctors as evil, denigrate the scientific community as a whole or distract from the independently converging evidence by pointing to a few scientists that might disagree either with the entire model or some minor detail.

“Not all scientists agree!” is their call to arms, but they forget that there will always be disagreements in science. What they are effectively doing is either (1) radically exaggerating some internal scientific debate about some minor detail as if the entire scientific model was under threat or (2) artificially inflating the importance of a small number of scientists, researchers or doctors who disagree with the mainstream scientific model.

This is a common tactic used in a wide range of pseudosciences and can even include protest lists. Creationists will put forward creationist biologists like Jonathan Wells or Georgia Purdom or misleadingly reference the debate between phyletic gradualists and proponents of punctuated equilibrium as if common descent was challenged. 9/11 truthers will cite the protest list from Architects and Engineers for 9/11 truth or point to researchers who mistakenly believe that they have found evidence that nano-thermite was used (despite the fact that it has very low density and thus take up way to much space and its high reactivity would likely not leave any traces). Anti-vaccine activists will point to quack doctors who falsely claim that vaccines are somehow exceedingly dangerous.

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The general problem with this approach (called “false balance”) is that it entirely neglects the independent convergence of evidence for the mainstream scientific position and also artificially focus on a very small number of dissenters (that are not often experts in that particular field) while ignoring the broad consensus among working scientists. It is a form of cherry-picking on steroids.

Bill recently submitted a comment about his opinions on climate change on a totally unrelated article here at Debunking Denialism. It illustrates this tactic clearly. Let us see what he has to say:

The man caused rationale for climate change is questioned by a number of “lettered” scientists of repute. Have you presented fully their side of the debate, in the interest of scientific inquiry?

In this comment, Bill deploys the denialist tactic of false balance in a highly concentrated form. He tries to make it look like many highly qualified scientists reject the mainstream climate science position. He misrepresents the mainstream scientific position as “man caused” when it is primarily caused by humans and also other factors. He reframes the situation to make it appear as if climate deniers were merely “questioning” rather than spreading targeted misinformation and even threatening scientists. He makes it appear as if there are two equally legitimate position on climate change and that a serious debate exists. Finally, he questions the intellectual integrity of the person to which the comment was directed and tries to make it appear as if not giving science denial a platform is a threat to open and honest scientific inquiry.

However, it is as concentrated as it is misleading. There are not two equally legitimate sides when it comes to climate change. Between 90% and 100% of working climate scientists agree with the scientific consensus depending on which consensus study you look at. This is consistent across studies and has thus been replicated independently several times. Scientists have refuted several hundred claims made by climate deniers and continues to do so despite the fact that many climate deniers use extremely dishonest technique. Refusing to give a platform to tired claims that have been refuted thousands of times before is not a threat to open and honest scientific inquiry. Quite the opposite. Insisting that scientists attend to demonstrably false claims and refute them over and over is a threat to scientific research because it takes a lot of time away from doing actual research.

Climate deniers are not “questioning” the climate science. They are actively spreading dangerous misinformation, attack and libel scientists, and even commit crimes like illegal hacking. They also hardly ever accept the evidence that is presented, but instead prefer to just repeat their debunked canards over and over again to anyone who they think might listen. They also often have documented ties to the oil industry. This does not by itself mean that they are mistaken, but taken together with the other arguments, it makes their claims highly suspect, just like anti-vaccine activists who developed their own competing vaccine or alternative medicine quacks who fearmonger about “chemicals” and are also ready to sell you the magical cure to all of your alleged problems.

There are many resources available for those who want to learn more about the basics of climate science or why climate deniers are wrong. Skeptical Science works like Index to Creationist Claims in that they feature hundreds of pseudoscientific arguments and scientific refutations. Demystifying Climate Models is a free recent and highly useful textbook on the subject that is very readable. For those that want more applied knowledge, check out this report on health effects of climate change. For a brief overview of the scientific evidence, check out this book on evidence and causes.

Emil Karlsson

Debunker of pseudoscience.

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