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? Read more of this post