31 July 2017
Every cancer specialist has the cure for cancer in his desk, and every climate scientist has proof that carbon dioxide is not causing global warming. Oh, and every physicist has a paper showing Einstein’s theory of relativity is all wrong, and I need to come clean as well since I’ve been hiding a method of dissipating hurricanes for 35 years.
All these earth shattering, Nobel prize winning, pieces of science have something in common (besides usually being written in pencil).
They are all written by folks who have absolutely no expertise in the field.
Everyone who works in any science field gets these. If you’re lucky enough to work as a climate scientist, you get the added bonus of occasional death threats as well, and it seems they are mainly from middle aged males, although medical myths seem more popular with women (but that’s anecdotal and I may be wrong).
So what’s going on here?
First of all, it is not new, and it’s been that way for decades. The great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov noticed it and said this in 1980: “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”
But, something seems different now. A few months back I ended a blog on our education crisis with the line that “Ignorance will never be a cultural identity to celebrate”, but this is precisely what some Americans are now doing. Tom Nichol’s new book The Death of Expertise is all about this subject and it’s far and away the best book I’ve read this year. Nichols is an expert on Russia and teaches at the Naval War College, and when I picked up his book, I quickly realised that he was saying more clearly, what my mind has been trying to formulate for several years.
Nichols gets it right when he says that this is “… a different problem than the historical fact of low levels of information among laypeople. The issue is not indifference to established knowledge; it’s the emergence of a positive hostility to such knowledge.” He goes on to say that this is new in American culture, and it sure seems so.
Those who say that humans and dinosaurs never co-existed or that we must get away from fossil fuels are now elitists. Same with anyone who says you’re wasting money on vitamins, or homoeopathic remedies that are possibly dangerous. Nichol’s points out that the availability of information online seems to be contributing to this. Medical doctors see patients every day who have diagnosed themselves online and are willing to argue with the doctor about a different diagnosis (Some MD’s have a name for these patients: Doctor Googles).
Yes, sometimes experts are wrong, and you hear about it because it’s rare. Search engines do seem to give people a false sense of expertise. AP Science writer Seth Borenstein received an email questioning a story about climate change and when he asked if the writer were a scientist, he replied no, but that he’d googled “Science that debunks climate change”. Notice that he did not google climate change or go to the NOAA/NASA websites, but he purposefully went looking for information that would confirm his current worldview!
Nichols writes about this type of behavior and comments that “There is no way to enlighten people who believed they’ve gained a decade’s worth of knowledge by spending a morning with a search engine.” Not only do I give The Death of Expertise five stars, I suggest you follow Nichols on Twitter.
SCIENCE FIGHTS BACK
More and more, scientists who are expert in their different fields are calling out fake pseudo-science, and many are starting blogs that educate their readers on what is real. Teachers are stepping up as well. The lax laws in America allow all kinds of snake oil medicine and cures to be sold to a gullible public and most get away with it. Dr Jen Gunter (an OBGYN) has been a persistent critic of the outrageous medical claims on a website connected to the actress Gwyneth Paltrow. If you do not know about the battle between Gunter and goop, read this piece in the NY Times.
It gets worse. People who think they are suffering from Lyme disease are lobbying the legislature in Maryland to force doctors to tell patients that a good test for it is just the opposite. Dr Stephen Barrett has more on this on his Quack Watch page, and it’s the subject of a paper in JAMA.
About seven years back, a guy in North Alabama started selling a device to make hydrogen from a tank of water in your car. He claimed it could triple your gas mileage, but when I said (On air before my weathercast) that it would not work because it violated the second law of thermodynamics, I got no thank you’s. Instead, I was inundated with angry calls/emails telling me I had no idea what I was talking about. In Nichols’ book he quotes Psychologist Johnathan Haidt saying that “when facts conflict with our values, almost everyone finds a way to stick with their values and reject the evidence”.
These people were not happy to be told that their worldview was wrong, and those who had already forked over some cash were probably angrier still. I encourage my fellow on-air meteorologists who have a good science background, to step up to the plate and call out this fake science Many scientists are taking up the challenge. Jen Gunter and Stephen Barrett in medicine, Michael Mann and Ben Santer in climate science and Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye in physics. There’s room for more, and it’s never been so important. The myths and pseudo-science floating around can cause real harm. Ask Abraham Cherrix, who is one of the lucky ones.
I end with the prescient words of Carl Sagan. Never have they been truer than in the second decade of the 21st century:
From ”The Demon-Haunted World” by Carl Sagan:
“I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness…
The dumbing down of American is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30 second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance”
…The candle flame [ of Science] gutters. It’s little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The Demons begin to stir.