Monday, September 15, 2008

Easily Caught in a Web of Sinister Untruths

I love this article because it says what I've been saying all along, both about the public gullibility and also the crap that one can read (and some, believe in) on the web. Supposedly, Tim Berners-Lee, one of the inventors of the World Wide Web, is setting up a "World Wide Web Foundation" to study on how to "improve" the web (whatever that means).

But what's more important is that the rest of the article reinforced what I've been saying about the public and how there is a considerable lack of ability to decipher the nature of the information and the credibility of the sources.

The great MMR scare was, largely, a print panic caused by ignorant journalists and media folk who were unable to distinguish between an unsubstantiated theory on the one hand and a scientific consensus built around significant studies on the other. The result was an absolutely unnecessary loss of herd immunity from measles in some communities. Someone should be sued.

The MMR business, like aspects of the climate change debate, was aided by a boneheaded refusal to discriminate between better and worse arguments. On the one hand a scientist says X, on the other hand another one says Y, so X and Y are roughly to be accorded equal respect. You get this in the creationist versus evolution debate. For example one BBC News website item last week, “Who are the British creationists?”, concluded its even-handed coverage of the debate by quoting a creationist vicar saying: “Evolution is a worldview that leads to futility. It's no wonder people are dissatisfied with it.”

But “evolution” is simply not a worldview, It is, rather, the best scientific hypothesis we have, by miles, for how species develop. By contrast both creationism and its sly relative, intelligent design, are readily falsifiable by scientific method. Evolution stands up.

But you know, folks, why don't we just teach people what they want to hear? A bit of intelligent design next to evolution in biology, a bit of flat Earth versus round Earth in physics, a bit of anti-Semitism versus Judaism in RE. That'd be fair.

One could equally apply this to the current "LHC-Black Hole" debacle. Despite the overwhelming majority of particle physicists proclaiming the fallacy of such catastrophic scenario, you have people who can't tell the difference between a boson and the zit on their noses proclaiming scientific arrogance and conspiracy. All this while ignoring their OWN arrogance into thinking that they have a valid opinion on such matter when they are completely ignorant of what they are talking about.

Yup. If you think that I'm fed up with dealing with such stupidity, you are correct! I really do not mind one bit when someone ask me about such thing. I get asked that a lot and I never minded at all giving them an answer. What I am fed up with is dealing with people who have ALREADY made up their minds that scientists are arrogant, and arrogantly putting the world in danger. HAH! One cannot carry any kind of rational discussion with such people.


1 comment:

Peter Morgan said...

Having a 10-year-old daughter, we had to investigate the MMR thing at the height of the scare. The extent to which doctors and the documentation they distributed relied on authority was striking. Investigation showed them to be right, more-or-less, but there was a tension between the epidemiological necessity for more than 90% of the population (I remember that the cited requirement was in that region) to be vaccinated and the possibly better individual choice of not getting your child vaccinated, provided other people did. An ethical problem in part.

It was difficult to find data partly because of the usual medical distinction between anecdotal, statistical, causal relationships, and data obtained by double-blind testing. Some children did develop Autism shortly after taking an MMR shot. I'm not sure that there are any double-blind test results even now, because of the moral difficulties of conducting such a test. I certainly don't remember being able to find such test results at the time. In the end I was convinced by the argument that children get autism at the same time as they take the MMR vaccine, so of course there will be correlations, and by the moral problem of relying on everyone else being vaccinated, but the causal argument that there's nothing in an MMR shot that can possibly cause autism was never convincing.

There have been too many cover-ups of side-effects by medical companies for it to be reasonable to expect authority to be accepted in this case. Initial evidence for the need to carry out detailed, expensive testing is always anecdotal. Sometimes such anecdotal evidence is supported by further testing. In the period after anecdotal evidence for a given hypothesis has been offered, appeals to authority should be relatively humble.

Even on the LHC black hole PR gaffe, it is striking that the public apparently only accepted reassurances after the tone of the rebuttals changed from the initial disbelief that anyone could be so foolish to a more reasoned presentation of why scientists beliefs should be respected in this particular case. When the argument was presented coherently instead of as an appeal to authority, it appeared that almost everyone calmed down.