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Monday, 1 September 2014

Quack Quack

Debunking season is in full flow. First there were the ominous Omega Bodies, then there was the hilarious space mirror. But how should we deal with people who believe obvious nonsense, and why is it that many of them think that science is arrogant and dogmatic ? Yes, I'm afraid it's time for a rant. Well what else are blogs for ?

I've always believed that some small level of funding should go to investigating "fringe" ideas, those that aren't obviously wrong but that are quite different to the mainstream. So I'm generally fine with people investigating things like the warp drive and even the EmDrive, because outlandish ideas can, potentially, come up with staggering results from time to time (SETI would be another, much better example). Ghosts, UFOs, lake monsters... fine by me, as long as we're not spending huge amounts of taxpayer's money on these things. I  sympathise with people who see science as arrogant when alternative ideas like these are dismissed - but that, as I shall try to show, is to misunderstand the scientific method. As we shall see, evidence is not proof, and skepticism is not the same as denial.

The rest of this post rests on a single premise : it is possible to prove some things beyond any doubt. Science doesn't know everything, but it does know some things, and it knows them very well. We understand electromagnetism well enough to build computers, we understand atomic theory well enough to annihilate cities, and we know enough about orbital mechanics well enough to send space probes to planets billions of miles way. Perhaps our understanding of some of these isn't complete, but if someone says to you, "I think the Moon is made of cheese," then you can legitimately respond, "Ah, I see you have mistaken Wallace and Gromit for a documentary."

According to science, some things are certain, some are certainly impossible, and the (far more interesting) rest can only be said to be more or less probable. Judging which are more probable is not an easy task, but the attempt should be made. If I were to try, it would probably look something like this. It's highly subjective and I could probably be persuaded to move the examples around quite a bit, but the details are not important.

Before reading, I implore the reader not to think that what I have deemed to be less rational I also judge to be in some way "worse".

A proposed


being a wholly untrustworthy guide to


and abject


Level 0 : Mathematical proofs. Ideas which don't even require any measurements. 2 + 2 = 4.
Level 1 : Measured certainties. Things we have measured unambiguously. The size and shape of the Earth (and the lack of supporting turtles), the existence of bacteria.
Level 2 : Beautiful theories. Models which have been subject to a wide variety of independent rigorous testing and not found wanting so far. Continued study largely a matter of dotting the i's and crossing the t's. Examples include evolution, the expansion of the Universe, the speed of light as an upper limit, the existence of gravitational waves.
It's just possible they may be one day slain by an ugly fact, but the chance is remote. More likely their beauty will merely fade, but they will never fall below the next level :
Level 3 : Quite attractive models. Well-tested models that generally do an excellent job, but have difficulties in certain circumstances. Useful as simplified approximations of reality or as a stepping stone to more sophisticated approaches, but fundamentally flawed. Newtonian gravity is an excellent example.
Level 4 : Contemporary mainstream paradigms. The coalface of research. A more-or-less self-consistent set of ideas that generally, but by no means always, do a good job of describing reality. Things most people think we've got a basic handle on, like dark matter, star formation, inflation.
Subject to high levels of incompleteness and outright controversy.
Level 5 : Fringe. Ideas which are not generally accepted, so not subject to the same level of rigour as level 4, but which are consistent with levels 0-2 and tested in a basically scientific way. MOND, voids as alternative to dark energy, panspermia, string theory.
Level 6 : Sketchy. At odds with level 3 and 4. UFOs, Bigfoot, lake monsters, sheepsquatch (you read that right), that sort of thing. Research often claimed as lacking in rigour or even fraudulent.
Level 7 : Weird. Things that are probably impossible according to level 2 and generally make no sense. Homoeopathy, astrology, dowsing. Perhaps not impossible in the strictest sense, just in complete defiance of our entire scientific world view.
Level 8 : Inherently unprovable. Ideas which admit level 0-2 facts and models but invoke other, supernatural causes to circumvent them (e.g. miracles), as well as notions that do not relate to science at all. Essentially opinion more than fact. Certain forms of evangelical atheism and even agnosticism could also fit here (as in, "I have mistaken my opinion for a level 1 fact and therefore the whole world must agree with me").
Level 9 : Delusional. Ideas which defy levels 0-2 and require that they are somehow mistaken. Flat earth, Hollow Earth, young Earth, lunar cheese, space mirrors.

The list gets less and less rational the further down you go, but only at level 9 does it reach actual madness. Questioning level 3-7 is generally sensible, though questioning levels 0 and 1 is insane (we'll return to level 2 later). The point is, although some things are certain, and some things certainly impossible, all we can do for the rest is make a judgement call as to how likely they are.

As for level 8, unprovable, irrational beliefs are obviously not inherently bad or immoral. Indeed, life without ANY irrational beliefs would probably be unbearable. At this point I'll hand over to a seven-foot skeleton with a scythe, who explains level 8 far more eloquently than I ever could.

I don't have a problem with people having irrational beliefs per se. No, my gripe for today is with the following two issues :
1) People who say, "scientists are so arrogant and dogmatic, but they don't know everything !"
2) Delusional beliefs that contradict reality*. Especially when the errors are blatantly obvious.
3) People who stand on the wrong side on escalators. They're just jerks.

* Even these are not inherently bad, but some - like racism - clearly are.

Let's tackle the first issue first, because that seems a sensible order in which to do things.

Is science arrogant ?

Ideas on the probability index are rarely static, except at the extremes. Nowhere is the flux of ideas greater than at level 4, the most active area of day-to-day scientific research. To quote from Pratchett again, "it wouldn't be research if you knew what you were doing". The whole point of research is to find out things you didn't know before.

This demands some examples, so here are a whole bunch of things which we really don't understand very well at all :
  • Dark matter makes up about 90% the mass of our Galaxy (if it exists at all, and we're not sure that it does), but we have no idea what it is.
  • Dark energy makes up about 90% of the mass-energy of the Universe, if it exists at all. We have no idea what it is.
  • Our models of galaxy formation and evolution do a pretty lousy job. The numbers and distribution of small galaxies are just plain wrong.
  • We have no idea why some clouds of hydrogen form stars and others don't.
  • Are we alone in the Universe ? Your guess is as good as mine.
Those are some pretty fundamental things for which the mainstream consensus is, "we don't know". That really should knock the charges of dogmatism and arrogance firmly on the head. It would absolutely ridiculous to say, "those damn dogmatic scientists, it's so arrogant that we don't know what most of the Universe is made of !".

Science investigates uncertainties. That's its job. Go to any science conference and I guarantee you'll see a bunch of people disagreeing vehemently (sometimes politely, sometimes not so much) with each other - indeed, if everyone agreed with each other there'd be no need for a conference. But perhaps the most basic principle of science is that there exists an objective, measurable reality - it might be very hard to prove anything, but it is possible. If you don't believe this, then you'll always think science is arrogant and I can't help you.

Sometimes people say things like, "it's arrogant to think we're causing climate change", or more often, "it's arrogant to think we're alone in the Universe". No. Those statements are opinions. To define what's arrogant by your opinion, and not by the evidence, that's arrogant - not the other way around. Believing what the evidence tells you is never arrogant... unless you make the mistake of thinking that evidence is proof. We'll return to this later.

OK, so why do some people perceive science as arrogant ?

Some ideas have been ridiculed throughout history. While a few have risen to the giddy heights of absolute certainty, most have fallen into the abyss of delusion. Although it's hard to rate retroactively, the idea the Earth rotates would probably have not scored higher than 5, once upon a time (as explained in the link, for surprisingly rational reasons as it turns out). Continental drift, I think it's safe to say, would have been given a lowly 7, but now we're absolutely certain that it happens.

And yet, at the time, those ratings made sense*, because the evidence was lacking, Sometimes crazy ideas are laughed at and subsequently vindicated, but far more often they fall by the wayside. People who need to state "I am not a crackpot" are almost always crackpots. Their ideas usually contradict each other (as we've seen in the last two posts), and investigating them all with the same level of rigour as level 4 ideas would be a waste of time and money**. Moreover, it's not necessary - if their are serious problems with our current ideas, our investigations will reveal them. That's what investigations are for.

* Doubtless some learned intellectuals even pronounced them impossible - they, as we shall see, should have known better.
** Unless you really do want to increase science funding by a factor of 10, in which case, thanks !

The reason we adhere to our current models is because the evidence supports them. The reason alternative ideas are not mainstream is because the evidence is lacking. It really is that simple. Better to investigate ideas which seem to be working than pursue notions without a shred of evidence.

Here's the thing. Science is built on facts (levels 0 and 1), but it also needs level 2-4 models just as much. It needs to make assumptions in order to progress... and by definition, "assumption" does not mean "fact" (Models help us plan our future investigations - without them, we'd be acting more or less at random. Even if we had infinite funding and resources, we'd still need to come up with ideas to explain our observations). Every single scientist is aware of this, but this is something the "scientists are arrogant" ilk don't seem - for whatever reason - to understand. And by thinking that scientists really believe all of their assumptions, small wonder they perceive them as arrogant*.

* Unfortunately, halfway through writing this I discovered an outstanding example of a scientist who apparently doesn't understand the difference. We'll return to this shortly.

In practice, sure, sometimes people cling to their beliefs more strongly than we would like. As I've said, everyone is capable of being irrational, and when you're emotionally invested in an idea, it's hard to let go if something comes along and disproves it. But generally, scientists are cautious of all new ideas and discoveries, even ones which support mainstream theories (as we've seen most recently with the BICEP2 debacle). The whole basis of science is skeptical inquiry. Asking, "are we really sure this is true ?" is not the same as saying, "this is about as credible as Santa Claus Conquers the Martians."

Because apparently that was a thing.
If scientists are skeptical of new results that will vindicate existing theories, then perhaps it becomes more understandable that they're extra skeptical - sometimes hostile - towards theories further down the plausibility index. They're acutely aware that those (level 2-3) theories have a lot of hard-won evidence backing them up that has stood the test of time*. Defending them in the face of a single new result isn't dogmatic - it's pragmatic, because such discoveries have happened before. That's why - even though I'm happy it's being investigated - I'd bet you anything you like that the EmDrive will go the way of cold fusion.

* If I were feeling mischievous, I'd say that level 2 models are the closest thing science has to articles of faith.

Another, less pleasant explanation is that some scientists simply are arrogant SOBs (just like members of every other profession). While that's another topic in itself, unfortunately the media likes this ("Uncompromising men are easy to admire", if you'll pardon my Mel Gibson). This gives a quite wrong impression that science is black and white : "you're either with us or against us." But real research, as we've seen, just isn't like that at all. Which brings us neatly on to the next section.

What do we do about it ?

Well, the obvious answer is : state our underlying assumptions more clearly. Say not only why we think they're probably true, but why we're not certain (especially when the case for an argument is very strong, as here it's easiest to fall in to the trap of saying, "this is a fact"). A particular annoyance I see in the mainstream media almost daily are claims like, "scientists prove looking at soap causes bowel cancer", or "deadly asteroid WILL kill everyone you ever loved and all their pets". This really needs to stop. Sometimes this is just an inaccurate headline over a decent article, sometimes the whole article is as bad or worse, but this word "proof"...

Evidence is not proof. Proof transmutes mere ideas into hard facts, while evidence is an observation that's consistent with an idea - nothing more. No amount of evidence constitutes true certainty - that's what proof is for. Of course, if you have vast amounts of evidence for an idea... well, hence the plausibility index.

In reality, most studies show that at most, one particular model can be used to describe the facts - or on a good day, that it's more likely than other models. Media headlines give the totally erroneous impression that science is a series of dramatic, decisive discoveries boldly pushing back the frontiers of knowledge. The reality is less glamorous. It's more a series of small, incremental findings that gently prod the buttocks of knowledge but then run away in case knowledge comes back to file harassment charges. Or rather, most of the time the findings are - compared to media hype - utterly trivial.

I don't mean to belittle anyone's work here. Any individual result may well be trivial, but part of a larger body of evidence that can be compelling - or it may open the door to that final piece of the puzzle that really does prove an idea once and for all. I only want to point out that you should never trust :
a) The media*.
b) New results. Whatever they are, however persuasive and passionate the argument may be, wait a year or so to decide if they're exciting. That should be enough for a proper analysis to have been done independently. Proof is possible - it's just very rare.

* Not all of it, of course. Some programmes and articles are very good.

While there are many really excellent pieces of outreach that do a fantastic job of explaining complex issues, in general I think we need to more clearly state the problems of ideas as well as their successes. Of course this is very difficult in a 20-second TV news clip or an internet meme. Nor can anyone be expected to give a full-on lecture as a background to every press release. But surely a few statements directly from the scientists involved saying things like, "we think model X is more likely, but we can't rule out model Y yet..." would not go amiss.

The media is very, very good at making things sound jolly exciting. The trouble is it's good at making things of little or no credibility sound as exciting as the Apollo 11 Moon landing - witness the Occult Christian Bigfoot Channel (a.k.a. the "History" Channel). The BBC are attempting to tackle this false balance head on by considering where the scientific consensus lies : if 97% of scientists believe something, it makes no sense to televise a debate of 10 believers against 10 deniers, or to include a denier in every report about it. Which doesn't mean you stop reporting alternative theories entirely, just much less frequently in mainstream news.

By all means, have entire channels dedicated to how Noah took care of Bigfoot on the ark or the best kind of tinfoil hat to wear to prevent your cows being mutilated by aliens. Just don't report such things as though they're viewed as valid alternative hypotheses by most of academia. They're not.

It's understandable and forgiveable that the non-specialist media make some mistakes. But when a scientist says, "I've proved something !" they usually need a good slap. Lesser offences, like saying that level 2 models are really true, or that level 7 ideas are useless, could probably be let off with a mild spanking or perhaps just a stern glare. There's nothing wrong with holding opinions about ideas that fall anywhere on the plausibility index, or expressing those opinions in a robust and hilarious manner. But when questioned, we've got to try and debate rationally, and admit the differences between fact and opinion.

Things are at their most tricky when credible scientists present apparently startling results - NASA's involvement with the warp drive and the superluminal neutrinos, for example. In cases like that the burden lies largely with the scientists - see this excellent article for more. But no matter how carefully we report things, sometimes sensationalism is inevitable (for the most brazen example of which, see this). In these cases all we can do is limit the damage and pray* for better science education in primary schools.

* Or petition the government, or offer sacrifices to Cthulhu, whatever.

But what about people who believe really really stupid things ?

That's the general public and the media -  what about those who are convinced their alternative model is better than all of mainstream science ? Well, firstly, difficult though it may be for some of us to accept, we've got to accept that often (except at level 9) there is some room for debate - even if it may be almost one-sided. Evidence is not proof, but, just as anecdotes are not evidence, the two are not unrelated.

It's unlikely we'll ever convince the instigators of bizarre ideas that they're wrong - they're too emotionally invested. The debate serves not to convince them, but to prevent them from convincing others. If we sit back and do nothing, they will most certainly succeed in persuading more people that their quackery - from anti-vaccination to astrology - is far more plausible than it really is (there are plenty of cranks on the net, yes... but do not automatically assume someone is a crank when they could be merely ignorant).

There is, of course, a common retort to scientists, one which the internet is making a slightly misguided attempt to overcome :

Yes... and no (actually, claiming that philosophy is useless is one of the dumbest things any scientist could say). To be fair, in the context people usually say "it's only a theory", then yes, it's pretty stupid. But at face value it's perfectly legitimate. Theories are not facts, they are well-tested models. Sometimes "well-tested" can mean tested to incredibly high levels of precision. So actually you are allowed to say "only a theory"... but only if you're aware of the level of difficulty that will be involved in disproving it.

Of course, scientists do realise the difference between theory and fact.

Thanks, Neil, that was really helpful. It certainly explains a lot about why some people perceive science as arrogant : if you go around saying things as stupid as this, then you are arrogant. Make no mistake : scientists are capable of stupid beliefs just like everyone else.

(I had hoped that was an off-the-cuff, getting a bit carried away gaffe, but it seems to have been in a Cosmos episode. In fairness to Neil, some other people do seem to want to use "theory" to mean "fact" - see last paragraph in this link. This is a monumentally bad idea. For a start the general public will never, ever understand it, and they'd be right not to, because few scientists actually use the terms this way. This would be redefining common words for specialists in the most confusing way possible. It's also totally unnecessary, see below.)

Theories are models that fit observations - nothing more, nothing less. Observations are facts. Some theories work so well we may behave as if they're true (level 2), but to claim they are literally facts is ludicrous (I mean, come on, that's why "theory" and "fact" are spelled differently). For example, people also say, "evolution / climate change / generic issue is a only a theory ? So's gravity." This is wrong. Our descriptions, our models of gravity (Newtonian, Einsteinian, MOND) are theories, but gravity itself is an absolute god-damned certainty. You can test this yourself with a brick and a small puppy, but don't you dare, you heartless bastard.

All of which makes me wonder if we need some better vocabulary. The problem is that some theories are clearly far superior to others. I'd be very reluctant to relegate MOND to the status of a mere hypothesis, but nor would I hold it in anything like the same regard as, say, general relativity. We need a better way to distinguish between the crème de la crème from the mouldy cheese that's not quite ready for the compost heap. Though I suspect that "delicious creamy theories" and "stinky cheese theories" won't catch on.

You may be asking if all of this is just pedantic sophistry. Well, no, it isn't. The way I understand the term "fact" and "certain" is, "something that can never be disproved". The Earth is a sphere, that cannot be disproved, it's a certain fact. If you're going to say that "facts" can be disproved, that is qualitatively different. Meaningful science communication - both with the general public and other scientists - becomes extremely difficult if we're using the same words to mean completely different things.

If scientists who make exaggerated claims need a good slap (or in some cases a firm kick in the shins), how should we treat those non-mainstreamers who persist in weird or delusional beliefs ? Well, first we should ignore them and hope they just go away. If they don't, we'll have to engage them in a polite, reasoned debate, pointing out the mountains of evidence and/or proof as to why they're (almost certainly) wrong. Then, if they continue, and still claim that they have overturned all of science, I say we let Buzz Aldrin punch them in the face. We may as well. There's no reasoning with some people.

In one of Richard Dawkins more lucid moments (before he went mad and became a eugenicist), he said :

"When two opposite points of view are expressed with equal intensity, the truth does not necessarily lie exactly half way between. It is possible for one side simply to be wrong."

To expand on that slightly, if someone has an idea which supposes that a huge number of proven facts are wrong, it's not harsh to point out that all their assumptions are wrong. It's just reality. This is how science is done, and I assure you, dear reader, that scientists can be perfectly ruthless in their examination of their own theories as well as toward what they consider as more implausible ideas. Ruthless is not necessarily the same as harsh, though you could be forgiven for thinking so from some media reports.


To summarise :
  • Science hasn't explained everything, and scientists are aware of this. It is not a dogmatic or arrogant process, it's investigative.
  • You cannot say, "this idea is arrogant because I don't believe it".
  • Unlikely ideas can occasionally become proven facts, but usually they're just wrong. Most ideas are not mainstream because the evidence is against them, not because of scientific arrogance.
  • Be cautious of any new results, including those that support mainstream ideas. Skepticism is not the same as denial.
  • Take all press releases with a healthy pinch of salt. Evidence is not the same as proof.
  • Actually, it is only a theory, but don't say this unless you know what you're getting yourself in to. I completely reject the notion that theory and fact can be one and the same, this is daft.
  • Buzz Aldrin needs to get his punching fist ready.

OK, we shouldn't really expect an angry astronaut to go around punching people who believe things which are demonstrably not true. For one thing he's an old man and might get tired. In fact it's perfectly possible to have polite, civil debates with people who believe the most outlandish nonsense, while others, who claim to be the voice of reason, are capable of being complete jerks. I try and remind myself of this by initially assuming that just because someone believes in, say, alien abduction, it does not preclude them from being a good and kind person who cares for kittens very much. In this way debate can remain civil - occasionally, even productive.

Atheists, that goes double for you. Claiming that all religious people are drunken murderous child molesters (I saw that particular comment in response to something along the lines of, "I like this picture of the Milky Way, isn't God wonderful ?") is doing nothing for your claims of superior reasoning, let alone morality. Stop it. Right now. Got that ? Good. Don't let me catch you doing it again. I'm glad we had this talk. Here are some more kittens, because kittens :

Finally, the most exciting part of science is when something is proved wrong. We've seen this in the last decade with dark energy - everyone assumed the expansion of the Universe was slowing down, but then observations showed that it's speeding up. No-one had ever really thought that was even on the cards (even if you don't believe in dark energy, you can't deny that mainstream science changed its mind). This is but one of many examples of evidence forcing science to reconsider - so put that in your pipe and smoke it, if you still think science is dogmatic.

I'll sign off with a quote from Dr Who, which sums up the whole thing very nicely. I've used this before, and I'll use it again :

"I believe, I believe I haven't seen everything, I don't know. It's funny, isn't it? The things you make up. The rules. If that thing had said it came from beyond the universe, I'd believe it, but before the universe? Impossible. Doesn't fit my rule. Still, that's why I keep travelling. To be proved wrong. "