Saturday, May 21, 2011

Germ theory denialism

Incredible, isn't it? It makes me wonder if the Flat Earth Society isn't just a joke, after all, as I've always assumed.

"A healthy strong body well nourished and properly exercised will easily be able to fight off just about any germ that invades its body without the need for magic elixirs." Yeah, right. Tell that to the millions of native Americans who died from European diseases. Or didn't they get enough exercise, then? Tell that to polio victims. Oh, we solved that problem, didn't we?

This video shows a couple of things that are key to rational skepticism. First, note that people can be smart about some things but very stupid about others. Bill Maher is a perfect example. That's why we skeptics don't have dogma and don't rely upon faith in our leaders. Anyone can be wrong, sometimes stupidly wrong.

Argument from authority is a logical fallacy, and this is a great example why. You can agree with Bill Maher about many things - I do - but any skeptic must recognize that he's batshit crazy when it comes to others. And Maher isn't alone in that, not at all.

Second, note that you can find pretty much anything on the internet, so if you go looking for confirmation, you're likely to find whatever you want to find. Since it's human nature to believe what you really want to believe, what fits with your existing opinions, a person searching for knowledge is likely to just confirm what he already thinks.

Funny, isn't it? These two problems are equal, but opposite. If you can't believe authority, but you also can't believe what you find for yourself, what can you do?

Well, when it comes to scientific issues, you really need to understand the scientific method. The scientific method, you see, is designed to overcome our problems with human nature. It's not perfect, but it's easily the best way we've ever discovered of determining the truth.

For us laymen, the key thing to remember is probably that it doesn't matter what any individual scientist says. Scientists are people, too, and they can have all the flaws of the rest of us. No, it's the scientific consensus - and, more precisely, the consensus of the experts in that particular field (a scientist outside his field of expertise is little better than any layman) - that we should accept.

Naturally, our acceptance is provisional, as all science is provisional. If the scientific consensus changes - which is rare, but does happen - then our thinking should change with it. Science isn't about proof, except in the old sense of "proving" - i.e. testing - the data. But that actually means you can be more sure the scientific consensus is right, not less.

So, when it comes to the germ theory of disease (I don't have to tell you what "theory" means, do I?), we should accept the consensus of medical researchers. When it comes to evolution, we should accept the consensus of biologists. When it comes to global warming, we should accept the consensus of climatologists.

For us laymen, choosing to believe anything other than the scientific consensus is just picking what you want to believe. The scientific consensus may be wrong, of course, but that's not the way to bet. Choosing to believe a politician, a media figure, or an individual scientist over the consensus of the experts is simply wishful-thinking.

What about when it comes to non-scientific issues? Well, that's harder, but the same principles apply. Argument from authority is still erroneous, but it's very hard for non-experts to decide who to believe. But often, there's still a consensus of people who are experts.

On matters of history, there's usually a consensus among professional historians. Choosing to believe a rogue amateur historian like David Barton is just picking what you want to believe. There's often a consensus among professional economists, too, though that may be harder to determine. In a case like that, the best you can do might be to just listen to diverse arguments.

And then there's theology. What about that? Well, in matters of theology, there's clearly no consensus. Really, nothing could be more obvious than that, since every single religion on Earth is a minority position.

Furthermore, the missionary impulse is paramount in most religions. The goal isn't to discover the truth, since every believer thinks he already knows the truth (even though it's completely different from what's just as firmly believed by most other believers). No, the goal is to persuade other people that those beliefs are true.

So professional theologians might know more about what historical figures have written about religion, but as to whether any of it is true or not,... not so much. If it were otherwise, there would actually be a consensus on this stuff. And that's why religion is based on faith, not evidence - and why skeptics should remain skeptical about all of it.

But in matters about this world, the real world, there are ways we can minimize our chances of being wrong. Germ theory denialism, like global warming denialism and evolution denialism, demonstrates the wrong way of choosing positions. In scientific issues like this, choosing anything but the scientific consensus is just picking what you want to believe, rather than what is (very likely) true.

And it doesn't matter whether it's the right-wing's refusal to accept the consensus on global warming or the far left's touching faith in homeopathy or natural foods. Whatever your political persuasion, you need to accept science, even when you'd prefer to believe otherwise. And the only way to do that is to accept the scientific consensus.

No comments: