Saturday, December 22, 2012

Science and reason under attack

Sometimes it seems like science - and rational thinking, in general - are under attack in America, and I don't just mean in the Republican Party.

Do you wonder why you need to remain skeptical of what you hear and see in the media, why you always need to consider the source? Here are a couple of recent examples:

The Discovery Institute is a creationist think tank - using 'think' very, very loosely - which attacks evolution while pretending to be scientific. The above image (from the Ars Technica article about this) gives you the idea. It's from this video of their "senior research scientist" at the "Biologic Institute."

But as Richard B. Hoppe at the Panda's Thumb pointed out, that's not even a real laboratory behind her. It's a stock photo from a commercial website. The Discovery Institute's "senior research scientist" was just standing in front of a green screen.

These places have lots of money, because faith-based believers are still eager to attack the science of evolution. Yes, more than a hundred and fifty years after Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, when evolution has been the foundation of modern biology for more than a century, with the evidence just getting stronger and stronger with each new discovery scientists make, the true believers fight on.

But it's not a fight within science. No, they just pretend to be scientific while fighting for public opinion, for uninformed opinion, among ordinary Americans who are often embarrassingly ignorant about evolution and so easily led astray.

Yes, this might sound like science to you, but it's not. It's just designed to seem... sciency. If it were real science, they'd have real laboratories and they'd be presenting real evidence in real scientific journals. But if you don't know better, they might sound persuasive. After all, they've got a real scientist and everything...

Here's another example. It's a conversation with a TV producer who's working on a cable television show about "weird and mysterious stories - especially eyewitness stories." They're looking to hire a "respected paranormal investigator."

An excerpt:
Now we were getting to the heart of the matter; anecdote trumps evidence. I tried to be polite and diplomatic: "It seems like you don't really want the cases investigated, and certainly not solved. See, that's what I do: I investigate mysteries to solve them. If I'm going to spend time and effort on a case, maybe days or weeks or months, I'm going to do my best to understand and explain the mystery. It's kind of the opposite of what you want, so I don't really think I can help you. If you just want to get people who saw UFOs or ghosts or Bigfoot on camera telling their stories, you don't need me for that."

She seemed slightly taken aback: "But you're a respected paranormal investigator, you came recommended, and have credentials... I thought you'd be a good fit?" ...

I finally realized that what they really were looking for was an incompetent "investigator," someone who would appear on their show and pretend to use science in investigations-someone who would superficially appear smart and entertaining but who in the end would be baffled and stumped by the mysteries they faced.

I was perfectly willing to admit if I was stumped or couldn't fully explain a case, but I was not willing to pretend to be stupid or incompetent: "I see... If I can't solve a case, or if there are real unanswered questions about it, I don't mind admitting that I don't have all the answers. But I'll give it my best shot-I'm not going to pretend I don't have a clue if I have a pretty good idea of the explanation."

Producer: "Okay, I understand," she said, though I don't really think she did. "Well, do you know anyone who might be interested?"

Do you wonder that so many Americans seem hopelessly ignorant - and embarrassingly gullible - about these things? Sure, this is just 'entertainment,' but it's not a sitcom they're planning. It's not going to be labeled as fiction.

Weird and mysterious stories are apparently popular television. Rational explanations are not. People want to believe what they want to believe. And if you don't think this bleeds into news programs, too, you're rather gullible yourself. It's all about attracting viewers.

Now, skepticism doesn't mean that you disbelieve everything. You just need to have a good reason for your beliefs. And it's not about becoming an expert in everything, either, because that's impossible. One of the advantages of science is that we laymen can safely trust the scientific consensus if we just understand the scientific method (i.e. if we understand why the consensus is likely - though never guaranteed - to be true).

But we've got a lot of people doing their best to seem scientific, in order to convince you of what they want you to believe. Well, Americans tend to respect science, even when they're absolutely clueless about what science really says.

Science is under attack in America. Rational people are under attack in America. We have to be very careful what claims we believe, and from whom. And that's the case even when they claim to be 'skeptics.' The faith-based can use the language of science and skepticism, just like they can use the stock photo of a laboratory - to deceive.

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