Fight the good fight

I’ve often wondered what it is I’d like to do in my life. Science, Mars, politics (of the non-traditional sort), education, alternate reality games have all appealed and continue to appeal. But perhaps one of the things I feel most passionately about is intelligent thinking and rational thought – science and the enlightenment, in short. Reading an article at the Columbia Journalism Review about how journalists feel the need to conduct ‘balanced’ reporting of things like creationism and abortion when empirically they are not balanced whatsoever simply makes me furious.

I don’t believe that all ideas and beliefs are equal to each other. I believe that there are such things as facts, and that there are competing positions – like creationism and evolution – that are by no means balanced in terms of factual evidence and theoretical underpinnings. Yet a good proportion of people who’ve had secondary or even university education – even a majority – would not agree, or even care. The notion that a handful (at most) of agenda-motivated scientists who say that smoking is not harmful, or that creationism should be taught alongside evolution, or that the MMR vaccine is not safe, are deserved equal time and consideration as the rest of the entire scientific community, backed by countless peer-reviewed, top-tier studies, is not even laughable. It’s disgusting. It’s even more horrific that most people don’t even give a shit, despite the fact that these issues affect them on a deeply personal level.

The typical and tired response to what I’m saying is, ‘Well, how can you say they’re wrong? No-one believed the Earth was round, etc etc.’ That sort of response is ridiculous. Firstly, science today is not the same as science as it was centuries ago, or even decades ago. Secondly, there is no scientific conspiracy to keep new theories down. In fact, speaking from experience, every scientist would like to be the one that transforms a field and the way we think about things.

I recall seeing a pro-smoking lobbyist on TV recently. When challenged with a new metastudy that showed unequivocally that passive smoking is extremely and significantly harmful to public health, this lobbyist said, ‘This study doesn’t have any new data, it doesn’t mean anything, and there are other studies that show passive smoking isn’t harmful.’ I was literally speechless. Not only does this guy misrepresent what a metastudy is, but he also goes and implies that all studies are equal, and if he has one that says passive smoking is fine – never mind whether it’s flawed or not – well, that means it’s fine. Even worse, I have no doubts that this guy is fully aware that he is misrepresenting the issue.

What I want to do is make people think rationally about these issues. I want them to understand what the scientific method is, what a theory means and what it means to prove something. I want them to think for themselves. And I think I can do it at the same time, and within, my other interests as well.

3 Replies to “Fight the good fight”

  1. I think that creationism should be taught alongside evolution, although it clearly shouldn’t have equal time. It’s important to get across to people that what scientists call “theories” are less insubstantial than the sort of theories people might come up with in the pub. Evolution by natural selection is a perfect example of the former, creationism of the latter. By showing how utterly and totally creationism fails huge numbers of tests and how it is utterly inadequate as an explanatory framework, and how well evolution passes those tests and unifies so many parts of biology, it might be possible to convey something of the immense value and power of our current best scientific theories.

    I think that by instilling in people the awesome power of scientific thinking and the extreme beauty, usefulness and scope of the theories it has produces, we might just have a hope of turning the tide against the ignorance cults.

  2. Those espousing creationism or intelligent design here in the US are fighting viciously for equal time. I think Rich’s idea to go ahead & teach it alongside Evolution is brilliant – as an illustrative case on how NOT to apply the scientific method. It would serve two purposes – first, highlighting an incorrect application of science, and second, it would appease those clamoring for equal time (at least until they figure out what’s going on!) The risk is that, once given time in publicly-funded schools, they would get a foothold & set precedence – dangerous stuff.

    I attend UC Berkeley, and was ALARMED last semester to hear undergrads in a general philosophy class DEFEND ID. I sat there dumbfounded, wondering how “the top 10%” of US high school grads couldn’t recognise the flaws in the ID hypothesis. But then again, they ARE US students, after all. Sad. Just sad.

    Keep fighting – fiat lux!

  3. Whilst I agree in large part with you, Adrian…
    1. I think you make a mistake in picking on passive smoking. As you know, I’m not a smoker, yet I positively hate the idea of this wretched smoking ban. Without turing this into a rant on said ban, and the awful logical extensions of the resoning behind it, I’ve done various bits of reading of my own of reports about it – and I have to say that the evidence is shockingly little. The percentage increase of those likely to die from passive smoking if smoking abounds vs. if it didn’t is so small that it is statistically insignificant. Given the numbers of people who /might/ die (and generally reports show that this small percentage of people have ‘a greater chance of contracting lung cancer’ – which remember may or may not be fatal, and may or may not have come from passive smoking), and compare this to a multitude of other thigns – death on the road, domestic violence… etc etc, and it is such a non-issue. Sadly, the “swarm” approach of a multitude of misguided lobbyist groups has had a rather undesireable impact. The medical evidence is decidedly flimsy, let alone the freedom and liberty issues.

    Oops, sorry, I’ve almost started to rant. I was merely trying to suggest that perhaps smoking isn’t the best horse on which to harness your carriage with your ‘scientific fact’ arguement.

    2. Actually, I don’t see what is so different about science today compared with previously – when it was accepted that the only way to treat a disease was to hack a leg off, when the earth was thought to be flat… etc.. Surely scientists are always striving to better understand what is around us, and to use it in useful ways? Science is based rather more around theories, models and perceived facts, rather than anything we can say is really a fact?

    I’m thinking back to, say, Chinese medicine also. People still think it is a bit of an ‘aternative therapy’ – a ‘fad’. But broadly spekaing much of it has worked for several thousand years – and despite receiving a broad poo-pooing from Western medicine over the last few decades (and rememebr Western medicien is rather younger than Chinese by some thousands of years), over the last decade we’ve seen increasing numebr fo investigations showing that actually some of it does work, and giving Westerised explantions for it. Western science and medicine doesn’t always know best, I contend, and to pretend that we have the facts, and everyone else (believers, knowers, non-Western systems…) is factually wrong and doesn’t have a valid argument is perhaps nieve?

    3. and finally, while evolution seems to be the day’s accepted theory (just like “the earth is flat| was an accepted theory back way back when), I did read somethnig ratehr interesting the other day, talking about an apparetly large amount of informaion that a cell loses about itself when it divides / multiplies – and arguing that this and one or two other things suggested that evolution was less likely than we might like to think.

    I’m not a biologist, nor realy a scientist, I’ll admit – so I shan’t try and recall the points and issues raised, becuase I’ll get it all wrong. Maybe the author was also wrong. But without say the BBC giving his views an airing alongside more tradtional views, it’s possible that if he were to be right, no-one would ever pick up on it and follow through to proving it.

    Really, then, alternative visions to the status quo do need good promience, whetehr their current incarnations have flaws or not. Otehrwise, they can’t be argued aout in an open forum, debated and put aside if clearly nonsense, debated and further investigated if they deserve it.


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