Monday, March 23, 2015

Where's the Truth? The Challenge of Scientific 'Controversies'

I wrote a little over a month ago about the use of the term "research" in public arguments over science. I argued at the time, and still maintain, that people often claim to have done "research" when what they really mean is that they have (very selectively) read other people's research. This is related, I think, to the erosion of respect for expertise, but that's a subject for another day.

At the time, a fairly robust Facebook discussion broke out among my friends about whether there isn't another reasonable form of the word "research" - what we might call "library research". Isn't it fair, some argued, for a layperson who is not expert in a given field to say that they are "researching" some issue by digging into the literature and reading what the experts have written? I will concede this point - though I would prefer the term "library research" to distinguish this from the sort of research that generates new knowledge, I think it's fair for non-experts to talk about "researching" a topic in the sense of informing themselves about the current state of what is known.

Of course, many of those who try to stir up "controversy" on scientific subjects (vaccines, climate change, etc.) aren't really doing this kind of "research" either. There's a difference between reading The Literature on a subject to try to find out what the experts think about something, and selectively reading that same research to bolster a predetermined conclusion that you've already arrived at (vaccines cause autism, climate change isn't real, the earth is 6000 years old - take your pick). Those people still aren't engaged in research, even of the "library research" variety, any more than a small child putting on his father's tie makes him an employed professional with a job. It's just window dressing, and usually pretty ill-fitting at that.

But in the midst of that Facebook conversation, one of my friends raised a very good question: if you are a non-expert faced with a controversial subject, how do you go about trying to research that topic to figure out, as best you can, what the truth is? This is actually harder than it might seem, in part because experts often don't do a very good job of communicating with the public and in part because those who are trying to create "controversy" as a way of arguing for extremely unorthodox (often demonstrably false) ideas like to muddy the water as much as they can. In the midst of that kind of free-for-all, what's a reasonable non-expert person to do?

There are a few fairly easy rules of thumb that will take you a little ways down the road. Just as the corollary to Godwin's Law states that whoever mentions Nazis first in an argument automatically loses, the adoption of any argument predicated on a vast conspiracy of silence on the part of thousands of otherwise-autonomous (if not competitive) individuals is a guaranteed loser. Efforts, therefore, to dismiss "climate science" as a cooked-up conspiracy fail on their face since such a theory would require the complicit cooperation of thousands of individual scientists around the world who all know better but have been convinced to lie to the rest of us. Ditto for arguments that the CDC  and NIH are somehow engaged in a conspiracy of silence - anybody who watches government agencies for any length of time knows that most of them leak like sieves and can't be trusted to keep much of anything secret. So if one side of a "debate" is relying on this kind of argument, it's safe to say they're probably wrong.

Beyond that, however, the waters get pretty muddy. Many folks involved in these controversies make claims to certain kinds of authority, while denying the authority claims of the other side. Take, for example, the work of Dr. Stephanie Seneff, a senior research scientist at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. She has given a number of public talks recently claiming that modern chemical agriculture, and Monsanto's RoundUp product in particular, are going to make 1/2 of all American children develop Autism by the year 2025. This has been widely reported in a number of fringe science websites, often with headlines line this:
MIT States That Half of All Children May Be Autistic By 2025 Due to Monsanto
On the face of it, this is absurd. "MIT" states no such thing - in fact, the university itself does not endorse the work of any of its researchers. Moreover, Dr. Seneff is a highly controversial figure at best - an electrical engineer and expert in computational algorithms for understanding human language who has wandered into matters of public health, biochemistry, and epidemiology that are pretty far afield from her established expertise. Beyond presentations and talks, much of the work she has published in this area has been in the journal Entropy, itself a highly controversial publication whose parent organization, MDPI, has been accused of shady scientific practices. All of this gets into the realm of claim and counter-claim which can be VERY difficult for non-experts to sort through.

Folks that like to cite impressive institutions (MIT, Harvard, Johns Hopkins) on behalf of their claims are often quick to dismiss other equally-impressive institutions when scientists disagree with the argument they're trying to advance. This is another good indication that you may be dealing with a questionable argument - a persistent habit of attacking people rather than ideas (similar to the reliance on conspiracy theory, above). It's legitimate to question someone's credentials, because that's germane to whether they are a reliable source of information. Questioning motives, on the other hand, is generally out of bounds. Inconsistency doesn't look good either; note this article's introduction of its purported expert as a "Johns Hopkins University graduate" even though nearly every other graduate of that same institution engaged in research in the field of vaccines disagrees with him.

In the end, if you REALLY want to know what the state of knowledge is on a given subject, you first have to become conversant in the basics of the scientific method and you have to be willing to wade through an awful lot of material, some of which may be deliberately obfuscatory or misleading. That's a tall order for most folks, but if it matters to you to be right then that's what you have to do. This is one reason why scientific literacy is so important - more people need the tools to do this right. But equally important, people need the mental discipline to not "reason backwards", picking the answer they want based on their social tribe and then cherry-picking evidence to support it. That's probably the hardest barrier of all, and it's what separates actual scientists from wannabes with agendas.

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