In the previous post, I explained what we mean by “settled science” and why there often aren’t two legitimate sides to a story. Nevertheless, despite a massive scientific consensus on issues like climate change, there is still widespread disagreement among the general public. A fascinating recent survey showed just how massive the disconnect between the public and scientists is. For example, it found that 88% of surveyed scientists thought that GMOs were safe to eat, but only 37% of the general public agreed! Similarly, 87% of surveyed scientists thought that man-made climate change was real, whereas only 50% of the public agreed. Human evolution was similarly divided, with 98% of scientists agreeing compared to only 65% of the general public (note: the survey was conduced across all AAAS scientists, and all of those numbers are higher when you just look at the experts within the given field). So why does this disconnect exist? The answer is a combination of deceptive tactics by the anti-science movement and disproportionate coverage by the media (as well as an unhealthy dose of personal bias). So in this post, I want to examine the ways that people create the illusion of a debate.
Downplay the certainty
One common tactic is to downplay the level of certainty that scientists have. There is no better example of this than the well-worn creationist claim that evolution is, “just a theory.” In reality, a theory is among the highest forms of scientific certainty. A theory is an explanatory framework that has been repeatedly and rigorously tested and has a high predictive power (in other words, it consistently predicts the outcomes of experiments and it explains facts). So when we say that evolution is a theory, we are actually acknowledging that we are extremely certain about it, but this deceptive argument tries to make it appear that we aren’t very certain by tapping into the popular (and erroneous) concept that a theory is just an educated guess.
Another way that people try to diminish the certainty is by claiming (or implying) that since science can’t actually prove anything, it isn’t reliable and there is reasonable doubt (this has long been one of the cornerstones of the intelligent design movement). Not being able to prove something with 100% certainty and having reasonable doubt are, however, two very different things. We have not proved gravity, cell theory, germ theory, atomic theory, etc., but having doubt on any of those topics would be completely unreasonable.
Finally people often simply defer to the argument that, “scientists have been wrong in the past.” I have debunked this one before, so I want waste time one it here.
Point out minor disagreements and pretend that they are massive
Science is complicated, and for most things that qualify as “settled science,” the core concepts are widely agreed upon, but the details are debated. Anti-scientists love to hop on these disagreements about details and conflate them into core disagreements. For example, creationists like to present disagreements about certain dates or certain evolutionary histories as evidence that scientists don’t agree about evolution, but the reality is that we agree about the core concept that all life on planet earth evolved from a single cell, we just disagree about some of the details about exactly when and how certain evolutionary changes took place. So quibbles over which fossils represent the ancestor to whales, or whether a rock is 65 million years old or 70 million years old are completely irrelevant to whether or not evolution itself is actually true and widely agreed upon.
Similarly, climate change deniers like to claim that the models have all been wrong, and they cite this as evidence that scientists don’t really know what they are doing, but the reality is that most of the models have been very accurate. Some of the details have been a bit off (which is to be expected for any model), but the core concepts (increasing temperatures, increasing sea level, etc.) have all consistently come true (Marotzke and Forster 2015).
All anti-science positions have a host of “experts” that they frequently cite as evidence that their position is correct or, at the very least, that there is debate about the issue. More often than not, however, their experts aren’t actually credentialed in the relevant fields. The anti-vaccine movement is particularly full of examples of this. Take Jenny McCarthy, for example. Anti-vaccers follow here religiously, but she is just a celebrity, she has no scientific credentials. Further, even most of their actual doctors and scientists have no credentials or experience with vaccines, immunology, or any other relevant field. For example, Dr. Sherri Tenpenny is often cited as an expert who opposes vaccines, but she is an osteopath, which has nothing whatsoever to do with vaccines (see this video for a hilarious example of her ignorance). Becoming a doctor doesn’t automatically endow you with knowledge about all aspects of medicine. Both medicine and science are extremely complicated, and most scientists don’t know a tremendous amount about areas outside of their own research. So, when you are trying to figure out whether or not there is a real debate about an issue, make sure that you are looking for a debate among experts. If the only ones who disagree with the mainstream view are people who have no experience or credentials in the relevant fields, then its safe to conclude that there isn’t a real debate.
Cite a handful of people with credentials
Every once in a while, the anti-science movement will dig up someone who agrees with them and actually has credentials in a relevant field, but, as I explained in the previous post, that is still not enough to actually demonstrate that there is a significant debate on an issue. There will always be a few dissenting voices no matter how certain we are of something. Nevertheless, the anti-science movement loves to present what are truly a handful of experts as if they were an overwhelming throng of scientists abandoning the mainstream view like rats abandoning a sinking ship.
Write petitions with lots of signatures
This strategy jumps from simply citing “experts” to getting a bunch of them to actually sign a petition. There are several reasons why this is problematic. First, science isn’t a democracy. In science, you prove your point with evidence, not petitions. Further, the signatories of these petitions often have no credentials in the relevant fields, and even when they do, they invariably represent only a very tiny portion of people working in that field. Probably the most famous example of this is the “Oregon Petition” which claims to have the signatures of 31,000 scientists who disagree with anthropocentric climate change. This petition was debunked more thoroughly here, but in short, only a small portion of the signatories were actually scientists, and only a handful of them were climatologists. So this petition did not in anyway shape or form succeed at establishing the notion that there is a significant scientific debate about climate change, and you cannot use it as evidence of such.
Have public debates
This is one of the most obvious ploys, and the media is largely responsible for it. They present two people (one for a position and one against it) and two sides. This false balance creates the illusion that both sides have equal (or least good) merit and should be taken seriously. It makes it appear that there is a strong disagreement among scientists even when one position is actually only held by an extremely small minority of researchers. As Jon Oliver hilariously explains, a truly representative debate on climate change, for example, would be three deniers vs. 97 scientists. Further, in these debates, the anti-science position is often represented by someone who is not actually an expert on the topic at hand.
Cover “both sides” of a story
This is another fault of the media that is closely related to public debate problem. The media, in their obsession to cover “both sides” of every story, gives equal time to the scientific position and the anti-science position even though one of them is demonstrably false. For example, it is not uncommon to see stories that start with something like, “experts are blaming the current disease outbreak on low vaccination rates…” then shift to, “but not everyone is convinced [insert interviews with people who aren’t convinced].” Who cares if some people aren’t convinced? The science on this is extremely clear, and anyone who thinks that low vaccination rates don’t cause disease outbreaks is simply wrong. There is utterly no reason to give time to a position that is factually incorrect. To be clear, I’m not trying to “suppress peoples’ opinions,” because I am talking about facts, not opinions.
Let me try to give a silly example to illustrate what I am saying here. Imagine a news story about the shape of the earth that goes something like this, “Scientists have refined their estimate of the earth’s diameter by an addition two meters, but not everyone is convinced. We talked to several people who argue that the earth is actually flat (insert interviews with flat-earthers).” That story would obviously be absurd. The flat-earthers wouldn’t deserve equal time (or any time) because they are clearly wrong. Even so, when news stories devote time to people who think vaccines don’t work, climate change isn’t real, the earth is 10,000 years old, etc. it is deceptive because those people are simply wrong. You’re welcome to believe something that is factually incorrect (like the earth is flat), but the rest of us aren’t obligated to listen to you, take you seriously, or give you equal time.
There is really only one criteria that matters for determining whether or not there is significant scientific debate about an issue, and that criteria is the peer-reviewed literature. If there is significant debate, you will find it there. Media debates, Youtube videos, petitions, personal opinions, etc. are all irrelevant and frequently fabricate conflicts where none exist. If the recent peer-reviewed literature contains numerous high quality papers on both sides of an issue, all of which present new data and are carefully testing the predictions of both sides, then there is a debate, but, when the literature is dominated by one position while the other is represented by only a handful of low quality papers, then there isn’t a debate, and you have to accept the fact that your position flies in the face of a strong scientific consensus (or better yet, re-examine in the evidence and see if just maybe you are on the wrong side of history).