Debating those who reject scientific facts has been a hobby of mine for several years now. It’s not a very rewarding hobby, and it comes with high stress levels and periodic fits of rage, so I don’t particularly recommend it. However, it has exposed me to countless pseudoscientific arguments on pretty much every topic you can imagine, and on each of those topics, I have found that not only do people with no formal training in science think that they know more than the entire scientific community, but in almost every case, they think that there is a fundamental and obvious problem that essentially all scientists have either missed or are willfully ignoring. If you think about this for a minute, it’s rather incredible. It’s amazingly arrogant to think that you can, via a few minutes of Googling, find a fundamental and obvious problem that essentially every scientist everywhere in the world missed, despite their years of training and experience. Nevertheless, that is exactly what most anti-scientists think (though they wouldn’t usually put it in those terms). Therefore, my intention is to provide several examples of this type of thinking using arguments from a variety of topics. Hopefully, this will illustrate the absurdity of this type of hubris and demonstrate the key point that I want you all to take home. Namely, if you think that you have found a simple and obvious problem that virtually every scientist on the planet missed, you are almost certainly wrong.
Note: Before I begin, I want to clarify that if you are one of the people who uses these arguments, I do not want you to think that I am attacking or belittling you. As I have previously written about, I used to be one of you. So, if you feel like I am making fun of you, realize that I am also describing my former self. To put that another way, I don’t think that you are stupid, but you are misinformed, and you are behaving irrationally.
Let’s begin with climate change arguments. There are many that I could choose from here, but let’s start with the argument that the current warming is just a natural cycle because the climate has changed naturally in the past. If you like to use this argument, then I have several questions for you. Do you honestly think that climatologists never thought of this? Do you really think that the people who spend their lives collecting those data on past climates never even bothered to check and see if the current warming was part of a natural trend? I realize that I probably sound flippant here, but I’m actually asking these questions sincerely. Do you truly think that the entire scientific community is so hopelessly incompetent and stupid that they never even bothered to check the natural drivers of climate change? If you do, then I have news for you: they aren’t. Scientists have looked at past climate changes (Lorius et al. 1990; Tripati et al. 2009; Shakun et al. 2012), and they have very carefully looked at the natural drivers of climate change, and they have consistently found that the current warming does not match natural cycles and can only be explained by including our greenhouse gasses in the analyses (Stott et al. 2001; Meehl, et al. 2004; Allen et al. 2006; Wild et al. 2007; Lockwood and Frohlich 2007, 2008; Lean and Rind 2008; Foster and Rahmstorf 2011; Imbers et al. 2014).
A very similar argument proposes that the sun is the cause of climate change, and I have frequently encountered people who seem to truly think that scientists have never examined that possibility. Again, how stupid do you think scientists are? Do you really think that it never occurred to any of them that the giant nuclear furnace in the sky might be the problem!? News flash, it did. They’ve studied the sun’s output repeatedly and have consistently found that it is not the main driver of our current climate change (Meehl, et al. 2004; Wild et al. 2007; Lockwood and Frohlich 2007, 2008; Lean and Rind 2008; Imbers et al. 2014).
Similarly, climate contrarians love to point to the Antarctic sea ice and say, “the sea ice is increasing, so global warming can’t be happening.” Again, do you really think that scientists aren’t aware of that fact? Do you honestly think that thirty seconds on Google showed you a fact that the entire scientific community is ignorant of? Or, if they are aware of it, then what, are they just too stupid to comprehend it? There’s really only three possibilities here, and they are all nuts. To think that scientists have somehow missed this or are ignoring it, you have to think that all scientists are either stupid, hopelessly ignorant, or involved in some form of insane and enormous conspiracy. The more rational conclusion, however, is clearly that the situation must be more complex than a simple increase in sea ice would lead you to believe, and scientists must have information that you didn’t uncover via your degree from Google University. That is, of course, reality. For one thing, although Antarctic sea ice had increased (see note), ice shelves and glaciers globally are down and we keep setting new record highs for annual average temperature (WGMS 2013; Parkinson 2014; Stroeve et al. 2015). Further, when you look more closely at the situation with the Antarctic sea ice, you’ll find that it is being caused by a complex combination of factors including the levels of ozone in the atmosphere, shifting ocean currents due to ice melting elsewhere, etc. Gillett and Thompson 2002; Zhang 2007). My point is that these simple, obvious arguments almost never work. Reality is more complex than that.
Note: At the time of writing this, Antarctic sea ice was actually unusually low, but that is likely just a fluctuation, and it is too early to draw any solid conclusions. Thus, it may return to being high in the near future. Nevertheless, there is a very consistent global trend of decreasing ice.
Climate change deniers are, of course, not alone in their hubris. Creationists are right up there with them. Probably one of the most common examples of this type of flaw from creationists is the classic argument, “if humans evolved from apes, then why are there still apes?” As with the climate change arguments, I have to ask, do you honestly think that scientists are this stupid? Just think about this for a second. If this argument actually worked, then it would mean that basically every biologist for the past century missed an extremely obvious problem. To fully comprehend just how crazy that is, realize that we are talking about people who spent close to a decade receiving intensive training in biology and then spent the rest of their lives actually doing biology. You really think that in all of that they somehow missed the fact that humans and apes are both still around? Do you really believe that despite years studying every detail of fossils, constructing and comparing cladograms, etc. they never stopped to think about the fact that apes are still here? Do you honestly think that they are going to have their entire life’s work brought crashing down by a simple 11 word question? Does that seem rational to you? It shouldn’t. The reality is, of course, that this argument is a strawman fallacy. Evolution tells us that modern apes share a common ancestor with us, rather than us evolving from them. So, it is the creationists who missed something obvious and fundamental, not the scientists (to be fair, some creationist organizations do eschew this argument, but it is, nevertheless, common among the general public).
Another common creationist argument is the claim that evolution defies the laws of thermodynamics because those laws say that things constantly become more disorganized, whereas evolution says that things become more organized. Here again, do you honestly think the Google has endowed you with a better understanding of thermodynamics than people who spend their entire lives studying it? Do you really think that every scientist in the world is so fundamentally wrong about an extremely basic concept in science? And let’s be clear, here (and in the other arguments) you aren’t just saying that they are wrong, you are saying that they have all missed an extremely obvious, elementary problem that a high school student could see. That’s crazy. Once again, reality is far more rational, because reality tells us that systems are only required to become more disorganized when they are closed (i.e., when they aren’t receiving energy from other sources), but the earth is an open system (i.e., it gets energy from the sun) so things on it can, in fact, become more organized (that’s why trees can grow, you developed from a simple, single-celled zygote, etc.; details here). So, once again, it is the science deniers who are missing something obvious and fundamental, not the scientists.
Finally, this post certainly wouldn’t be complete without at least one example from anti-vaccers. I thought a lot about which argument to use here out of the many that I have to choose from, but I think for the sake of this post, the best example is the argument that vaccines aren’t effective because during many (but not all) outbreaks, most of the people who get the disease are vaccinated against it. As with every example that I have given, at a quick glance, it sounds like a really good argument. It seems like a slam dunk against vaccines, but if you think about that for five seconds, that should bother you. If this is such clear evidence that vaccines don’t work, then why haven’t any scientists or doctors paid attention to it? Why aren’t the people who publish these statistics concerned by them? Again, if you found this with a few minutes on Google, then why isn’t the scientific community aware of it? Or if they are aware of it, why don’t they care? The answer isn’t conspiracies, Big Pharma, or lizard-people. It’s simply that scientists are better at math than anti-vaccers are. It is true that in many ourbreaks (again not all), most infected people were vaccinated, but that is only because most people were vaccinated. When you look at the actual proportions, you consistently find that the disease rates were much higher among the unvaccinated. To give an analogy, most car accidents involve sober drivers, but that doesn’t mean that driving drunk is safer. Rather, it is a simple by-product of the fact that most people drive sober. When you look at the proportions, you find that the rates of car accidents are higher among drunk drivers.
I could continue to give many other examples both from these topics and pretty much every other “debated” topic in modern science, but I think it would be more profitable to spend the remainder of this post dealing with the counter arguments that I expect to receive. All of these are ones that I have dealt with in the past, so I will be brief here and will simply direct you to my other posts for more details.
First, you may be tempted to accuse me of an appeal to authority fallacy. However, there is a huge difference between appealing to authority and deferring to experts. I’m not saying that these things are true because scientists say that they are (that would be fallacious). Rather, I am trying to get you to engage in a simple exercise in plausibility. Ask yourself, does it honestly seem reasonable that untold millions of people with advanced degrees, years of training, years of experience, scores of publications, etc. missed something fundamental and obvious that you were able to find on Google? No, it doesn’t. Again, that doesn’t automatically make the scientists right, but it should make you very, very cautious about saying that they are wrong. It should give you great humility, and you should fact check extremely carefully using really good sources before you conclude that you are right and essentially every scientist in the world is wrong. To put that another way, you don’t need to be an expert to think that experts are right, but you do need to be an expert to think that they are wrong.
Next, you might try to say something like, “well, scientists have been wrong in the past” (debunked here) or “they laughed at Galileo, but he turned out to be right” (debunked here). There are numerous problems with this, so see my other posts for details, but I’ll give a Cliff Notes response here. First, scientific concepts have been discredited before, but they have always been discredited by other scientists doing real research. Second, most of the examples of scientists being wrong come from well before modern science even existed. If you limit yourself to the last 150 years or so (i.e. the age of modern science), you will find far fewer examples of a widely accepted concepts being discredited. Third, when those concepts were discredited, it wasn’t by some simple and obvious thing that everyone except for non-scientists were hopelessly ignorant of. It’s always been something complex or non-intuitive or usually both. It’s been something that had to be revealed by careful research, not an 11-word question. It’s never been something like scientists not bothering to check if the sun is driving climate change. To illustrate this, the Newtonian concept of gravity is one of the best examples of something that was widely accepted in the modern scientific era that turned out to be wrong, but that was discredited by the amazingly complex concept of relativity! Further, Newton wasn’t wrong so much as incomplete (as usually is the case). Another good example is the concept that continents are stationary. This was replaced by plate tectonics, which, again, is neither obvious nor simple. Finally, it is worth mentioning that the days of a lone maverick operating outside of the norms of science are long gone. Modern science is an incredibly collaborative process, and new paradigm-altering conclusions come from teams of scientists with years of research, not someone sitting on their couch watching Youtube videos.
At this point, you might contend that scientists are fully aware of these problems and are just covering them up for the sake of money, but that is insane. Arguing that essentially all of the world’s millions of scientists are involved in some sort of massive conspiracy is downright idiotic. I’ve talked about the math behind this before, but, in short, there is no motive in most cases (a lot of research is done by independent scientists), and just the sheer size of the conspiracy makes it implausible (it would have to involve every government, every health organization, every scientific body, and every university on the planet). Further, this argument is 100% an assumption. The burden of proof is on you to provide actual evidence that the world’s entire scientific community is corrupt, and unless you can do that, this is an ad hoc fallacy.
As a final attempt at a counter-argument, you might appeal to “dogma’ in science, and claim that there are scientists who see the problems but don’t speak out for fear of ridicule from their peers. This is, however, a complete misunderstanding of how science works. No scientist has ever been considered great for going along with the accepted wisdom of their day. Every great scientist was great precisely because they discredit the accept views of their day. To put that another way, for me personally, as a young biologist, nothing could possibly be better for my career than disproving evolution. If I actually had simple and compelling evidence that it was wrong, I could publish in any journal of my choosing, I would have my pick of universities to work at, and I would almost certainly receive a Nobel Prize. Disproving evolution would result in me going down in history as one of the great minds of the 21st century. So, why haven’t I or any of the thousands of other ambitious young biologists published that evidence? Because it doesn’t exist! This idea that you have to blindly go along with the “dogma” to get anywhere in science is totally backwards. You don’t get grants to confirm things that everyone already knows. Rather, you get grants, fame, and recognition for pushing boundaries, studying new ideas, and discrediting commonly held views. That’s how you achieve fortune and glory in science.
My point in all of this is really quite simple. When you approach any scientific topic, you should do so with an appropriate amount of humility as well as an appropriate amount of respect for the fact that thousands of people spent their entire lives studying a topic that you are only learning about through Wikipedia. Anytime that an argument requires you to think that the entire scientific community is hopelessly stupid, ignorant, incompetent, etc. you should be extremely skeptical. Scientists aren’t stupid, and if you think you have found something simple and obvious that all of them have missed, you are almost certainly wrong. It is the epitome of arrogance to think that a few minutes or even hours on Google have endowed you with a better understanding of science than the collective scientific community gained through countless years of training and experience.
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