How not to science: Lessons from flat earthers and climate change deniers

A great quote from one of my favorite shows, Stargate SG1 (Season 3 Episode 19, “New Ground”)

Science is an amazingly powerful tool for disentangling fact and fiction. When done correctly, it is a systematic, objective, unbiased, and self-correcting method for understanding our universe. Unfortunately, many people don’t appreciate the objectivity that science requires, and instead view it as a blunt instrument for proving what they already “know” to be true. You see, science always has to ask open-ended questions, because science is not a method for trying to prove something. Rather, science is a method for trying to learn what is true. It is a method for setting aside your biases, testing possibilities, and discerning objective reality. Thus, science must always go from evidence to a conclusion. It can never go from a conclusion to evidence. Indeed, if you start with a conclusion, then look for evidence to support that conclusion, you are, by definition, doing pseudoscience. This fraudulent strategy of trying to prove a belief while operating under the guise of science is extremely common among science deniers, and in this post, I want to use two recent, widely reported events as illustrations of how this flawed line of reasoning operates and why it is problematic.

The events in question are the Netflix documentary about flat earthers and the announcement that the Trump administration is putting together an “adversarial” climate change panel. Although I’m going to focus on just these two examples, I want to make it clear that the underlying cognitive biases and abuses of science that I’m talking about are pervasive throughout pseudoscience. Anti-vaccers, creationists, anti-GMO activists, proponents of alternative medicines, etc. all do this.

Let’s start with flat earthers. Netflix recently released its documentary, “Behind the Curve” that takes a look at flat earthers. There are several really revealing moments, but I want to focus on the gyroscope experiment. You see, some of the flat earthers conducted an experiment that actually showed that the earth is round, but as you might have guessed, they were not eager to embrace the results of their own experiment.

In the lead up to this experiment, Jeran Campanella (one of the people who runs the “Globebusters” Youtube channel) stated, “I think that the scientific method is the best way to get to the truth.” So far so good, but he ended that sentence with, “and I just want to feel comfortable in things that I believe.” Now we’ve entered problematic territory. Science is not a method for making you feel comfortable. It is a method for discerning what is true, regardless of whether the truth makes you comfortable. To be fair, perhaps what Jeran meant was simply that he wanted to accept whatever position was supported by good evidence so that he could be comfortable in his views, but the response to the gyroscope experiment suggests otherwise.

The experiment itself was fairly simple. On a spinning globe, a gyroscope at any fixed point on the planet will drift (on earth, this drift should be 15° an hour due to the fact that the earth makes a full rotation every 24 hours). So, the flat earthers bought a $20,000 gyroscope to “test” this. This is actually a good experiment. It presents a nice falsifiable prediction (the heart and soul of science). If the earth is round and is rotating, the gyroscope will not only drift, but it will do so at 15° an hour. If the earth is flat, the gyroscope will not drift. Nevertheless, I put the word “test” in quotes a minute ago, because the flat earthers weren’t actually interested in testing anything. They were interest in proving that the earth is flat rather than objectively testing its shape. I say this, because, as you should have expected, the gyroscope did, in fact, drift by 15 degrees an hour. Thus, the notion of a flat earth was falsified, but here is how Bob Knodel (Jeran’s co-host on Globebusters) responded to the experiment,

“Wow, that’s kind of a problem, right?” Yes, Bob, it is. It defeats your hypothesis, but he continued, “We, obviously, were not willing to accept that.”

Here we have the key problem. You don’t get to ignore a result just because you don’t like it. That’s not how science works, and it is why it is so problematic to start with a conclusion, rather than starting with evidence. Flat earthers will never accept evidence against their view (as Bob just admitted). They will always ignore evidence to the contrary and cherry-pick and distort evidence as much as they have to in order to maintain their beliefs. If you start with a conclusion, you will always be able to find evidence which, at least to you, appears to support your conclusion. This is a very easy cognitive trap to fall into, and it is why science must always start with the evidence, then draw a conclusion based on that evidence, regardless of what the evidence shows.

Back briefly to the example, Bob continued, “We started looking for ways to disprove that it [the gyroscope] was actually registering the motion of the earth.” Again, this is not how science works. Science must always ask open-ended questions and if your goal is to prove or disprove something, then you are doing pseudoscience. In this particular case, the flat earthers decide that the drift must be from energy from the heavens. This brings me to another important point. When faced with contrary evidence, science deniers often simply make things up to patch holes in their arguments. In this case, there is no evidence for these heavenly energies, but flat earthers assume that they exist because they need them to explain various phenomena. In technical terms, this type of blind assumption is known as an ad hoc fallacy.

Moving on, the flat earthers put the gyroscope in a zero gauss chamber to shield it from these “heavenly forces,” but that test still showed the 15° drift that you expect from a spinning sphere, a result that Bob described as “unfortunate.” Again, you shouldn’t think that it is “unfortunate” if a test disproves you. You should embrace the knowledge that the test provided, regardless of how it aligns with your previous views. Bob, of course, is unwilling to do that, and plans on running future tests to try to prove the gyroscope isn’t actually showing evidence of a spinning earth.

Hopefully, at this point, you can see why this approach to “science” is so problematic, but as I said earlier, this is not unique to flat earthers. Indeed, in previous posts, I’ve argued that all forms of science denial are fundamentally the same, and the flawed reasoning used by flat earthers is the same flawed reasoning that is used by people such as climate change deniers.

This brings me to the announcement that the White House is putting together an “adversarial” climate change panel that will be tasked with discrediting various aspects of climate science. The impetus for this seems to be the release of the Fourth National Climate Assessment. This government review of the evidence found that climate change is being cause by us and is a serious problem. Trump and other climate change deniers obviously did not like that answer, so they are putting together this “adversarial” panel to disprove the evidence.

that's not how this works memeThis is exactly the same thing that flat earthers do, and its not how science works. The reality is that the evidence for climate change is overwhelming. There is an extremely strong consensus among studies, and studies to the contrary are virtually non-existent. Systematic reviews of the literature consistently find that we are causing the climate to change, but, just like flat earthers, climate change deniers don’t want to accept that evidence. Rather, they want to form a group of “experts” to cherry-pick evidence and try to prove a particular position. That is, by definition, pseudoscience. Science works precisely because it is objective and asks open questions rather than blindly trying to prove a particular position. If you start with the goal of trying to discredit climate change or vaccines or any other position, you will always see only what you want to see, now matter how wrong you are. You will always be able to convince yourself that the evidence is on your side. Getting a bunch of people who agree with you together and ordering them to discredit a position is simply not how science works.

In closing, I want to reiterate that nothing that I have talked about is unique to flat earthers or climate change deniers. As I’ve talked about before, anti-vaccers love to cherry-pick lists of papers that supposedly support their position, while blindly ignoring the mountain of studies that disagree with them. Tenpenny (a prominent anti-vaccer) has even gone as far as putting together a “library” with the expressed purpose of giving people, “evidence to support what they intuitively know” (details here). Similarly, young earth creationists have groups like the Institute for Creation Research that try to prove creationism “scientifically.” The IARC report that claimed glyphosate is carcinogenic is another great example that parallels Trump’s climate change panel. An examination of that report quickly reveals that it was heavily biased and cherry-picked its sources to try to prove that glyphosate was carcinogenic, while totally ignoring all the sources to the contrary (more details here and here).

My point is that this type of motivated reasoning can be found on just about any topic, and you need to be wary of it. When you approach a topic, you need to make sure that you are asking open questions and accepting the answers to those questions, rather than trying to prove a position. Always ask yourself, “what evidence would convince me that I’m wrong?” If the answer is, “nothing,” then you are not adhering to the rules of science or logic.

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12 Responses to How not to science: Lessons from flat earthers and climate change deniers

  1. Thank you for your clear expression of your description of science vs pseudo-science. “Working from evidence to conclusion” vs “Working from conclusion to evidence” is a nice, simple test to keep in mind when discussing so many issues: GMO, nuclear energy, vaccines, climate change, etc.

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    • Fallacy Man says:

      Just for clarity, it is a very useful demarcation, but not the only one. In other words, anytime that someone is going from a conclusion to evidence, they are doing pseudoscience, but you could still be doing pseudoscience even if you are starting with evidence (invoking a deity, for example). These cases tend to be less common, and most instances of pseudoscience to start with a conclusion, but again, there are exceptions.

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  2. John Hartz says:

    Kudos on another excellent post!

    An excellent article on a related matter…

    Psychology and the Allure of Conspiracy Theories by Elizabeth Preston, Undark, Feb 27, 2019

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  3. cjonescu says:

    A nice post, but I am not sure that the big difference is working from evidence to conclusion vs conclusion to evidence; it is, rather, accepting the results of your observational test. NSF proposals almost have to have a guiding hypothesis, one which really is saying “here is how I think things may turn out”. Such hypotheses might emerge from trying to explain some existing observations and might be an appealing notion (say, for instance, that a meteorite killed off the dinosaurs guiding a proposal to look for shocked quartz in K-Pg boundary deposits). You propose a new test (e.g., the gyroscope here). Working backwards or forwards, if you get a good test it is then up to you to execute it well and then put aside your expectations and accept what it tells you.

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    • Fallacy Man says:

      I think you may have misunderstood me (perhaps I wasn’t clear). Having a hypothesis is good, even necessary in many cases, but tests of that hypothesis have to be open ended. In other words, there is nothing wrong with saying, “I think that the earth is flat, and if I’m right, the gyroscope will not drift. [conduct experiment] The gyroscope drifted, so my understanding of the shape of the earth must be wrong.” That would be going from evidence to a conclusion.

      The problem is that psuedoscientists often start with an adamant belief about what is true (the conclusion), then try to use science to prove it (i.e., find evidence to support the conclusion). Thus, they would say, “I know that the earth is flat, and using this gyroscope will prove it. [use gyroscope] The gyroscope drifted, but I can’t be wrong that the earth is flat, so I don’t accept this evidence and will find new evidence to prove that the test isn’t reliable.”

      I think we are both saying the same basic thing here.

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      • simple_science says:

        These are two different things.

        Types of reasoning and scientific process.

        There are basically two types of reasoning: deductive and inductive (e.g. https://www.livescience.com/21569-deduction-vs-induction.html). And IMHO this blog entry is not about this.

        This is about scientific method and cognitive bias. Human being is prone to many types of different biases. Some of them were described e.g. by Kahneman (Thinking: fast and slow) by usage of so called system 1 and system 2. System 1 is very fast and works on many types of heuristics. Especially it tries to confirm believes and jumping to conclusions based on scarce evidence is standard way of system 1 working. System 2 on the other hand is very lazy and we avoid using it. 🙂

        Scientific methodology is based on asking questions of a type: why – what I would like to prove – is not true? This is not how usually our mind (system 1) works.

        So it does not matter if it is deduction or induction. In the end – if it is to be science – it should be done according to scientific process. This process was invented because human mind is vulnerable.

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  4. Nevil Kingston-Brown says:

    It’s rather ironic that you’ve linked to a self-proclaimed “climate sceptic” who thinks tobacco industry scientists are unfairly targeted for your anti-glyphosate article. I’m not saying he’s wrong about glyphosate but he seems like a pretty motivated-reasoner himself.

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    • Fallacy Man says:

      Thanks for pointing this out. I hadn’t evaluated the site beyond the post in question. I have now changed the link to go to different sources to avoid driving traffic to a climate change denier site.

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  5. Bob Ebdon says:

    Did the Flat Earther’s not miss a trick? Surely one possible explanation of the movement of the gyroscope is that it is on a flat disc – that is spinning?

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