Skeptic Coffee Break Episode 3 - Scientific Paradigms, How Science Works, Climate Change, GMOs, Creationists and more!
Episode 2 can be listened to here or downloaded via iTunes. The following are the show notes with links to further content. My supporting blog can be found here. Also, there isn’t any intro music on this episode. I’m working with my audio software and working on a few new solutions for the sound, effects and quality. Thank you.
Hello and welcome to the third episode of Skeptic Coffee Break, your short form podcast designed for your coffee break or morning commute. My name’s Robert Sacerich, your host.
The goal of this podcast is to keep you up to date with a quick overview of current events and topics. My goal is to keep things fairly brief, as short at 5 minutes, and no longer than 15 minutes. I want this podcast to be able to be comfortably listened to on a coffee break or your morning commute. I’ll be touching on topics with a brief overview and a bit of commentary, then posting the show notes on tumblr with links and more detailed information on the topics I cover in the show. This way, you get a good taste of what’s happening and can quickly and easily access more information at your leisure.
Scientific Paradigms and How Science Works
Today, I’m going to discuss scientific paradigms and how science works. This seems to be a problem in the population at large. There are huge misconceptions about how science works in general, which leads to bigger problems when something within science is financially, politically or religiously inconvenient from an ideological sense. This is where we get climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers, GMO conspiracy theorists, creationists and CAM proponents that mislead society into an anti-science bent. We’ve all had to deal with these people time and again, but how many really understand how these people come to exist? That’s what I’ll attempt to explain.
First, let’s discuss what a scientific paradigm is, how it works and how it can be changed. For this I referenced experiment-resources.com as well as several philosophy of science texts for more detailed information.
Thomas Kuhn described a paradigm as “the practices that define a scientific discipline at a certain point in time.”
Evolutionary theory in biology is a great example of a scientific paradigm. It is the overriding theory that defines what is researched, the type of questions asked, etc within the field of biology. If you want to completely change a paradigm, the new theory not only needs to explain the world better than the previous one, but it also needs to explain why the first theory seemed so right when it wasn’t. Often, as was the case with Newton’s Laws, the new paradigm takes from the first and adapts it into a better explanation of the world.
Now, the concept of a theory is also something that people have a limited understanding of. In everyday conversation, we misuse the term fairly often. “I have a theory about who stole my stapler.” That’s an example of a hypothesis or conjecture, not a theory. In science, when we use the term “theory” what we’re referring to is a large body of evidence that has been tested and has had scientists trying to falsify for a long time to where the probability of its accuracy is so high that it can be rightly called a scientific theory. A theory in science holds an incredible amount of weight.
Now that you know a bit about the concepts, let’s look at scientific claims and a consensus means. A consensus of scientific opinion exists within a field of study. This is true within climate science, biology and honestly, every scientific field is in consensus about certain aspects of it. When this happens in regards to a scientific claim that is politically charged or disagrees with certain ideologies, then it gets contested. However, when you look at the science that is contested in the public discourse, there are some trends you need to be aware of.
Look at the credentials of those refuting the science. Even if they are experts in a field, if they are not experts in the field they are refuting, then their opinion holds no scientific weight. For example, if Stephen Hawking decided to weigh in with an opinion on the mating habits of chimpanzees that contradicted what the agreed upon science is within anthropology, no matter is fame or credentials, that opinion would be discarded unless it was backed up with a large amount of evidence, data and brought within the peer review. When people bring out a scientist to talk about a field they aren’t an expert in, for example, you have plenty of psychologists for some reason who refute evolution, this is no different than if you became sick and went to a mathematician instead of a doctor for diagnosis. While they may be an expert mathematician, they have no bearing on medical science.
Ok, this was just a brief overview, but I hope it gives you an idea about how science works. Now, let’s look at some of the big quote un-quote controversial sciences that we hear about all too often.
Climate Change Deniers
The first topic of choice is climate change. This is about as political charged as it gets. Why? Because admitting it’s true means having some responsibility to create legislation and spend money to combat it. That’s the hang up. There isn’t disproving science. The only scientists they waltz out against it are not within the climate change field. It’s funny, actually, I had a debate over the last couple of days. The person I was debating with was an intellectually dishonest as possible, and more than mildly irritating to say the least. He, like so many vehemently against a type of science, didn’t understand how science works. The arguments were as follows:
“There are tons of scientists who don’t believe in climate change!”
First, you don’t “believe” in a science. You accept the evidence and the studies and you move on. Also, the lists of scientists he cited were people who do NOT study climate change. When this was pointed out, I received the reply of:
“Of COURSE climate scientists say it’s true and fudge data, because that’s how they get money and awards and prestige!”
Ok, first, warning warning, dingdingding, conspiracy theory alert. Secondly, within science academia, you get far more prestige and renown for disproving a consensus or paradigm than you do for publishing yet another study that supports it. That’s common sense.
Then he insisted on a reference of a meteorologist who denies climate change! This was his big ace in the hole. Well, hate to break it to you, but weather and climate are two vastly different things. People who study weather concentrate on the here and now and still manage to have trouble predicting next week. That’s because weather is dynamic and intrinsically hard to predict. As someone versed in meteorology, sometimes, you just never know. Climate, on the other hand, is based on date over a geologic time scale. What happens over a matter of days isn’t even on the radar. When you look at climate trends over hundreds of thousands of years, you can figure out patterns and get a good grasp on how climate changes and acts. That’s why the meteorologist is NOT an authority on climate. In the end, I was called willfully ignorant for ignoring the right pundits.
Oh yes, and he went on a tangent about Al Gore as if discrediting Al Gore disproves climate change. Um, ya, ok, Al Gore isn’t hard to discredit…he’s a politician, not a scientist. Don’t get your science from politicians.
Now let’s look at the anti-vaxxer movement. This is a fun one, because these people have an ever growing death count on their heads. They are fervently causing children to die. Why? Two reasons, actually, on top of the general lack of knowledge of how science works.
The first is a quack by the name of Andrew Wakefield. This guy, some years back, published a study that linked vaccines to autism. Not long after, however, it turned up that he was getting paid to make that “discovery” and had heavy financial interests in making vaccines dangerous. A little further digging found that he faked a lot of his data and that conclusion was grossly inaccurate. He then lost his medical license in the UK. So, of course, we let him practice here with the other quacks….and lo the people listen!
The second is even more absurd. Jenny McCarthy, a former porn star whose child went from being a magical indigo child to being diagnosed with autism. According to her, her child became autistic due to being vaccinated, and even though the science says otherwise, her “mommy instinct” tells her she’s right. Now, to quote the song “skeptic in the room” why do we take medical advice from someone to whom we used to masturbate? There’s something horribly wrong with this picture.
In reality, vaccines are perfectly safe. They save a lot of lives and you should always have your child vaccinated. The reason autism diagnoses follow vaccinations is because that’s when we’re able to detect autism, about that age. Why are we seeing more autism now, in the age of vaccines? Simple. We know how to detect and diagnose it now! Huzzah! But such simple logic is long on the idiots promoting this very, very deadly myth.
GMO Conspiracy Theorists
Next up, GMO Conspiracy theorists! Now, I’ve covered this before and on my blog, but it bears mentioning in this context. When you claim that any dissenting science is being kept down due to some big conspiracy, you have no idea how science works. This goes back to the concept that disproving accepted science gains you far more than supporting it, so long as your science is sound. The problem here is, there are plenty of studies showing that GMOs are perfectly safe. The handful of studies that say otherwise are not done with the same rigor as scientific studies should be done. If you results are as good as you think they are, hold yourself to the same standards as everyone else, and you may gain some traction. Otherwise, you aren’t doing science.
Creationists! The age old bane of anyone with a rational bone in their body. They, like climate change deniers, like to waltz out scientists from unrelated fields to try and prove their point. The problem is, there is NO science there. None. Nada. Zippo. Zero. Zilch. Did I mention none? The only ideas they keep pushing out are things like irreducible complexity, which have been disproven every which way possible for years, yet they keep recycling it. Evolution is accepted within the scientific community as the overriding paradigm for biology. Period. Have a problem with that? Try actually doing science.
Finally, I want to touch briefly on CAM, complimentary and alternative medicine. This is far too large of a topic to even cover in a full episode, let alone a blurb, but let me just give a quick example. Homeopathy is the big one. The idea that if you dilute a substance in water to the point where there is not even an atom of the original substance left, and saying that the water “remembers” what was in it. Yet someone it forgets all the feces that was in it over the years of being open water. There’s even a nobel laureate trying to claim it’s true. The problem is, the scientific community at large knows it’s garbage. Why? Because it breaks the laws of physics. It’s impossible.
I hope I was able to enlighten you a bit on the politically charged issues and how science works. I won’t do a skeptical education this round, since that was the entire episode, but I hope I at least gave you some food for thought. So, until text time, this is skeptic coffee break. Have a great week.