The most sensible thing I’ve read in months

The Globe and Mail’s Andre Picard, who’s science journalism is almost always right on the mark, has a column out today that is, without a word of hyperbole, the best thing I’ve read in the Globe, or anywhere else for that matter, in a very long time.

Picard notes that the general tone of letters he receives in response to articles about a new drug or therapy, or a new finding regarding disease prevention, has deteriorated in recent years, and has gone from being a representation of an opposing view point with respect to the evidence, to a more ad hominem, ‘attack-the-messenger’ approach, where anyone who supports ‘traditional’ evidence-based knowledge is either too blind to see the truth, or is ‘in the pocket’ of some evil cabal (usually a drug company). Picard writes,

What is truly troubling is that the most common “debating” technique in cyberspace has become the dismissal of anyone with respect for scientific fact and reasoned opinion as part of some vast conspiracy.

If you read scientific literature and health research with an open mind and still conclude that vaccines are not poisons, that chelation therapy will not cure heart disease, that realigning someone’s chakra is not going to clear up a bladder infection, or that strange concoctions of vitamins and minerals cannot cure bipolar disorder – all theories that have pretty broad followings on the Web – then you are dismissed as an agent of an evil empire.

Science is not a collection of facts about the universe; it is an approach to understanding the universe, or at least a small part of it. Science is a set of guidelines that we follow that allow us to have ever-increasing confidence in the validity of our conclusions; to allow us to let our beliefs about the universe scale with the evidence. Science is empiricism.

The remarkable success of empiricism suggests that it is a valid way of knowing how the universe works. We can argue about the problem of induction all we want, but the fact remains that evidence-based knowledge has, in the last hundred and fifty years alone, brought us an understanding of how life has evolved and diversified on Earth, and how the universe began and continues, to this day, to expand. And as I’ve written before, to those who disbelieve in the validity of the scientific method and empiricism, I invite you to do so while jumping from an airplane at 35,000 feet, sans parachute. I assure you that whether you accept Newtonian, Einsteinian, or Aristotelian theories of gravity, your fate will remain the same. No one ever asks for the homeopathy ambulance when they’re having a heart attack. Science when it suits; woo when it doesn’t.

Evidence-based knowledge has given us cures and treatments for the most horrific diseases imaginable, and the body of knowledge that will provide the next generation of cures and treatments continues to grow with each passing day.

In short, empiricism should be beyond all criticism. We can have legitimate discussions about the interpretation of evidence, or the processes through which evidence was gathered. But to question the concept that the degree to which we accept certain propositions as ‘true’ should scale with evidence is to denigrate the entire body of man’s collective progress.

Asking for evidence has become, it would appear, of secondary or tertiary concern. Answers that simply placate our desire to have an answer; any answer, have usurped our desire to know the truth. To the best of our knowledge, vaccines do not cause autism. How can I say this with such matter-of-factness? Because there is no evidence to suggest otherwise. A good scientist says “show me the evidence”, and so we, on the side of empiricism, await evidence that will sway what we know is true.

Again, if what we desire is to settle our mind; if we want to truly feel that breast cancer is caused by having an abortion, in order to provide some sense of assuredness about what would otherwise remain a complete unknown, then that is one thing. But if what we desire is to honestly know if abortion and breast cancer are linked, then we must follow what the evidence suggests. And in this case, the evidence suggests that there is absolutely no link.

So who do you trust?

Well, you depend on chiropractors and Hollywood stars to give you advice about vaccinating your baby; you trust the guy at the health-food store to offer up a sure-fire cure for arthritis; and you take as gospel the e-mail that warns ominously that if new food safety rules are adopted by government, storm troopers will soon be busting down your front door to seize the chamomile tea.

In the world of cyberspace science, the best evidence is anecdote and the more fantastical the claims, the larger the following they seem to garner.

Absolutely spot on analysis here. Anecdote is never, ever evidence; it is the absolute lowest rung on the ladder of evidence.

What one needs to wonder, however, is why there is such an appetite for quackery.

It has emerged largely in the vacuum created by a lack of science literacy.

In an era in which we are constantly bombarded with information, our education system is not equipping people with the tools to reason critically, to analyze and to sort the wheat from the chaff.

Precisely. Even undergraduate science programs do not provide a good foundation in simple logic or in the evaluation of evidence.

Sure, science isn’t that exciting. It tends to offer up steady, incremental bits of knowledge rather than miraculous cures, and there remain a lot of unknowns. But these voids need not be filled with fantasy and snake oil.

And, yes, Big Pharma and big business have had their scandals and excesses, but these have been exposed and denounced by the so-called establishment, and they do not negate the good.

It’s true; science is pretty boring. You don’t get many instances where a single finding radically changes the world. What you do get, however, is a slow, steady march toward a more complete understanding. And this march has, as I noted above, resulted in findings that have radically changed the world, or at least our knowledge of it.

And as Picard notes, science has had its bad days. Data have been misinterpreted; scientists have lied and falsified data; and some seriously bad technology has come out of our understanding of some of the most fundamental processes in nature.

But in each and every case, it was science that righted its own ship. Professional science operates in such a way that mistakes or outright lies are generally caught quickly, mainly because data cannot be reproduced. While quackery like intelligent design creationism or the anti-vaccination movement point out perceived ‘flaws’ in the science, they do nothing to add to the legitimate body of evidence; it is, and has always been, science that fills the gaps and corrects its mistakes.

I don’t know what the cure for this is. The sheer volume of information that is easily accessible today means that rationalists will have their work cut out to ensure that popular but completely false notions do not come to dominate public perceptions. What I do know is that while it doesn’t directly harm me as a person when someone wears a Q-Ray bracelet and thinks it helps their arthritis, it does become a bit troubling when one considers that the only reason this person has lived long enough to get arthritis and to seek out a quack, placebo-based cure for it, is the development of modern, evidence-based medicine. The web of empiricism is vast.

In a world where what is popular is confused with what is true (thank you, Oprah), empiricism has quite a battle to fight. But if we don’t continue to fight woo and quackery, we run the very real risk of undergoing a gradual, but ever advancing, dumbing-down of society.


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