Vaccines and false balance

As anyone who reads Synapses would know, I’m a proponent of scientific skepticism. What that means is something along the lines of “the practice or project of studying paranormal and pseudoscientific claims through the lens of science and critical scholarship, and then sharing the results with the public (from Daniel Loxton’s 2013 essay, “Why is there a skeptical movement?).

Skepticism should not be conflated with hyperskepticism, as Caleb Lack and I argue in our book on critical thinking. So, it doesn’t (necessarily) mean believing in chemtrails, or Big Pharma deliberately poisoning you, or your cellphone making you infertile (it’s a bit of a pity that that one isn’t true, actually). Continue reading “Vaccines and false balance”

The Huffington Post and your masturbatory co-workers

This post isn’t about “fake news“, a term which has gone from useful to meaningless in a record time. It’s about nonsense published as if it’s news, and about the willingness on the part of some publications (okay, one in this case) to take a published piece of nonsense and then make it even worse in order to get you to visit their website. Continue reading “The Huffington Post and your masturbatory co-workers”

“Post-truth” doesn’t have to mean factual relativism

Most pieces about the “post-fact” or “post-truth” world express concern regarding the possibility that it’s now commonplace – or even somehow acceptable – to make stuff up instead of offering arguments and evidence for your claims.

My contribution to the discussion was to point out that truth has never mattered as much as we might prefer. But the fact that people don’t care to (or find it difficult to) escape their filter bubbles doesn’t need to entail giving up on facts and the truth entirely. Continue reading ““Post-truth” doesn’t have to mean factual relativism”

A tale of two conspiracies from the Noakes hearings

Unfortunately, I was only able to attend half of one day of the reconvened HPCSA hearings regarding Prof. Tim Noakes and his alleged “professional misconduct”.

I missed what might have been the most interesting day, at least on a personal level, as apparently one of my tweets was read into evidence. This gave Prof. Noakes an opportunity to tell folks that I had a vendetta against him, that I “call myself” someone with philosophical expertise, and so forth. Continue reading “A tale of two conspiracies from the Noakes hearings”

Science vs soundbites and sensationalism #IFT16

Late last year, I had the pleasure of meeting outgoing IFT President, Colin Dennis, at a talk I gave at the 2015 SAAFoST conference in Durban. For those of you who are interested in food science and nutrition, and who don’t know of SAAFoST, I’d like to point you in the direction of their “Food Facts Advisory Service“, where you can find a number of informative pieces on food facts and fears.

In any event, Prof. Dennis suggested that he would be keen on inviting me to speak at a future IFT event. To my great surprise and pleasure, that invitation ended up being to give one of the keynote talks – alongside such luminaries as Dr Ben Goldacre – at the IFT  congress in Chicago, which has just concluded today. Continue reading “Science vs soundbites and sensationalism #IFT16”

Scientism and the limitations of logic

Slate recently published an interesting piece on “scientism”, which both perpetuates a caricature of science and rationality, and also points to a genuine problem with some folk who can’t see beyond science and reason as tools for addressing our political and social dilemmas.

“Scientism” is the belief that all we need to solve the world’s problems is, you guessed it, science. People sometimes sub in the phrase rational thinking, but it amounts to the same thing. If only people would drop religion and all their other prejudices, we could use logic to fix everything.

Last week, Neil deGrasse Tyson offered up the perfect example of scientism when he proposed a country of #Rationalia, in which “all policy shall be based on the weight of evidence.”

Tyson is a very smart man, but this is a very stupid tweet, and a very stupid idea. It is even, we might say, unreasonable and without sufficient evidence. Of course imagining a society in which all actors behave logically sounds appealing. But employing logic to consider the concept reveals that there could be no such thing.

There are two very different things being described here. To base all policy on the weight of evidence is a fundamentally different thing to desiring a society in which all actors are Mr. Spocks, all logic and no emotion. In conflating them, Jeffrey Guhin sets up the caricature I mentioned at the top.

Many pro-science and rationality folks, including myself and the vast majority of scientific skeptics I’ve been hanging out with at conferences for the last decade, would agree with Tyson’s tweet while rejecting the implication that it means we need to be all logic, all the time.

The reason for this is simple, and points to Guhin’s misunderstanding of the broader – and social – context to scientific reasoning. Emotions, intuitions, aesthetic preferences and what have you are all things that make us human, and social creatures, yes – but they are also data points in themselves.

In other words, policy that is based on the “weight of evidence” does not need to be blind to these human details, and is in fact compromised if it’s not sensitive to these details. We care, for example, about compliance with the law, so it would be irrational to enact a law that caused such a negative (emotional) reaction that compliance was impossible.

We also care about happiness, meaning that it would be irrational to treat each other solely as logical agents. Doing so would make marriages and friendships unbearable, and parent-child relations dysfunctional. Our relationships admit to – and even cherish – the idiosyncrasies of our various subjective points of view.

Guhin does go on to make various good points about scientific overconfidence, reminding us that “experts often get it wrong”. But this is again to rely on a misunderstanding of science – good science knows that it’s fallible, and this is in fact one of its key virtues when compared with pseudoscience.

The fact that scientific reasoning leads to errors (he mentions scientific racism, phrenology, eugenics and other examples) is only a crippling problem for science if there’s some better alternative for resolving empirical problems. Until we have one, the point is that science is self-correcting, and that we can discover and discard our mistakes.

More critically, the scientific method is of course vulnerable to exploitation by those who want to use it for odious reasons – but isn’t dogma (for example religious fundamentalism) more so? And, to note that people use the language of science to prop up eugenics doesn’t entail that they used good scientific reasoning to do so. Instead, we can now recognise it as an abuse of the scientific method, rather than a proper application of it.

Guhin has harsh words for Tyson, for the “I f***king love science crew”, and for Dawkins, as I also previously have for all three cases. But the problem with these evangelists for science is largely a political one, rather than them being wrong on the principle of the matter. If you communicate with others in ways which make it sound like you think they are stupid (Dawkins), people aren’t going to listen. If you communicate in ways which make it sound like you are stupid, for example in dismissing the value of philosophy (Tyson), you’ll also lose part of your audience. And if you just share (sometimes incorrect) memes on a Facebook group, nobody is going to believe you actually love science at all.

Guhin is right to remind us to not appear as evangelical as those we sometimes find ourselves arguing with. I’ve been watching folks on Twitter making the tone-deaf “the evidence must decide” sort of arguments with regard to various arguments about race and economics in South Africa, and they don’t get that even if that’s true, social progress also requires not being an ass.

But to conflate “rational thinking” with “scientism”, as Guhin does, is a mistake. Rational thinking can incorporate both following the evidence, and doing so in a way that is aware of one’s own biases, and all of our emotions, needs, wants and fears.

Those are all evidence too, yes. But – crucially – one of the ways we can get along better is knowing when to point that out, versus knowing when to take off our “Mr Logic” caps, and simply relate to each other as human beings.

Critical thinking, science and pseudoscience

Monday 28 March sees the release of Critical Thinking, Science, & Pseudoscience: Why You Can’t Trust Your Brain, co-written by Caleb Lack and me. Caleb is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Central Oklahoma, who I met at TAM 2013 in Las Vegas.

As Caleb notes in his announcement of the book (where much of the text below is copied and pasted from),

it is based largely around the critical thinking courses that Jacques and I have been teaching at our respective universities. The book is designed to teach the reader how to separate sense from nonsense, how to think critically about claims both large and small, and how to be a better consumer of information in general.

Although it’s being mostly advertised towards the academic market, we have purposefully written it to be highly readable, entertaining, and great for anyone wanting to sharpen (or build from scratch) their critical faculties.

South African readers will be alarmed at the price of the book, which is a factor of exactly the point Caleb makes above – that it’s been pitched at the textbook market by the publisher. We are hoping to arrange a local distributor, which should bring the price down substantially.

And if you’re planning to attend the Franschhoek Literary Festival this year, I’ll be in conversation with John Maytham about the book and its themes on Sunday, May 15 at 10am.

The early reviews we received are gratifyingly positive. Michael Shermer (Publisher of Skeptic magazine, monthly columnist for Scientific American, and Presidential Fellow at Chapman University) said:
Michael Shermer

This is the best collection of ideas on critical thinking and skepticism between two covers ever published.

Lack and Rousseau have put together the ideal textbook for students who need to learn how to think, which is to say every student in America.

I plan to assign the book to my Skepticism 101 course at Chapman University and recommend that every professor teaching critical thinking courses at all colleges and universities do the same. Well written, comprehensive, and engaging. Bravo!

Elizabeth LoftusElizabeth Loftus, past president of the Association for Psychological Science, Distinguished Professor at the University of California – Irvine, and one of the foremost memory researchers in the world, wrote:

What’s wrong with believing in pseudoscientific claims and why do so many people do it? Lack & Rousseau take us on a fascinating excursion into these questions and convincingly show us how junk science harms our wallets and our health.

Importantly, they teach us tips for spotting true claims and false ones, good arguments and bad ones. They raise awareness about our “mental furniture” – a valuable contribution to any reader who cares about truth.

Carol Tavris is a social psychologist, and Fellow of the American Psychological Association, the Association for Psychological Science and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. She is the coauthor of the textbook Psychology and the (highly recommended) trade book Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me). After reading our book she wrote that:

Teachers and students will find this comprehensive, well-written textbook to be a helpful resource that illuminates the principles and applications of critical thinking–a skill that is crucial in our world of bombast, hype, and misinformation.

Russell BlackfordFinally, we have Russell Blackford, noted (and prolific) author (most recently of The Mystery of Moral Authority and Humanity Enhanced) and philosopher.

He’s a Conjoint Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle, a Fellow of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, editor-in-chief of The Journal of Evolution and Technology, a regular op.ed. columnist with Free Inquiry, and a Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism.

An entertaining introduction to clear thinking, science, and the lure of pseudoscience. Lack and Rousseau clearly explain the principles of logical reasoning, together with the human tendencies that all-too-often undermine it. They show how easily motivated reasoning can prevail over clarity and logic; better, they offer tools to think more critically, whether in science, policy, or our everyday choices.

For those instructors interested in using this in their class, we have also constructed full lecture slides for the book and an instructor’s guide with sample assignments, recommended videos, and more. Feel free to let our publishers know if you’d like to be considered for an adoption copy.