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Skepticism 101. What is skepticism and why is it important?

March 4, 2010

I couldn't find a relevent image for this post. So instead here is a picture of a monster truck called GRAVE DIGGER. That should get you in the mood.

Believe it or not, I am not a climatologist. Or an astronomer. I’m not a Volcanologist either (I wish) or even a Garbologist (I’ll pass thanks). Totally unsurprisingly, the vast majority of people living on this tiny blue speck of a planet are not experts in any scientific discipline. As such we are left living in a world where we have access to a whole load of technology and knowledge and most of us (well me at least) have no friggin idea how it works.

Well admittedly I might have a rudimentary concept of how my radio functions, but I’ll be damned if i’m ever shipwrecked and forced to construct one to fend off stereotypical savages with my “magic”. Potentially, so impressed by my ability to make Argos-quality goods from grass and sand (in my fantasy I am Ray Mears), the tribal chieftain will offer me the hand of his daughter in marriage (sorry Laura) and I’ll live happily ever after in a house made of volcanoes… Of course since I’m actually incapable of making even a rudimentary fork they would quickly throw my useless arse into a pit of deadly crabs and no one would ever hear from me again.  See? This is just one of the many terrifying consequences of living in a world where our understanding of science and technology basically boils down to a “it’s like magic” mentality. To prove my point here’s a quote by awesome and respected scientist Carl Sagan:

We have designed our civilization based on science and technology and at the same time arranged things so that almost no one understands anything at all about science and technology. This is a clear prescription for disaster.

Carl Sagan also said:

“if you want to make a pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe

Which I still don’t understand. What the hell Sagan?

Anyway, the point is, because we don’t understand anything we are forced to rely on the media to give us information about science and technology, communicated through the helpful medium of “experts”. Of course, reading the newspaper I am often at a loss as to who these “experts” actually are and more importantly whether there is a scientific consensus on whatever it is they are discussing. The consequences of not understanding how and why science works are very real as was aptly demonstrated in the Autsm-MMR vaccine scandal. Here is a graph I pilfered from the BBC website:

See that? That’s what happens when people get told by newspapers to be scared of certain things and naturally they get scared. Of course, most people have the common sense to know that not everything causes cancer and that you probably aren’t going to die from burnt toast. But when a movement forms, the media picks up on it and its nonsense seeps into the public consciousness, dispite an utter disregard for the actual evidence, (as is the case for the anti-vax movement) then there is a problem.

PANIC ATTACK!!

The Autism-MMR scandal* is a good, if not tragic, example of why you shouldn’t always trust the “experts”, quoted by the media, especially if he/she makes grandiose claims. The “experts” themselves are not as much to blame as is the paper’s handling of their opinions and their often loose definitions of “expert”. Andrew Wakefield was just one man, he was a pretty bad man and a lousy scientist, but when the MMR scandal hit, his claims were blown out of all proportion. Wakefield’s original study in 1998 revealed that a measly 12 children who had been vaccinated just so happened to also be autistic. Since then multiple independent studies have  attempted to do the same experiment only to show his claims to be totally false.

Of course, the truth of the matter was besides the point. The MMR controversy was above all, a great story. It had elements of risk, conspiracy (why won’t Tony Blair reveal whether he has given, his child leo, the vaccine?) and above all, the renegade scientist figure of Andrew Wakefield. The sad fact is, you could not trust the media to report the story honestly, in fact according the Ben Goldacre of Bad Science:

Less than a third of broadsheet reports in 2002 referred to the overwhelming evidence that MMR is safe, and only 11% mentioned that it is regarded as safe in the 90 other countries in which it is used.

Shocking isn’t it? Broadsheets. The lesson to be learned from the MMR fear mongering is that when the public do not understand why they should trust a Scientific Consensus** then they can easily be led astray. The media had an ethical responsibility to either ignore Wakefield’s claims or debunk them. It utterly failed in this responsibility and we are still living with the consequences today: measles is more widespread and vaccination rates are down in the UK and mainland europe. The reason behind the public’s distrust of vaccinations is both thanks to the media’s mishandling of the story and the way that mainstream science is depicted. Andrew Wakefield, at the time, was characterised as the lone renegade fighting against a closed-minded “mainstream science”. Very romantic. Mainstream science however was the villain in the story: a faceless authority figure. Scary. It is because of  “Controversies” like the MMR scandal, combined with the media’s fondness of human interest stories over data has meant that the public learned to not trust this figure. Especially if he is working for the government/pharmaceutical company and especially if he wants to inject a virus into your child. The little libertarian in us speaks out and we listen. Just not to the evidence.

So what do you do? Well you learn about the scientific method and the value of a consensus of scientific opinion. One man may be wrong, but many researchers, all working independently and using the scientific method can get shit done. By understanding what the difference is between good science and bad science (pseudoscience), how arguments are fallacious, what makes a valid experiment and whether certain things can even be objectively known***, you can filter out the massive amounts of misinformation that we are constantly being bombarded with and feast upon those tasty kernels of truth. (It’s well-known that all skeptics are thin. This is a fact.) Critical thinking and rationality are what I see as fundimentally positive forces that can really help us get to grips with reality. It gives you the proverbial farm tools to separate the wheat from chaff, to understand clearly what is probably real and what is certainly totally fake. Being a Skeptic isn’t about saying “this is correct and that’s wrong” but simply asking “what is the evidence?”.

(it’s also about communicating the glory of science. ALL HAIL DARWIN)

P.s. If you, like me, often imagine what I’d be like if I was

a) Fatter

b) More Irish

c) Actually Funny

Then watch this video.

* I’ll write a more in-depth article on the supposed autism-vaccine link at a later date

** I’ll explain this I promise

**I’ll also write posts about this stuff too. All under Skepticism 101.

[Edit] It’s pretty important to note that as negative as I sound, I’m fairly sure (by virtue of being one) that journalists are not actually evil and they certainly are not stupid. Some journalists do an extremely good job of writing about science but the sad truth is that many simply don’t. They are of course, just doing their job, but because of differing aims, there is an essential disconnect between the fields of Science and Journalism.

Further reading:

A more concise explanation of what Skepticism is: http://skeptoid.com/skeptic.php (yes I know, I should have linked this at the beginning and saved you a lot of hassle)

If you want to know more about vaccinations and the anti-vaccination movement go here: http://www.skepdic.com/antivaccination.html

More about Wakefield himself: http://briandeer.com/wakefield-deer.htm

This site has a wealth of information that is really really good: http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/

http://www.badscience.net/ is also very good.

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