aNewDomain — The ideal scientific attitude is this: I’ll believe anything anyone says so long as it’s supported by evidence.
But really? Scientifically minded people like you and me are supposed to believe anyone?
Anyone at all?
One of the inviolable rules of rational discourse is that ad hominem attacks are not allowed. Such attempts to discredit the speaker are strictly out of bounds. In rational discourse, only the assertions matter. It’s true that very stupid people say things that are actually correct all the time.
So do hateful people, racists, politicians, columnists. Doesn’t matter. You should evaluate only the evidence, as the thinking goes.
But can we really meet these standards? And do we have to? Science dictates we become completely objective, naive even, but isn’t it relevant if a person making an assertion has a vested interest in the facts as they choose to portray them? A great example of what happens when we don’t lies with the father of the anti-vaccination movement, Andrew Wakefield (pictured below).
Wakefield’s controversial and now-retracted 1998 vaccination study was widely accepted for a long while. This was despite the fact that Wakefield had patented a competing vaccine without the ingredients implicated in his study.
If he had disclosed such ties, his work might have come under more scrutiny.
His assertions that MMR vaccinations were linked to autism and other problems, were accepted uncritically when they first came out. Had we known and understood the very real conflicts of interest he had, we might have been spared the whole anti-vaccination movement, a movement that was centered on that historic 1998 Lancet article.
When Ken Ham (pictured below) goes after evolution, should we ignore the fact that he stands to make an immense amount of profit exploiting some Americans’ unsophisticated knowledge of science?
Or should we accept that he’s qualified to debate Bill Nye on equal footing?
Bear in mind, Bill Nye was paid for the debate with Ham that aired back in February. But he wasn’t paid for the outcome of that debate. He did not profit from any particular position in the end. Ham did. Shouldn’t we consider that?
Politicians have a real vested interest in pleasing constituents and aligning themselves with party interests, usually. Ought we to accept any single assertion that they make?
When right-wing politicians appear on liberally-slanted shows, versus appearing on more conservative home fields, the narrative changes. It becomes more rational and less emotional.
It becomes more based in fact and less based in excited utterances.
Should you listen to hate groups’ assertions about race and IQ, or just tune them out? Do they really have anything to add to the scientific discourse? Interestingly, the racially-motivated South Carolina shooting led the right wing conservative Ham to proclaim a “truth” to Christian right media outlets just today. Ham says race is an imaginary construct.
This correlates with the “truth” as geneticists and evolution scientists have long had it. Yet Ham references the Bible as his source of truth in this scientific matter. So you see this all gets mighty complicated.
And what about tobacco-funded studies on smoking, or religiously funded studies on family structure, or coal-funded studies on global warming, or drug-company sponsored “news” about the effectiveness of antidepressants, or the cognitive behavioral therapy people lobbying against all other types of therapy?
How should you weigh the truth when there are such conflicts of interest?
There’s a disturbing movement afoot to find any doubt on anything and then exploit it for all it’s worth and for personal gain.
Because science acknowledges that nothing is ever known with certainty, creationists like Ham are able to attempt to insert their own certainty into that small margin of doubt.
Then there’s the famous climate change denier Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK, pictured at left) and all the oil and gas lobbyists who exploit the tiny margin of doubt around climate change. They seem vested in arguing that our use of human resources and other living habits aren’t harmful to the Earth at all.
It’s going to take decades to sort out what for-profit medicine has done to our science journals. And they know it.
No ad-hominem attacks is a great rule. But it isn’t golden.
It is a rule that is only applicable when the person making an assertion has agreed to abide by the same rules of logic and conduct.
In other words, you shouldn’t call out the attributes or characteristics of a person making a sincere attempt to engage with science. But do call out, every time, when someone is using those procedures cynically to manipulate those with less sophisticated knowledge of science.
We’ve been letting such intellectual skinheads run the show for far too long now. Let’s stop doing it.
For aNewDomain, I’m Jason Dias.
Cover image: Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK), NationalJournal.com, All Rights Reserved.
Pic two: Retracted Lancet article by Peter Wakefield, All Rights Reserved.
Pic three: Doctor Andrew Wakefield, photographed in Middlesex, England, on Jan. 22, 2010. The Daily Telegraph, All Rights Reserved.
Pic four: CampaignForLiberty.org, All Rights Reserved.
Pic five, cover “intellectual skinhead” image: Latest.com, All Rights Reserved.
Pic six: Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK), NationalJournal.com, All Rights Reserved.