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1.6: Science Denial and Evaluating Sources

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  • There are several people around a sign
    Figure: Anti-evolution league at the infamous Tennessee v. Scopes trial.

    Introductory science courses usually deal with accepted scientific theory and do not include opposing ideas, even though these alternate ideas may be credible. This makes it easier for students to understand complex material. Advanced students will encounter more controversies as they continue to study their discipline.

    Some groups of people argue that some established scientific theories are wrong, not based on their scientific merit but rather on the ideology of the group. This section focuses on how to identify evidence-based information and differentiate it from pseudoscience.

    1.6.1: Science Denial

    There are many people on the steps of the capitol.
    Figure: 2017 March for Science in Salt Lake City. This and other similar marches were in response to funding cuts and anti-science rhetoric.

    Science denial happens when people argue that established scientific theories are wrong, not based on scientific merit but rather on subjective ideology—such as for social, political, or economic reasons. Organizations and people use science denial as a rhetorical argument against issues or ideas they oppose. Three examples of science denial versus science are:

    1. Teaching evolution in public schools
    2. Linking tobacco smoke to cancer
    3. Linking human activity to climate change.

    Among these, denial of climate change is strongly connected with geology. A climate denier specifically denies or doubts the objective conclusions of geologists and climate scientists.

    Shows three pillars labeled "Undermine the Science", "Claim the Result is Evil", and "Demand Equal Time".
    Figure: Three false rhetorical arguments of science denial (Source: National Center for Science Education)

    Science denial generally uses three false arguments. The first argument tries to undermine the credibility of the scientific conclusion by claiming the research methods are flawed or the theory is not universally accepted—the science is unsettled. The notion that scientific ideas are not absolute creates doubt for non-scientists; however, a lack of universal truths should not be confused with scientific uncertainty. Because science is based on falsifiability, scientists avoid claiming universal truths and use language that conveys uncertainty. This allows scientific ideas to change and evolve as more evidence is uncovered.

    The second argument claims the researchers are not objective and motivated by ideology or economic agenda. This is an ad hominem argument in which a person’s character is attacked instead of the merit of their argument. They claim results have been manipulated so researchers can justify asking for more funding. They claim that because the researchers are funded by a federal grant, they are using their results to lobby for expanded government regulation.

    The third argument is to demand a balanced view, equal time in media coverage and educational curricula, to engender the false illusion of two equally valid arguments. Science deniers frequently demand equal coverage of their proposals, even when there is little scientific evidence supporting their ideology. For example, science deniers might demand religious explanations to be taught as an alternative to the well-established theory of evolution [39; 40]. Or that all possible causes of climate change be discussed as equally probable, regardless of the body of evidence. Conclusions derived using the scientific method should not be confused with those based on ideologies.

    Furthermore, conclusions about nature derived from ideologies have no place in science research and education. For example, it would be inappropriate to teach the flat earth model in a modern geology course because this idea has been disproved by the scientific method. Unfortunately, widespread scientific illiteracy allows these arguments to be used to suppress scientific knowledge and spread misinformation.

    The formation of new conclusions based on the scientific method is the only way to change scientific conclusions. We wouldn’t teach Flat Earth geology along with plate tectonics because Flat Earthers don’t follow the scientific method. The fact that scientists avoid universal truths and change their ideas as more evidence is uncovered shouldn’t be seen as meaning that the science is unsettled. Because of widespread scientific illiteracy, these arguments are used by those who wish to suppress science and misinform the general public.

    The lines are similar when comparing smoking and cancer
    Figure: The lag time between cancer after smoking, plus the ethics of running human trials, delayed the government in taking action against tobacco.

    In a classic case of science denial, beginning in the 1960s and for the next three decades, the tobacco industry and their scientists used rhetorical arguments to deny a connection between tobacco usage and cancer. Once it became clear scientific studies overwhelmingly found that using tobacco dramatically increased a person’s likelihood of getting cancer, their next strategy was to create a sense of doubt about the science. The tobacco industry suggested the results were not yet fully understood and more study was needed. They used this doubt to lobby for delaying legislative action that would warn consumers of the potential health hazards [39, 41]. This same tactic is currently being employed by those who deny the significance of human involvement in climate change.

    1.6.2: Evaluating Sources of Information

    There is a large spike in earthquakes
    Figure: This graph shows the earthquake data. To call this data induced, due to fracking/drilling, would be an interpretation. Since the USGS (a reputable institution) has interpreted these earthquakes are caused by humans, it is a more reliable interpretation.

    In the age of the internet, information is plentiful. Geologists, scientists, or anyone exploring scientific inquiry must discern valid sources of information from pseudoscience and misinformation. This evaluation is especially important in scientific research because scientific knowledge is respected for its reliability [42]. Textbooks such as this one can aid this complex and crucial task. At its roots, quality information comes from the scientific method [43], beginning with the empirical thinking of Aristotle. The application of the scientific method helps produce unbiased results. A valid inference or interpretation is based on objective evidence or data. Credible data and inferences are clearly labeled, separated, and differentiated. Anyone looking over the data can understand how the author’s conclusion was derived or come to an alternative conclusion. Scientific procedures are clearly defined so the investigation can be replicated to confirm the original results or expanded further to produce new results. These measures make a scientific inquiry valid and its use as a source reputable. Of course, substandard work occasionally slips through and retractions are published from time to time. An infamous article linking the MMR vaccine to autism appeared in the highly reputable journal Lancet in 1998. Journalists discovered the author had multiple conflicts of interest and fabricated data, and the article was retracted in 2010.

    Figure: Logo for The Geological Society of America, one of the leading geoscience organizations. They also publish GSA Bulletin, a reputable geology journal.

    In addition to methodology, data, and results, the authors of a study should be investigated. When looking into any research, the author(s) should be investigated [44]. An author’s credibility is based on multiple factors, such as having a degree in a relevant topic or being funded from an unbiased source.

    The same rigor should be applied to evaluating the publisher, ensuring the results reported come from an unbiased process [45]. The publisher should be easy to discover. Good publishers will show the latest papers in the journal and make their contact information and identification clear. Reputable journals show their peer review style. Some journals are predatory, where they use unexplained and unnecessary fees to submit and access journals. Reputable journals have recognizable editorial boards. Often, a reliable journal will associate with a trade, association, or recognized open-source initiative.

    One of the hallmarks of scientific research is peer review. Research should be transparent to peer review. This allows the scientific community to reproduce experimental results, correct and retract errors, and validate theories. This allows the reproduction of experimental results, corrections of errors, and proper justification of the research to experts.

    Citation is not only imperative to avoid plagiarism, but also allows readers to investigate an author’s line of thought and conclusions. When reading scientific works, it is important to confirm the citations are from reputable scientific research. Most often, scientific citations are used to reference paraphrasing rather than quotes. The number of times a work is cited is said to measure the influence an investigation has within the scientific community, although this technique is inherently biased [46].