Science Denial Continues Unabated

If there’s one trigger that really presses my buttons, it’s science denial.

Let’s set a few definitions before we proceed, mostly so when I use a word there is no confusion about what I mean by the word.

Science – The process of learning about the universe and its components (including people) via the scientific method.
Hypothesis – A scientific postulate. A proposal.
Theory – A scientific postulate that has been rigorously tested and is accepted as the way a physical process works by overwhelming weight of supporting evidence.

In the common culture, theory is often misunderstood to mean hypothesis. Nothing could be further from the truth. A scientific theory is synonymous with accepted science. After all, we still talk about he theory of gravity, but nobody argues against the existence of gravitational forces holding us on this planet.

Can a theory be refuted? Can a theory be proven incorrect? Absolutely, but disagreeing with a theory doesn’t invalidate it. There must be overwhelming evidence. For example, ether was the accepted medium for the transmission of light across a region of space (defined here as meaning an arbitrary volume in any location). Scientists of the 19th-century considered ether as real as the ground they stood upon, and yet through mathematical models and empirical evidence, a new theory emerged to replace ether. It was a better model of nature, and so it goes that old theory is replaced by new theory.

Science denial is typically the disavowal of a scientific theory because it opposes a person’s belief system, or goes against a person’s self-interest. As an example of the latter, I submit the tobacco companies denial of the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. Big tobacco had a lot to lose if a connection could be found, so contrary science, often fraudulent, was funded and literature published supporting the position of big tobacco.

There are three major areas of science denial that today get a lot of attention: man-induced climate change, vaccinations, and evolution.

The connection between human activity and climate change is well-documented and is agreed upon by 97% of scientists working in the field. There is very little in the way of opposition to the link in peer-reviewed journals. Climate denial is the position of people and corporations who stand to lose a lot of money if the connection is true. That sounds a lot like big tobacco, doesn’t it? In fact, this article reports ExxonMobile is to this day funding climate science denial.

The link between vaccinations and autism began in a retracted and now thoroughly discredited article by one Andrew Wakefield. (This article has a bunch of links to information on the discrediting of this fraud.) It’s akin to the cold fusion fraud back in the mid 1980s from Pons and Fleischmann. Except nobody is putting the public at risk by attempting to use a non-functional cold fusion reactor. Despite the retraction by Wakefield, clueless parents insist upon the connection and refuse to have their children vaccinated. Some diseases, such as polio, were virtually eliminated when I was in high school, but they are making a comeback due to entirely preventable causes.

Evolution is still called a theory, but it’s a pretty firmly established theory considering we can demonstrate it in a laboratory setting with short lifespan organisms. The reason evolution is disputed has to do with a book that we must accept on faith alone. Those who take it completely on faith dispute evolution because it contradicts what is in the book. They call their belief creationism, and it is not at all supported by science.

What upsets me the most is anti-science positions are almost always written by either non-scientists, or scientists with a serious conflict of interest (like being employed by an oil company) that makes an unbiased opinion unlikely at best.

When I was taking my physics degree at Wisconsin-Whitewater, one of my fellow students was a creationist. He gave a colloquium speech on creationism. While the faculty was adamantly opposed to his positions, to their credit they gave him his hour to speak and they attended. Looking back, I think that decision makes me prouder of the UWW physics department than anything else that occurred while I was there. They let him speak.

Now, I thoroughly disagreed with his evidence and his conclusions, but I attended with interest because this was being presented by somebody who I knew understood the science behind evolution and the age of the earth. He had a hell of a lot of courage to even attempt that presentation in the face of what he knew to be a hostile audience, but everyone respected his opinions and nobody heckled.

Unfortunately, most of the time that isn’t who is presenting the material. Usually, it’s faulty logic, standard catch-phrases, or at times, even fraudulent science. Humanity has already gone through an extended period of time where science was suppressed. Today, we call that era the dark ages. I prefer to live in the light.

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