Should scientists engage with pseudo-science or anti-science?

February 25, 2016 by Rod Lamberts And Will J Grant, Australian National University, The Conversation
If someone is spouting pseudo-science, should scientists risk legitimising them by getting into a debate with them? Credit: Shutterstock

The ABC's flagship science journalism TV programme, Catalyst, has riled the scientific community once again. And, in a similar vein to Catalyst's controversial 2013 report on the link between statins, cholesterol and heart disease, it has now turned its quasi-scientific attention to a supposed new peril.

Its "Wi-Fried?" segment last week raised concerns about the ever-increasing "electronic air pollution" that surrounds us in our daily lives, exploiting a number of age-old, fear-inspiring tropes.

There are already plenty of robust critiques of the arguments and evidence, so exploring where they got the science wrong is not our goal.

Instead, we're interested in using the segment as inspiration to revisit an ongoing question about ' engagement with the public: how should the respond to issues like this?

Should scientists dive in and engage head-on, appearing face-to-face with those they believe do science a disservice? Should they shun such engagement and redress bad science after the fact in other forums? Or should they disengage entirely and let the story run its course?

There are many of examples of what scientists could do, but to keep it simple we focus here just on the responses to "Wi-Fried" by two eminent Professors, Simon Chapman and Bernard Stewart, both of whom declined to be a part of the ABC segment, and use this case to consider what scientists should do.

Just say no

In an interview about their decision to not participate, Chapman and Stewart independently expressed concerns about the evidence, tone and balance in the "Wi-Fried" segment. According to Chapman it "contained many 'simply wrong' claims that would make viewers unnecessarily afraid".

Stewart labelled the episode "scientifically bankrupt" and "without scientific merit". He added:

I think the tone of the reporting was wrong, I think that the reporter did not fairly draw on both sides, and I use the word "sides" here reluctantly.

Indeed, in situations like this, many suggest that by appearing in the media alongside people who represent fringe thinkers and bad science, respected experts lend them unwarranted credibility and legitimacy.

Continuing with this logic, association with such a topic would mean implicitly endorsing poor science and bad reasoning, and contribute to an un-evidenced escalation of public fears.

But is it really that straightforward?

The concerns Chapman and Stewart expressed about the show could equally be used to argue that experts in their position should have agreed to be interviewed, if only to present a scientifically sound position to counter questionable claims.

In this line, you could easily argue it's better for experts to appear whenever and wherever spurious claims are raised, the better to immediately refute and dismiss them.

On the other hand, if scientific experts refuse to engage with "scientifically bankrupt" arguments, this could send a more potent message: that the fringe claims are irrelevant, not even worth wasting the time to refute. So this would mean they shouldn't engage with this kind of popular science story.

On the third hand, their refusal to engage could be re-framed to characterise the experts as remote, arrogant or even afraid, casting doubt on the veracity of the scientific position. So to avoid this impression, experts should engage.

But wait, there's more.

Participation in these kinds of popular science shows could also tarnish the reputation of the expert. But not appearing means missing the opportunity to thwart the potential harm caused by fringe, false or non-scientific claims.

And what about an expert's obligation to defend their science, to set the record straight, and to help ensure people are not mislead by poor evidence and shonky reasoning? Is this best done by engaging directly with dubious media offerings like "Wi-Fried", or should relevant experts find other venues?

Should scientists engage anti-science?

Well, this depends on what they think they might achieve. And if one thing stands out in all the to-ing and fro-ing over what scientists should do in such cases, it's this: the majority of proponents both for and against getting involved seem convinced that popular representations of science will change people's behaviour.

But there is rarely any hard evidence presented in the myriad "scientists should" arguments out there. Sticking with the Catalyst example, there is really only one, far-from-convincing, study from 2013 suggesting the show has such influence.

If you really want to make a robust, evidence-based decision about what should do in these situations, don't start with the science being discussed. In the case of Catalyst, you'd start with research on the show's relationship with its audience(s).

  • What kinds of people watch Catalyst?
  • Why do they watch it?
  • To what extent are their attitudes influenced by the show?
  • If their attitudes are actually influenced, how long does this influence last?
  • If this influence does last, does it lead people to change their behaviours accordingly?

Of course, we applaud the motives of people who are driven to set the scientific record straight, and especially by those who are genuinely concerned about public welfare.

But to simply assume, without solid evidence, that programmes like Catalyst push people into harmful behaviour changes is misguided at best. At worst, it's actually bad .

Explore further: Do Wi-Fi and mobile phones really cause cancer? Experts respond

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16 comments

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Moebius
3.4 / 5 (12) Feb 25, 2016
This is a ridiculous question. If for no other reason how many new areas of science were considered pseudo science before being accepted as science fact? More than a few.

Another reason pseudo-science should be investigated is science doesn't like uncomfortable facts when they don't fit into accepted ideas. If they are really uncomfortable they are ignored. Here is an example. I saw an article on the web a couple days ago, something about science looking into Hobbit skeletons I think and how they were uncomfortable because they are small. There's a video on Netflix about a small mummified thing less than a foot tall that looks like an alien and has been tested. It isn't a fake, a monkey, a child, a fetus, an animal or an amalgam. But it is so far from fitting into any accepted science it's completely ignored.
Thirteenth Doctor
5 / 5 (7) Feb 25, 2016
I think pseudo-science should always be investigated. We cannot allow the uneducated public to run away with it with no restrictions. Just look at the vaccine movement that was allowed to pervade society in 2007 by a playboy model. And if it turns out to be crankpot stuff, because lets face it, a lot of it is, then it is debunked and no one wastes their time.

What does waste time is not getting ahead of it and now you have to patch up years of misinformation and in some cases outright lies.
gkam
3.2 / 5 (12) Feb 25, 2016
We should have educated these folk in the first place.

Get religion and superstition out of our lives and replace it with character development and science, or we will not survive our own hubris.
Uncle Ira
4.3 / 5 (6) Feb 25, 2016
Ooohyeei, how pleased I was this morning to see this article with the picture of a couyon in him. Wearing one of the silly looking pointy caps I pass out. Made from aluminum wrap too, just for this article.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.6 / 5 (8) Feb 25, 2016
Sometimes it's rather hard to tell the difference.

Another independent ecat replication...

"[Excerpt from] MFMP Letter to Donors on LENR Replication:
"[condition 2;] Breakthrough Statistically significant emissions commensurate, correlating, or anti correlating to excess heat

"We are happy to tell you that we believe we have satisfied our condition 2, yet of course we'd like to replicate ourselves. Actually, though, it goes much further than that. What we will share is that the way in which we discovered it and the journey of analysis that makes it virtually impossible to say that Rossi does not have what he claims. It also shows that, whilst he may have been optimistic in how fast this would play out, he has been telling the truth, quite openly for years."
Thirteenth Doctor
4.7 / 5 (6) Feb 25, 2016
or we will not survive our own hubris.


Sometimes I think we our fate will be that of the people off that movie Idiosyncracy. We'll be watering our plants with gatorade.
TheGhostofOtto1923
4.3 / 5 (6) Feb 25, 2016
And there's the great and powerful wizard of plainsboro, Dr mills;

"Brilliant Light Power's January 28, 2016 Fourth Public Demonstration

"During the live demonstration Dr. Mills and his team of engineers successfully presented a working prototype SunCell® producing continuous high light power. During the event Dr. Mills shared historical and current details about the design of the SunCell® and its operation. The SunCell® is expected to be available for commercial use in 2017. Dr. Mills expects commercial units at volume to have a capital cost around $100 per kilowatt capacity. "

-As in working_prototype. Quite impressive actually.
TheGhostofOtto1923
4.1 / 5 (9) Feb 25, 2016
Sometimes I think we our fate will be that of the people off that movie Idiosyncracy. We'll be watering our plants with gatorade
-One of gkams favorite movies.
https://youtu.be/BBvIweCIgwk

-He views everybody this way while everybody views him this way.

Quite a conundrum.
wailuku1943
5 / 5 (4) Feb 25, 2016
Wait. I'm an anthropologist. There's considerable material about the "Hobbit" finds. "Uncomfortable" covers a lot of ground. In this case, the issues are fitting these hominins into what we already know. There are several reasonable possibilities. The hobbit case is politically complex (academic turf) but no one I know regards it as unsolvable. The issue is getting at the evidence.

The "thing" is ignored because it's obviously completely bogus -- insofar as being something that can't be explained. I looked at it a few years ago, and laughed.
Captain Stumpy
3.6 / 5 (7) Feb 25, 2016
or we will not survive our own hubris.


Sometimes I think we our fate will be that of the people off that movie Idiosyncracy. We'll be watering our plants with gatorade.
@13
https://en.wikipe...diocracy

i think you may have something, too.

the biggest problem is teaching children how to think critically... something that is NOT being taught with the standardized testing, IMHO... mostly because the bulk of teachers now simply teach the test and how to regurgitate answers vs critical thinking and research
this is also supported with this: http://phys.org/n...ate.html

http://www.austra...-change/

scary

another problem: validation
Scroofinator
5 / 5 (3) Feb 25, 2016
Of course, we applaud the motives of people who are driven to set the scientific record straight, and especially by those who are genuinely concerned about public welfare.

Certainly doesn't feel like it most of the time.
ogg_ogg
4.3 / 5 (3) Feb 25, 2016
Confused mumbo jumbo. You don't do ANYTHING to the "scientific record" by flaming some imbecilic TV show. Neither does it matter what "you" should decide about whether or how scientists repond to anything; unless "you" are the scientist in question. The Catalyst web site has commented on the Wi-Fried show and its critical negative reception, claiming it is not "settled science", etc. etc. This article completely fails to give a balanced appraisal of what is and is not relevant to this issue. The FIRST thing (imho) a "scientist" should determine is whether the specific production is attempting to make a "good faith effort" to be reasonably unbiased and factual. Its pretty obvious that in the case cited, the producers were not. Unless you sign an enforceable contract detailing your rights to allow (or prohibit) use of your interview, even "good faith" may not be enough.
Stevepidge
2 / 5 (4) Feb 25, 2016
We should have educated these folk in the first place.

Get religion and superstition out of our lives and replace it with character development and science, or we will not survive our own hubris.


Hubris... meet modern science.
Manfred Particleboard
3.4 / 5 (5) Feb 25, 2016
This program, which used to be a premiere science magazine has suffered the fate of '...it needs to be more accessible to the public..' to survive. It is produced by the National broadcaster the ABC and since the current government didn't like some of the views it and the other government body the Bureau of Meteorology were expressing, re climate science, there has been political pressure to toe the line or get axed.(http://www.thegua...inquiry)
It's an indictment of an era where a mouse click and 'common sense' is seen as equal to a science degree and years of hard work to have an opinion about the natural world.
torbjorn_b_g_larsson
5 / 5 (2) Feb 26, 2016
Nice article. If the Catalyst program is small/forgettable, it is likely waste or harmful to engage. On the other hand engaging main nuttery is likely useful, c.f. the mass of anecdote in Dawkins's Convert's Corner in the absence of statistics.

@Moebius: It is not ridiculous. You are using anecdote, from the time before science existed no less. (Newton ushered in experimental tests of well formulated theories.)

Also, there isn't any 'uncomfortable' facts, even if some can be in tension with existing theory for some reason or other. All facts are welcome. You use another anecdote there, by the way...
indio007
5 / 5 (2) Feb 26, 2016
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Long-term exposure of 2.4 GHz RF may lead to
adverse effects such as neurodegenerative diseases originated
from the alteration of some miRNA expression and more stud-
ies should be devoted to the effects of RF radiation on miRNA 555

International Journal of Radiation Biology
, July 2015; 91(7): 555–561
expression levels.

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