Saturday, May 15, 2010

Deniers and sceptics

“If today you can take a thing like xxxxxxxx and make it a crime to teach it in the public schools, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools, and next year you can make it a crime to teach it in the church. At the next session you can ban books and the newspapers. Ignorance and fanaticism are ever busy… After a while it is the setting of man against man, creed against creed, until the flying banners and beating drums are marching backwards to the glorious ages of the 16th century when bigots lighted fagots to burn the man who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightenment and culture to the human mind.”

This is the speech of Clarence Darrow in the Scopes trial in Tennessee in 1925. Darrow was speaking against the censorship of evolution in public schools. I wonder if today he would make the same speech against those who want to ban the teaching of Intelligent Design.

I am quoting from a series of articles in New Scientist looking at the difference between Deniers and Sceptics.

Here is the distinction that they make: Scepticism is integral to the scientific process, because most claims turn out to be false. Weeding out the few kernels of wheat from the large pile of chaff requires extensive observation, careful experimentation and cautious inference. Science is scepticism and good scientists are sceptical.

Denial is different. It is the automatic gainsaying of a claim regardless of the evidence for it – sometimes even in the teeth of evidence. Denialism is typically driven by ideology or religious belief, where the commitment to the belief takes precedence over the evidence. Belief comes first, reasons for belief follow, and those reasons are winnowed to ensure that the belief survives intact.

I think that this distinction is too clear cut. Most of us have a belief system that takes a lot of evidence to shake. Many scientists hold on to their beliefs despite convincing evidence that they are wrong. Einstein was ridiculed at first because his ideas contradicted the set Newtonian ideas.

New Scientist identifies seven areas of denial:

Holocaust denial - the assertion that 6 million Jews did not die in concentration camps under the Nazis.
Tobacco denial - the assertion that smoking does not cause lung cancer.
AIDS denial - denying that HIV causes AIDS.
9/11 denial - the assertion that the CIA was responsible for or complicit in the destruction of the twin towers in New York.
Vaccine denial - the idea that vaccines either do not work or are harmful (MMR and autism is a version of this)
Evolution denial - the idea that species did not arise by gradual change from a primordial soup.
Climate change denial - the idea that global warming (1) isn't real (2) isn't caused by humans or (3) doesn't matter.

It seems to me that these denials are by no means of the same order. Holocaust denial involves denying an historical event for which there is much eye-witness testimony. It is certainly true that others besides Jews perished in the concentration camps - homosexuals, Gypsies and the mentally retarded also perished and some Slavs and prisoners of war were also unlawfully murdered by the Nazis. Perhaps 6 million is an inaccurate estimate, but the numbers were very great and even if it were as few as one million (which I think is highly unlikely), the crime would be no less.

9/11 denial is again an historical event which almost everybody watched on television. The idea that it was an Israeli/American plot seems to be so far fetched as to be risible.

Denial that tobacco smoking causes lung cancer flies in the face of epidemiological evidence. Sir Richard Doll, who originally found the link in 1951 was himself a smoker and was looking to air pollution as the cause. He was shocked by his findings and stopped smoking immediately. His data have been confirmed many times since. The evidence against second hand smoke is much less convincing, but I think it is probably correct. Elements of tobacco smoke are certainly carcinogenic in the laboratory, though so is money. Dollar bills sown into the peritoneum of rats led to cancer in one study. Laboratory evidence of carcinogenesis is less reliable that epidemiological evidence.

The original opposition to vaccines came from Jenner's rivals who had a vested interest in the rival technique of variolation. There has always been a strong objection to all forms of vaccination in certain quarters, though goodness knows why, since its benefits are plain to see. All forms of vaccination carry a small risk, but the benefit far outweighs the risk for the population as a whole, though not for the individual who develops encephalitis. Perhaps the idea of the one being risked for the benefit of the many is anathema to people of certain political beliefs. The MMR scam was centered around a particular supposed risk of a specific vaccine. It had the backing of a respected journal (though with a recently appointed showman editor).

Although the theory of evolution has lots of evidence in favour, it depends for its credence the belief that we are not here through supernatural means. A supernatural creation (whether the Mosaic version or another) is not testable by natural means and is therefore beyond science. There are however, a couple of unanswerable criticisms of the neo-Darwinist position. One is how evolution is supposed to have avoided the Second Law of Thermodynamics, since however you look at it, entropy appears to have decreased without any input except raw energy. The second problem is that of irreducible complexity. Supposed gradual improvements occurring by mutation are only improvements in survival if other mutations occur simultaneously – sometimes in a different species. There are many examples of this in nature. It may be that explanations will be forthcoming, but as it stands the attempt to keep God out of it has enormous lacunae.

So called climate deniers seem much more like sceptics to me. The IPCC and its supporters have shot themselves in the foot recently with the East Anglian e-mails and the Himalayan glaciers. It will not do to simply disparage critics by alleging that they are in the pay of big business. It seems to me that the oil companies are backing both sides against the middle. It hardly matters that there is no peer-reviewed literature against the AGW position when there seems to have been a concerted effort by peer reviewers to exclude it.

Most of us are not experts in climate science, but most of us have a good nose for bs. Something about the orthodox position does not smell right.

In science, it is not satisfactory to dismiss one’s critics as heretics. Time after time a new development in science has been held at bay by the old guard.

When I was a young doctor I saw a patient with acute lymphoblastic leukemia who had a Philadelphia chromosome. At that time it was a matter of dogma that the Philadelphia chromosome only occurred in chronic myeloid leukemia, though it would be retained when that disease transformed into acute myeloid leukemia. My case would have involved a paradigm shift, so I took the slides to a Cambridge professor in the hope that he would confirm my findings. He told me that I was in error. This could not be lymphoblastic leukemia because the Philadelphia chromosome only occurred in myeloid tumors.

It was only a couple of years later that it was recognized that the Philadelphia chromosome does indeed occur in acute lymphoblastic leukemia – indeed it is quite common and the main cause of drug resistance. That case made me into a sceptic. I don’t believe experts. The motto of the Royal Society is "nullius in verba" meaning "Take nobody's word for it". So, don't be cowed into believing what the experts tell you. The definition of an expert is - 'ex' = a has been; 'spurt' = a drip under pressure.

Addendum 16th May: Since posting this I have been sent by anonymice links to several Holocaust revisionist sites. I may have hinted that I don't take all the Holocaust propaganda as true, but I don't doubt that there were concentration camps in which millions of Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, homosexuals and mentally retarded individuals died. Some certainly died of typhus and malnutrition - the Belsen film shows this - and I am not getting into the argument on how others died. I decline to publish the links on this site. Thank you for the opportunity, but, no. Start your own blog.


Anonymous said...

Interesting post.

I do believe that evolution is a fact. Since characteristics are carried by genes, and those genes are inheritable, traits can be passed along.

If evironmental factors change, say it gradually becomes colder and colder, as it has in Antarctica, creatures adapt or perish. I doubt that you disagree. Dinosaurs, which have in the past lived on Antarctica, do not live there now. They perished. Certain fish that live there now have a biologic antifreeze, as it were, in their tissues which enable them to survive in frigid waters. They have survived. Arctic foxes develop a white winter coat to enhance survival in the winter in the far north.

The Great Auk was hunted to extinction in the 19th century (sadly). They did not adapt to man's presence, and vanished.

Probably the best example are infectious agents and cancer. Treatment may kill many, but those that survive may develop resistance to the drug. The off-spring of those drug-resistant cells persist and can grow in spite of therapy, thus frustrating the therapist as well as the patient.

Ergo, evolution exists.

I don't view this as incompatable with a belief in God.

Terry Hamblin said...

What you describe is survival of the fittest amongst great extinctions. I don't have any problem about that. Survival of the fittest is really a tautology - those that are fittest to survive will survive. Of course they will. The fossil record tells us and even human history tells us that species that once lived on the earth no longer do so. Great extinctions have certainly occurred. What these two observations do not tell us is anything about evolution, only about devolution. This is the second law of thermodynamics in action.

Burke said...

Just think. If you had no public schools and all education were private, you would have no issues like evolution in public schools. People could send their children to schools that taught them what they wanted them to be taught.

The whole idea of "public property" is a contradiction, as the right of property is, by its nature, private.

Most so called "public property" is really nothing but loot, property taken from those who produce it by govt force to be used for the supposed public good.

But the "public good," as the phrase is most often used today, is just the "good" of looters, attained by govt committed robbery.

People squabbling over the use of public property are like bank robbers arguing over who is entitled to the biggest part of their haul.