What a lot of it boils down to when it comes to antiscience

After a long run of arguing against global warming and indoor smoking bans, it appears that our favorite Libertarian comic with a penchant for bad arguments and ad hominem attacks on scientists has temporarily left the field of blog combat in a huff of “giving up” that reminds me of a certain Black Knight telling a certain King that he’s not beaten and that it’s “just a flesh wound.” I’m not worried; I’m sure he’ll be back whenever he returns from his vacation to speak for himself. In the meantime, while the blog silence is golden, I’d like to step back a minute. I don’t want to rehash old arguments or beat up on Tim scientifically or intellectually any more (well, not any more than necessary for my purpose here, although I’m sure he won’t see it that way and will think I’m being a “bully” again), because Tim Slagle’s forays into the comments of this blog and his posts on the topics of global warming and secondhand smoke started to remind me of something, and this realization led me to see a possible pattern that perhaps I hadn’t seen quite as clearly before, a pattern that could well be generalizable to many forms of antiscientific arguments.

As much as I hate to say it, they reminded me of creationists and alties.

Tim is nowhere near alone in the use of these sorts of fallacies, and, unfortunately, nowhere near the worst offender. Indeed, to be fair, I will point out that I know for a fact that Tim is not a creationist, and I’m pretty sure he’s not an altie (although, given his Libertarian tendencies, I can’t help but wonder what his stance is on requiring vaccination before children can attend public schools). Also, to be fair, I need to point out that, although the science showing that secondhand smoke is harmful is generally a well-accepted scientific consensus, it is still nowhere near as settled as the science of evolution, which is so strong that it is given the scientific honorific of being called a theory. Similarly , while the scientific consensus behind global warming appears to be stronger than than that of SHS, but it too is still not as well established as the theory of evolution. But, then, few things in science are. Even so, the sorts of arguments that Tim made regarding both global warming and SHS, especially towards the end of our little exchange, really did echo similar arguments made by creationists and alties.

Tim assures us that he is not antiscience and that in fact he really, really likes science. I’ll once again give him some credit for accepting that science does indeed support the contention that prolonged exposure to SHS is harmful to health. However, what really seems to be the case is that he likes science until it tells him something he doesn’t want to hear. The parallels to creationism and alternative medicine are hard to ignore. Moreover, despite his claims otherwise, Tim really has a major bug up his butt about scientists and physicians, particularly those who tell him that SHS is harmful and that indoor smoking bans are worthwhile to protect workers in bars and restaurants, so much so that he says some rather offensive things about them. For example, here’s a comment directed at me about scientists said this about scientists who argue that something needs to be done about greenhouse gases or secondhand smoke:

My speculation is, that smart kids who are bullied in school, grow up to be bullies themselves. Only, they become intellectual bullies. My liberal use of insults on stage is one symptom of that syndrome. Your need to publish the response to my question on your blog, without even asking me if I would mind, is another…Such behavior is indicative of someone still hurting from those dodgeball welts. I think perhaps, the reason you didn’t find the bit funny. is because it made those welts sting again. Your remark about getting laid a lot, doesn’t do much to alleviate my suspicions either.


I think some scientists might also harbor a version of the Bureaucrat Complex. I think when a person spends too much time in the laboratory, he starts looking at everything as a lab experiment. People become less like individuals, and more like figures on a report, that can emotionlessly be pushed around to achieve a favorable result. So what if a few people lose their livelihoods, if it will marginally increase public health?

So, not only are scientists power-hungry, but we have no empathy either. I do applaud Tim, however, for refraining from mentioning Nazi doctors such as Josef Mengele. It must have taken enormous self-control, and I am suitably impressed. However, this seems to be what really galls:

Just in case any of you missed it, I spent the better part of last week trying to teach some science geeks about how business works. Turns out they don’t care. Perhaps their youthful forays into Dungeons and Dragons have reinforced their confidence at role playing, and they now believe they can do anything.

i-0d485d78134474556a7f6f682c19f2f5-ogre01.jpgI find that last remark quite amusing to contemplate when Tim claims that I somehow misrepresented his whole “revenge of the nerds” argument about “bullied” geeks who couldn’t cut it on the dodgeball court now using their newfound powers for the nefarious purpose of depriving smokers of their puffs in bars and keeping rich people from driving SUVs and building energy-wasting McMansions. If anything, I think I represented him quite accurately, particularly his stage routine, which, as we’ve discovered in his blog posts, is consistent with his core beliefs.

But perhaps here’s what’s most telling:

What I’ve been saying, is that kids who grew up being bullied, sometimes grow into adulthood with a tendency to bully. The fabled Napoleon Complex is one example of this phenomenon. The way I got treated by scientists, for suggesting that a bicycle emits the same amount of CO2 per mile as a Moped was another. (I still have a few bruises, from what happened on THAT playground.)

And there you have it. Tim doesn’t like having it driven home in no uncertain terms that he didn’t know what he was talking about when it came to basic chemistry and thermodynamics in the post in question. An all too human trait, he doesn’t like being told that an assertion of his regarding science is, quite simply, wrong. Moreover, although a few commenters were a bit hard on Tim, it’s easy to understand why, given the analogy that he used. However, some commenters were quite patient with him. (Indeed, one in particular showed the proverbial patience of a saint in explaining the errors in Tim’s science.) Although he ultimately admitted that relative risks less than 2 are not automatically to be ignored and that science does support the contention that health risks from SHS are real, he clearly bristled at having to admit that, just as he bristled when it was pointed out that his parroting of right wing talking points about Al Gore were based on misrepresentations. When backed into a corner and forced to admit that the science supports these points, the prime reason for not liking the conclusions of science surfaces:

Actually, I am anti regulation, and anytime somebody tells me that science has proven a need to regulate my life, I get really suspicious.

In other words, he doesn’t like us pencil-necked geek scientists telling him what to do, and he frames the debate almost entirely in terms of personalities, rather than facts, in terms of a lust for power, rather than science:

On the other side of the debate, is a motivation far more insidious. It is a desire for power. Many people who see the debate as manipulated solely by tobacco money, never look at that angle, nor recognize that for some, power is far more seductive than profit. There was a very power-hungry person, who once advocated smoke free workplaces. He is the one who cannot be named. (Not because there are dark powers associated with the name, it is because current protocol dictates that the first person to invoke his name, automatically loses the debate … spend a little time playing with you Googler, and I’m sure you’ll figure it out.) But I think it’s no coincidence that one of the worlds’ most infamous megalomaniacs, didn’t want people smoking around him.

Ah, yes, argumentum ad Nazi-um! Just like our creationist friends like to use! But, leaving the Nazi analogies aside, let’s compare Tim’s words to what our old “friend,” the creationist neurosurgeon with a considerably bigger penchant for bad argument and a real love of pseudoscience, Dr. Michael Egnor said about scientists in his most recent column for the house propaganda organ for the Discovery Institute:

What arrogance. Dunford and his colleagues in the evolutionary-thought-police have enjoyed a federally enforced monopoly on biology education for 50 years. It’s a federal crime to question Darwin’s theory in a public school.

Of course, it’s a load of crap to claim that it’s a federal crime to question Darwin’s theory. In reality, it’s a federal crime to teach a religious doctrine (creationism and its “intelligent design” variant) as science. Next, look at Robert Crowther’s whine about “Darwinists”:

You seldom see this kind of arrogance outside of academia. And you would never see scientists making such proclamations to the general public. Or to doctors. Not if they didn’t want it noted on their permanent record.

The bottom line for Reuland and other dogmatic Darwinists is that scientists are Darwinists because they’re smarter than you. And biologists are more likely to be Darwinists because they’re even smarter than other scientists.

I see echoes of the “arrogance” of scientists and the “it’s all about power” canard coming through loud and clear from the “intelligent design” movement. But what about the alternative medicine movement? Of course, in that movement, it’s all about “health freedom,” very much as the anti-smoking ban activists paint the issue as a matter of the “freedom” of bar owners to allow smoking. (I wonder if they would support the “freedom” of factory owners to choose not to use pollution controls, or, to go further back into the mists of time, the “freedom” to use child labor. But I digress.) Modern medicine, just like “Darwinists” and those nasty scientists saying that global warming is a problem, are “tyrants”–like Napoleon, or even Darth Vader, perhaps:

When studying the actions of the FDA, the American Medical Association, the American Cancer Society and the behavior of doctors, medical journals and drug companies, the phrase “evil empire” quickly comes to mind. Modern medicine is a medical racket, a drug monopoly and disease treatment scam that has been foisted upon the people of western nations (America, Canada, United Kingdom, etc.) in order to maximize corporate profits.

And the FDA has become the Darth Vader of the empire, using the power of the dark side to inflict pain and destruction upon its enemies in its quest to become the dominate power center of all things related to health…

In all, the FDA is very much like Darth Vader: powerful, corrupt, evil-minded and willing to destroy anything in its quest for ultimate power over consumers. In Star Wars, Darth Vader promised to “bring order to the universe” through oppression, intimidation and control. The FDA appears to be protecting Big Pharma by using the very same tactics.

You know, you could substitute “Darwinists” trying to “suppress” religion and seeking to become the “power center of all things related to biology” or “smoking Nazis” trying to prevent bar owners from letting their patrons have a smoke (in order to protect big pharma’s sales of nicotine patches, ironically enough according to some) or “global warming fanatics” trying to dictate what sorts of cars that we can drive. Often, such attitudes are reinforced by vigorous well-financed campaigns, something that is especially true of global warming “skepticism” and, to a lesser extent, in “intelligent design.”

The reason that these arguments succeed is that scientists are human, too. Thus you can always find arrogant scientists or doctors. Moreover, each of these issues does to some extent or other involve a power struggle between science and a belief system that does not like what science is telling it. In the case of creationism, it’s religion fighting against the science that is telling it that the creation myth of an ancient text is not true or, in the case of “intelligent design” that the claims that evolution cannot account for the diversity of life and hence a designer who may or may not be God (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) must be involved. In the case of alternative medicine, it’s that dastardly scientific medicine telling “empathetic” healers that their “healing” doesn’t work when subjected to rigorous scientific testing, even though confirmation bias and a number of other biases allow these “healers” to believe honestly that it does. In other words, it’s the personal against the cold, unfeeling scientific. In the case of global warming, it’s portrayed as science saying that human industry and automobiles are causing a problem on a planetary scale; in other words, science versus free enterprise. In the case of secondhand smoke, it’s scientists telling bar owners and smokers that their habit harms more than just the person puffing on the cigarette and that workers shouldn’t have to subject themselves to that risk as a condition of employment; in other words, science versus freedom itself!

i-ecc52440c6f64c89a4793eedfb807f32-trekkie_nerds.jpgOnce science is framed as nothing more than a power struggle or, even worse, nothing more than scientists wanting to impose their will on the populace, then it’s natural to wonder what the motivation is behind the lust for power. In the case of evolution, such motivation is easily caricatured atheism leading to hatred of religion and the desire to destroy it by proving that a creator was not necessary to generate the diversity of life. In the case of global warming, the motivation is often portrayed as that of ultraleftists who hate free enterprise and want to bring industry under state control, using global warming as the cudgel to do it. In the case of alternative medicine, it’s arrogant doctors and greedy pharmaceutical companies that can’t stand the competition by “cures” not controlled by them. I think you get the picture. I’ll actually tip my hat to Tim for coming up with a motivation for this “arrogance” and “lust for power” gambit that is a favorite of deniers of science that I had never heard used before by anyone, that of geeks growing up to be scientists and using science to get even.

Of course, there is a continuum here. Evolutionary theory is clearly so overwhelmingly supported by the evidence that there really is no question of tradeoffs to accept anything less than what science says about it. The same is true of many varieties of alternative medicine, such as homeopathy or the Hoxsey therapy, both of which don’t work and are nothing but quackery, while some other alternative treatments (such as some herbs) may have some value. There is a middle ground, tenuous as it may be. However, when it comes to global warming or banning indoor smoking, there are real tradeoffs to discuss. For example, how much economic pain are we willing to endure to forestall human-caused climate change? In the case of smoking bans, is a total ban necessary to protect workers? How much should a bar owner’s freedom to run his bar as he sees fit be constrained in order to protect workers from SHS? The problem is that the ad hominem approach doesn’t address any of those questions. Of course, it’s not meant to. It’s meant to turn science into a question of personality (and, more importantly, personality flaws) rather than conclusions based on evidence, facts, and the scientific method. It’s a blatant appeal to emotion, rather than to rational thought. That’s probably why it works all too well.

So, to bring things back full circle, I have a word of friendly advice for Tim. As long as he sticks to discussing the balance between the consequences and benefits of acting on what science tells us about human-caused global warming or prolonged exposure to secondhand smoke, he can come up with reasonable (or at least semireasonable) arguments, as long as he acknowledges data from the other side and doesn’t use dubious studies and sources to support them, we can have a respectful, even if sometimes heated dialogue. After all, even I realize that there are real tradeoffs involved in acting on the science of either of these issues. However, when Tim starts attacking motivation (scientists as frustrated geeks wanting revenge, as power-hungry, or as viewing humans as research subjects), making cracks about Dungeons & Dragons, or ranting about being oppressed, particularly when he couples such “arguments” with dubious scientific assertions, he should not be surprised to find himself being lumped together with cranks and denialists such as creationists or alties. Use crank arguments frequently enough, and, sooner or later, you start to become a crank. Besides, the motivations of scientists, even if Tim’s overblown caricatures were true, are pretty much irrelevant to the scientific questions being debated. Contrary to some popular misunderstandings, science is not a democracy, nor does scientific understanding rise or fall based on the personalities of the people doing science.