I wasn’t always a skeptic. Maybe I should rephrase that. I’ve probably always been a skeptic since a young age. It’s just that I didn’t start self-identifying as one until around 1998 or so. Oddly enough, my “gateway drug” into more organized skepticism was refuting Holocaust denial. I’ve told the tale on multiple occasions before, the first time on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz (nearly 12 years ago now), about how I first discovered Holocaust denial. I always encourage new readers to read the whole thing, but the CliffsNotes version is I encountered the ravings of a Holocaust denier who claimed that the Nazis were “conducting ethical medicine” at Auschwitz. (English was not his first language.)
My reaction, as you might imagine, was: WTF? Remember that Auschwitz-Birkenau was a combined death camp and concentration camp, where an estimated more than a million people met their ends, either by either by gassing, starvation, disease, or even twisted “medical” experiments. It was a place where untold thousands were subjected to starvation, overwork, and disease, with the intent of getting as much work as possible out of them before they died, while expending as little as possible in the way of food and other resources. This Holocaust denier then went on to tell stories of how when prisoners developed protein deficiency edema (kwashiorkor), the Nazis would pull the prisoner off work detail and force-feed them milk in order to nurse them back to health. Because of my longstanding interest in World War II history, I was immediately able to recognize these claims as complete and utter BS, and I plunged in to refute them. Thus started my path to where I am today. As an aside, I can’t help but note that, after I drifted away from writing much about Holocaust denial, I never expected that the knowledge I had acquired refuting Holocaust denial regarding neo-Nazis, white supremacists, white nationalists, and various assorted and far-right extremists would come in useful. Sadly, the rise of the alt-right and election of Donald Trump proved me wrong. I find myself using that knowledge every day again.
In any case, it didn’t take long for me to discover parts of the Internet where quackery reigned, and by 2000 or 2001 I was busily refuting medical pseudoscience, quackery, and, eventually, antivaccine pseudoscience on various Usenet message boards. From there, my interests broadened to evolution and conspiracy theories of all kinds, in other words, general skepticism. When I finally first started this blog, way back in 2004, there were lots of posts about evolution and topics other than medicine. Strangely enough, after a few years of a more general outlook, I found myself starting to specialize. There was no rhyme or reason to it. Certainly I didn’t make a conscious decision to go this way. Even so, over the last several years, I basically narrowed my focus almost exclusively to medicine, with a major focus on, of course, antivaccine pseudoscience. I’m not sure why that happened, but it did. Maybe I subconsciously just started to realize that medicine was what I was most interested in writing about and what I was best at.
You might ask at this point why I just spent over 500 words recounting a bit of my background, particularly when long time readers have probably heard it before at some point. I did it to put into context my reaction to an op-ed published in Nature by Phil Williamson, in which he argues that scientists should challenge online falsehoods and inaccuracies — and harness the collective power of the Internet to fight back:
With the election of Donald Trump, his appointment of advisers who are on record as dismissing scientific evidence, and the emboldening of deniers on everything from climate change to vaccinations, the amount of nonsense written about science on the Internet (and elsewhere) seems set to rise. So what are we, as scientists, to do?
Most researchers who have tried to engage online with ill-informed journalists or pseudoscientists will be familiar with Brandolini’s law (also known as the Bullshit Asymmetry Principle): the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than that needed to produce it. Is it really worth taking the time and effort to challenge, correct and clarify articles that claim to be about science but in most cases seem to represent a political ideology?
I think it is. Challenging falsehoods and misrepresentation may not seem to have any immediate effect, but someone, somewhere, will hear or read our response. The target is not the peddler of nonsense, but those readers who have an open mind on scientific problems. A lie may be able to travel around the world before the truth has its shoes on, but an unchallenged untruth will never stop.
Obviously, I agree with this wholeheartedly. I’ve written similar arguments myself, particularly about antivaccine pseudoscience. As I’ve pointed out more times than I can remember that my refutations of antivaccine misinformation are not aimed at the hard-core antivaccine activists. I know that the likelihood that I can change their mind is about as infinitesimally small as the amount of starting remedy left in a 30C homeopathic dilution. (See, you need to be a bit of a skeptic to get that simile.) Hard core purveyors of pseudoscience and misinformation have too much of their identity tied up in their beliefs to change. It’s like religion; change, when it comes, usually comes as a result of a personal epiphany due to a life event or, as was the case for Jim Laidler, a gradual accumulation of information or events capped off by an observation that he could not ignore. No, my posts are aimed at the fence-sitters or the vaccine-averse who aren’t too far gone down the rabbit hole of quackery and pseudoscience, such as parents who have encountered antivaccine misinformation and, even if they didn’t necessarily accept it, were sufficiently frightened by it to consider not vaccinating.
However, when I first saw this post a week ago, I found myself thinking something and wanted to blog about it. Unfortunately, I was in San Antonio for the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium last week, and, as a result I missed a day or two of posts, and by the time I found a bit of time to blog again, other things interested me. Then Steve Novella referenced Williamson’s article, in essence “welcoming” scientists to the skeptical movement, with a hint of snark in the welcome. The reason, of course, is that Steve, as is usually the case, didn’t miss a problem with the post, the same problem I noticed. Basically, Williamson seemed blithely and utterly unaware that one of the solutions he was advocating was nothing new, namely his suggestion that scientists engage with and refute online nonsense. Worse, he seemed utterly unaware that there is already a group of scientists who are trying to do just that and even less aware of why so few scientists do it.
Yes, as Steve pointed out, it’s called the skeptical movement.
Apparently, Williamson’s version of my discovery of Holocaust denial was this:
Earlier this year, I had a run-in with Breitbart News — the libertarian website made infamous by the appointment of its former senior executive Stephen Bannon as Trump’s chief strategist. It followed an article in The Spectator that criticized research on ocean acidification and contained several inaccuracies, written by James Delingpole, who also edits Breitbart London. To give an idea of the standard of discussion, Delingpole argued that there has been no long-term reduction in ocean pH levels and that future climate change would cause the release of carbon dioxide from the ocean. Acidification is therefore a non-problem invented by ‘climate alarmists’ because there is insufficient evidence for global warming.
I coordinated the UK research programme on ocean acidification and have been involved in national and international evidence assessments. There are genuine scientific uncertainties, but those were not the issues raised by The Spectator. When I complained to the magazine, no acknowledgement was received. I then published a rebuttal in The Marine Biologist, which prompted Delingpole to write on the Breitbart site that my work should be squashed like a slug.
Of course, the situation in the UK with respect to journalism is different than in the US. There is a UK Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) to which Williamson could complain, and he did. He hasn’t received a verdict yet. There’s no equivalent organization in the US or in most other countries, and even in the UK, as Williamson recognizes, and even the ISPO can’t control blogs.
Here’s the thing. I entirely support finding ways to get more scientists involved in the effort to combat the tide of science denialism. However, there are major impediments to this effort. First and foremost, professionally, there’s little or no reward for science communication and skeptical activism. Quite the contrary, in fact. Like Steve, I’ve encountered more senior academics who don’t think it’s worth it to confront pseudoscience, that “sinking to their level” only sullies an academic. While it’s not unreasonable to be a bit concerned that wrestling with pigs in mud only results in your getting dirty and the pig liking it, that’s not reason enough to refrain from the fray. Unfortunately, it also doesn’t help that, with few exceptions, there is little or no academic benefit to be had from communicating science and engaging in skeptical activism. It becomes a zero sum game. Time spent confronting misinformation of the sort that Williamson did is time taken away from doing research, teaching, and, of course, writing grant applications to fund one’s laboratory.
I just don’t think Williamson knows enough about what he’s talking about. For instance, he suggests a massive online campaign:
The global scientific community could learn from websites such as travel-review site TripAdvisor, Rotten Tomatoes (which summarizes film and play reviews) and alexa.com (which quantifies website popularity), and set up its own, moderated, rating system for websites that claim to report on science. We could call it the Scientific Honesty and Integrity Tracker, and give online nonsense the SHAIT rating it deserves.
It sounds as though Williamson has never heard of existing online efforts, e.g., Guerrilla Skeptics on Wikipedia, where skeptics try to assure that information on Wikipedia, at least, is accurate. Then there are all the blogs, websites, podcasts, and other publicaitons that seek to do just that. What Williamson proposes could potentially be a useful addition to existing online efforts, but it would just be an addition.
Then there’s the abuse scientists can expect if they go against pseudoscience. As far as consequences go, on more than one occasion, antivaccinationists and other quacks have tried to get me fired from my job, starting a mere five months after I first launched this blog and continuing to this year, when uber-quack (and, not coincidentally, Donald Trump supporter and rising star in the alt-right) Mike Adams launched a several month long campaign of 34 defamatory posts about me over a three month period. Worse, he took highly intentional pains to attack my cancer center as well. It was clearly an intentional attempt either to goad me into suing him (he showed up in the comments of one of my posts a while back chuckling about “discovery”) or, failing that, to destroy my Google reputation, something he’s close to accomplishing—or would have, were it not for my Wikipedia entry and this page. Four years ago, antivaccine activists deluged the board of governors of my university with e-mails and calls demanding that they “do something” about me. Suffice to say that my science communication and skeptical activism are more tolerated than celebrated around my university, and I’m grateful for that. Universities have an inherent bias towards academic freedom. If I worked for a private company, I probably would have been forced to withdraw from the fray long ago, lest I lose my livelihood.
Of course, I’m not alone. Steve’s been the subject of a frivolous lawsuit, and I’ve encountered legal threats as well (in one instance, from an unexpected source). I know of many other skeptics who’ve encountered the same sort of attacks. As Steve points out, there are vested interests for whom vested the scientific consensus on many issues is…inconvenient. If you go up against them you do risk being attacked. Hell, I couldn’t believe it the first time a quack (William O’Neill) tried to get me fired, way back in 2005. Basically, what I couldn’t believe was that anyone would consider me important enough to take a run at through my work. Remember, that was back when my traffic was a fraction of what it is now, my real name was largely unknown, and I had basically very little prominence in the blogosphere or skeptical community.
There’s also another issue. I discovered this very, very early on combatting Holocaust denial. It’s not enough to know the science (or history). You have to know the pseudoscience (or pseudohistory) inside and out. You have to know how science has been twisted, the studies that pseudoscientists will reference, and how they will misrepresent them. You have to be prepared for the Gish gallup, in which random studies and “facts” that aren’t are thrown at you so fast that you spend more time refuting them than making your argument. It takes a special skill set to combat pseudoscience and science denialism, and few academics have it. I certainly didn’t in 1998, before I encountered that Holocaust denier. It took me years to acquire the skills before I started this blog. I’m still learning now, after all these years. It’s not as easy as it looks, but some academics like Williamson seem to think they can just jump into the fray. Don’t get me wrong. I welcome him, but preparation is needed beforehand.
Before that can happen, academia must change, as Steve points out:
What we need now is for academia to institutionally wake up. Individuals are welcome, but that is not enough. The institutions of academia need to place a priority on outreach to the public, on engaging with the public conversation, pushing back against pseudoscience, communicating real science, and advocating for higher standards in science news reporting.
This is, in my opinion, a massive problem faced by academia and they are currently failing. Fully engaging with social media is one thing they can do. Fixing their own PR departments is another. Educating scientists on how to communicate with the public, and how to confront pseudoscience, is yet another. Systematically correcting the public record on what is the current consensus of scientific opinion is also critical, as is getting more involved in science education at every level.
Scientists need to be out there, in force, confronting politicians who are advocating pseudoscience, publicly exposing them, and setting the record straight.
More importantly, there need to be professional incentives for scientists to do this. In particular, there need to be ways for such activity to be quantified, just like other academic activity, and for it to count towards promotion and tenure. I know of one department of surgery that has started to count social media engagement towards promotion and tenure.
One area that I don’t think Steve addressed enough in his post is that there is peril in scientists becoming too activist, and that’s the politicization of science, where scientists are no longer viewed as “above the fray” or interested only in science. Another peril is that politicians, confronted with scientists debunking their denialism, could turn hostile, threatening science funding. Of course, that’s already happening to some extent. Strike that, it’s happening a lot, and, with the rise of Donald Trump, his conspiracy-mongering and antivaccine beliefs, it’s likely to get worse, particularly given how the rise of fake news makes it easy for misinformation to go viral.
Has the game truly changed in a way so fundamental that academia needs to change radically to confront pseudoscience and misinformation? I don’t think anything happened in 2016 that didn’t represent the continuation of a trend that reaches back many years, if not decades. It’s good that a scientist like Williamson recognized it and was able to publish an op-ed in a scientificjournal as high impact as Nature advocating action. It’s a start, but it’s nowhere near enough.