Note: This is part 6 in a series for high school students about reading and interpreting science on the internet. Read the intro and get the index here, or go back to part 5 here.
Okay, I’ll be honest here: this part is one of the hardest parts of my talk to cover. The issue I’m going to talk about here is another framing issue, and it has to do with what experts get quoted on what issues and in what proportions. This is a huge issue open to broad interpretations and many legitimate approaches, so I’m going to intentionally tread lightly here. A large amount about what you feel is deceptive here will depend on what you already believe. Additionally, when I cover this in the classroom, I have a pretty good idea that there won’t be any raging conspiracy theorists seating in the seats. Not so on the internet. I’ve been blogging off and on for about a decade now, and you would not believe how many people do key word searches so they can pop in and spew their theories….so forgive me if I speak in generalities. Oh yes, it’s the controversial issue of:
Experts and Balance
Okay, so what’s the problem here?
The problem, in general, is a public misunderstanding about how science works. Not everyone is a scientist, and that’s okay. We often rely on experts to interpret information for us. This is also okay. In the age of the internet though, almost anyone can find an expert or two to back up their own view. Everyone wants to be the first to break a story, and much can get lost in the rush to be on top of the latest and greatest thing. Like, you know, evidence.
Okay, so what kinds of things should we be looking out for?
Well, there are two sides to this coin. The classic logical fallacy here is argumentum ad verecundiam, or “argument from authority”. Kinda like this guy:
…though my three year old tells me he’s pretty cool. In all seriousness though, “TV doctors” love to get up and use their credentials to emphasize their points. Their reach can be enormous, but research has found that over half the claims of people like Dr Oz are either totally unsubstantiated or flat out contradicted by the evidence. Just because someone has a certain set of credentials doesn’t mean they’re always right.
So if the popular credentialed people aren’t always right, then good old common sense can guide us right? No, sadly, that’s not true either. The flip side of arguing from authority is “appeal to the common man”, where you respect someone’s opinion because they’re not an authority. For medicine you frequently hear this as “the secret doctors don’t want you to know!” or “my doctor said my child was ______, but as a mother my heart knew that was wrong” (side note: remember that mother’s who turn out to be wrong almost never get interviewed). For some people, this type of argument is even stronger than the one above….but that doesn’t mean it’s not fallacious.
So basically, the water gets really murky because almost anyone can claim to know stuff, cant throw out credentials that may or may not be valid or relevant, can throw out research that may or may not be valid, and otherwise sound very compelling. Yeesh.
Complicating matters even further is the idea of balance and false balance. Balance is when a reporter/news cast presents two opposing sides and gives them both time to state their case. False balance is when you give two wildly unequal sides the same amount of time.
All of this can seem pretty reasonable when it comes to hotly debated topics, like say, nutrition and what we should be eating. If you want to pit the FDA vs Gary Taubes vs Carbsane, I will watch the heck out of that. But there are other issues where the debate gets a little harrier, and the stakes get much higher….like say criminal trials. Do you want a psychic on the stand getting time to explain why they think you’re a murderer? Do you want them getting as much time as the forensics experts who say you aren’t?
At some point we have to say it….science does back up certain opinions more than others, and some experts are more reliable than others. Where you draw the line, sadly, probably depends on what you already believe about the topic.
Why do we fall for this stuff?
Well, partially because we should. On the whole, experts are probably a pretty good bet when it comes to most scientific matters. They may be wrong at times (just ask Barry Marshall), but I have a lot of faith in science on the whole to move forward and self correct. The scientific process is quite literally mans attempt to correct for all of our fallacies in order to move forward based on reality. It’s a lofty goal, and we’re not always perfect, but it’s start. We listen to experts because as people with more training, more experience and more context than us actually do frequently do better at controlling their biases.
On the other hand, those of us who have been burned might start to love the anti-hero instead. The idea that a lone wolf can take on the establishment is so cool! Because truthfully sometimes the establishment sucks. People are misdiagnosed, treated rudely, and otherwise incorrectly cast aside. Sometimes “crazy” ideas do turn out to be right. Being a contrarian isn’t always the worst way to go….as my favorite George Bernard Shaw quote says “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Every progress maker is a bit unreasonable at times.
So what can we do about it?
So I may have made it sound like it’s not possible to know anything. That’s not true. Science is awesome, but you have to do a little work to figure out what’s going on. So if you really care about an issue, do a little homework. Read the best and brightest minds that defend the side you don’t agree with. Don’t just read what your side says the other side is saying, read the other side. Read the best of what they have to offer….but check their sources. If they prove to be not-credible on one topic, treat them with suspicion going forward. Scientists should not have to play fast and loose with the truth to get where they need to go. Be suspicious of anyone who does this. Beware of anything that sounds too neat, too clean, too cutting edge. Science and proof move slowly.
Also, follow the money….but remember that works both ways. I work in oncology and there are people who will tell you the treatments we offer are crap and that they have better ones. Evidence to the contrary is dismissed as us not wanting to lose our money. However, the people making these claims frequently make 10 to 20 times what our doctors make. They throw out numbers that represent our whole hospital, while neglecting to mention that their personal income far exceeds any individual employee we have. People make tons of money peddling alternatives.
And if all else fails, just ask a math teacher:
No one’s questioning that a2 + b2 = c2 stuff. Well, except this guy.
Alright, that’s it for part 6….see you next week for part 7! Read Part 7 here.
One thought on “Proof: Using Facts to Deceive (Part 6)”
Experts make a different sort of mistake than well-meaning amateurs, and both are different than truculent amateurs.
All can fall prey to a plausible Theory, which prevents them from seeing new data clearly. If I were to attempt to describe it in an image, it would be that all of them are _equally_ capable of ignoring the elephant in the room. But experts don’t usually ignore multiple elephants, or an elephant plus a coupla rhinos or whatever. The amateurs might. Also, the experts often collect a lot of useful information on the way, so that even when their house of cards collapses, there are still cards that we can use.
Mostly by accident, I have watched the prevailing narrative collapse, or partially collapse in a number of fields: causes of mental illness, heritability of intelligence, baseball lineup strategy, the stability of the USSR, time-depth of linguistic relatedness, the food pyramid, and a couple of things I don’t mention publicly. Yet even if I were to strain and discover twice that number of places the experts were wrong, that is only a fraction of areas overturned. Experts in plumbing, in near-distance astronomy, in nuclear fusion, in geology, in food preservation, and a hundred other fields have turned out to be spot on.
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