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How do scientists become cranks and doctors quacks?

As a physician and scientists who’s dedicated his life to the application of science to the development of better medical treatments, I’ve often wondered how formerly admired scientists and physicians fall into pseudoscience or even generate into out-and-out cranks. Examples are numerous and depressing to contemplate. For example, there’s Linus Pauling, a highly respected chemist and Nobel Laureate, who in his later years became convinced that high dose vitamin C could cure cancer. Indeed, Pauling’s belief that high dose vitamin C could cure the common cold and cancer fueled the development of a whole new form of quackery known as “orthomolecular medicine,” whose entire philosophy seems to be based on the concept that if some vitamins are good more must be better. In essence, “orthomolecular medicine” is a parody of nutritional science; indeed, its advocates take credit for how some strains of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) so frequently advocate the ingestion of huge amounts of dietary “supplements.” I could even go farther and say that orthomolecular medicine is clearly a major part of the “intellectual” (and I do use that term loosely) underpinning of the various biomedical treatments for autism that Jenny McCarthy and Generation Rescue advcoate.

There are other examples as well, all just as depressing to contemplate. For example, consider Peter Duesberg, a brilliant virologist who in the 1980s was widely believed to be on track for a Nobel Prize; that is, until he became fixated on the idea that HIV does not cause AIDS. True, lately he’s been trying to resurrect his scientific reputation with his interesting and possibly even promising chromosomal aneuploidy hypothesis of cancer, but, alas, true to form he’s been doing it by acting like a crank. Specifically, he sees his hypothesis as The One True Cause of Cancer and disparages conventional thinking as having been so very, very wrong all these years (with his being, of course, so very, very brilliant that he saw what no one else could see). Then there are people like Dr. Lorraine Day, who was a respected academic orthopedic surgeon in the 1980s. In the late 1980s, she started to flirt with AIDS pseudoscience through a scare campaign about catching AIDS from aerosolized blood. Of course, given the mystery and fear over HIV in the early years of the epidemic, such a fear, although overblown, was not so far out of the mainstream as to be worthy of the appellation crank. However, after being diagnosed with breast cancer, unfortunately Dr. Day rapidly degenerated into a purveyor of rank pseudoscience, as well as a New World Order conspiracy theorist, religious loon, and Holocaust denier. And let’s not forget Mark Geier, who, although not a distinguished scientist, did, before his conversion to antivaccinationism, apparently do a real fellowship at the NIH and appeared to be on track to a respectable, maybe even impressive, career as an academic physician. Now he’s doing “research” in his basement, injecting autistic children with a powerful anti-sex hormone drug and abusing epidemiology. There are innumerable other examples.

About a year ago, I saw a good discussion by a blogger by the ‘nym of ERV discussing how scientists can become cranks, and I’ve been meaning to expand upon it for a long time now. Since there didn’t appear to be anything happening this weekend that so inspired me to post, and Steve Novella already discussed recent articles in the AP about CAM and how, after an investment of over $2.5 billion, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine has failed to validate even a single CAM modality and, worse, how all of the negative studies of CAM coming out of NCCAM have failed to lead to the abandonment of even on CAM modality. In any case, as gratified as I am to see the mainstream media to be taking notice and starting to say the same sorts of things we’ve been saying on this blog since its inception, for instance, my discussion of the waste of taxpayer money on studies of homeopathy, among other magic. And, of course, Tim Kreider wrote an excellent takedown of Sharon Begley’s apparent belief that publication pressures and an insistence on basic science are keeping cures from sick babies, the other topic that caught my fancy.

Because her interest is HIV research, ERV was particularly interested in how a brilliant man like Peter Duesberg could have fallen so far into pseudoscience. However, because she is a basic scientist, her view lacks a bit when it comes to why physicians become cranks or quacks. Consequently, I thought I’d expand a bit on this topic and bring a medical perspective to the question. Because I am both a surgeon and a scientist, I routinely straddle both worlds (sometimes not being taken seriously in either). I’m not sure that this gives me any special insight, but it does give me a different perspective than ERV.

First, ERV shows great insight in pointing out that scientists are wrong all the time. Indeed, science can almost be defined as a system or a method of self-correction that brings us closer to an understanding of how nature works. An absolutely essential part of science, therefore, is that we scientists must test our hypotheses and try to falsify them. When we attempt to do so, we find, in general, one of three results:

  1. The hypothesis is not falsified.
  2. The hypothesis is falsified.
  3. The results are not sufficiently clear to falsify or support the hypothesis.

When a hypothesis is not falsified, generally scientists will either try to find new ways of falsifying it until they are satisfied that it can withstand all reasonable challenges. Alternatively, they will build on it and refine it based on their experiments, after which they try to falsify the new iterations of the hypothesis until they succeed. If the initial hypothesis is falsified, scientists generally will move on to a new hypothesis. True, they may not do so quickly or easily; after all, scientists are human too and just as prone to becoming emotionally attached to their pet ideas and favorite hypotheses, but move on they generally do–eventually. Admittedly, in the case of medicine it sometimes takes the rise of a new generation of physicians and the retirement of the old before older concepts of disease completely disappear from medical practice, but disappear they eventually do. (The wag in me can’t resist pointing out one exception to this rule: aalternative medicine, where prescientific ideas dating back hundreds, if not thousands, of years have been resurrected into seeming respectability under the mantle of “complementary and alternative medicine” or “integrative medicine,” which “integrates” these prescientific notions with scientific medicine. But, as I so often do, I digress.)

Of course, result #3 is the most common result; the answer is usually not immediately clear. Indeed, this uncertainty may persist for years, if not decades, before some scientific questions are resolved. this is what can happen with true scientific controversies (as opposed to manufactroversies, like whether vaccines or mercury in vaccines can cause autism). Once again because scientists are human, they can be quite rancorous, on rare occasions even escalating to the point of scientists yelling “bullshit!” at each other at seminars and scientific meetings. (Such meetings can actually be kind of fun, at least if you’re not at the receiving end. Actually, they can sometimes be fun even if you are at the receiving end.) Over time, however, evidence will accumulate, and experimental results will start pointing towards an answer. Sometimes a dramatic result, a stroke of genius, like Einstein’s Theory of Relativity or Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, will appear, seemingly like a bolt out of the blue and change everything. (I say “seemingly” because even such results do not appear in a vaccuum; there are almost always multiple scientists working along similar lines and it’s scientists like Einstein or Darwin who either publish first or somehow become the person given the most credit.) However it happens, though, once a hypothesis is roundly falsified by multiple lines of evidence (or, as in the case of the autism/vaccine link, numerous studies fail to find support for a link), scientists will indeed, even if very reluctantly, admit that the hypothesis was incorrect, form a consensus, and then move on to test other hypotheses. Or, as ERV put it:

Now here is where we get to the kook part– Say we finally determine that MMTV does not cause any kind of breast cancer in humans. All the normal scientists on the ‘MMTV causes cancer’ side will say ‘Aw. Man. Oh well, my bad.’ and keep doing science. Admitting youre wrong in science is not a big deal because scientists are wrong all the time!

Perhaps the best illustration of this attitude among scientists was a tale told by Richard Dawkins in The Root of All Evil? about an elderly and esteemed scientist who had held to a certain hypothesis for many years. One day a visiting professor from America came to give a talk and presented evidence that conclusively refuted this professor’s favorite hypothesis. As the lecture concluded, all eyes were on the esteemed senior scientist whose favorite hypothesis had just been roundly shown to be incorrect. According to Dawkins, the old professor strode to the podium, shook the speaker’s hand, thanked him profusely, and said, “I have been wrong these fifteen years.” In response, the audience applauded uproariously. Whether this story is apocryphal or not or whether it’s grown with Dawkins’ retelling it over time, it is nonetheless the ideal towards which science strives. Scientists are supposed to be willing to give up even their most cherished hypotheses if that’s what evidence and experimental results demand. Of course, the difficulty in doing so tends to be proportional to both the length of time the hypothesis has been cherished and the intensity of attachment. Now, here’s where “scientist” transitions to “kook”:

Where one transitions from ‘scientist’ to ‘kook’ is the inability to say ‘I was wrong’ and move forward. In the 1980s, Peter Duesberg could have been right! No one knew what was causing this scary-ass world-wide epidemic. Yeah, it might have been HIV-1, but in the US it could have been a side-effect of some recreational drug, only surfacing when use was wide-spread and intense enough. Duesberg could have been right!

But as time went on, evidence stacked up on the side of the ‘HIV-1–>AIDS’ people, and nothing supported the ‘drugs–>AIDS’ people. If Duesberg were a scientist, he could say ‘Ek. Im wrong. Good on you all.’ and continued his career.

Indeed, assuming that Duesberg had done this before he had burned too many bridges with his colleagues by so harshly criticizing and insulting those whom he perceived as part of what he dismissively called the “orthodoxy,” it probably would indeed have been “no harm no foul,” and Duesberg would have resurrected his career and remained a happily well-funded scientist doing important research, rather than a tenured crank working in crappy basement laboratory on a shoestring budget. Heck, even after Duesberg had burned a lot of those bridges, he probably could have rebuilt them with some really good science leavened with just a little diplomacy directed at those whom he had previously attacked. But he didn’t, because, like all cranks, he had become so enamored of his hypothesis that he was unable to let go of it even after the contradictory evidence had become overwhelming. He had become convinced that he was right and the world of HIV scientists were (and continue to be) oh so very wrong.

The other point that is worth emphasizing is that being a contrarian is not in and of itself particularly impressive because scientists are so often wrong. There are far more hypotheses that are falsified than hypotheses that stand up to experimental and observational scrutiny. Indeed, I find “contrarian” scientists who won’t support their doubts of the established consensus with good science (and sometimes not even good logical arguments) of their own to be particularly annoying, like a two-year old who says “No!” to everything. Being “contrarian” is only productive if the contrarian scientist can produce actual evidence using sound experimental and observational methodology suggesting that the consensus is seriously wrong. That’s one reason why “intelligent design” creationists (or, as I’ve increasingly started calling them, evolution denialists) are not taken seriously and should not be taken seriously. They point out what they see as “shortcomings” in evolutionary theory, some valid but most based on gross misunderstandings of what evolutionary biology actually says, and do no research. Indeed, they don’t even try to do any research that might suggest alternatives. The same is true of cranks of all stripes, including “alt-med” cranks, HIV/AIDS denialists, and many other varieties.

So basically the key ingredients of a scientific crank are an inordinate attraction to an idea or hypothesis to the point that he won’t abandon it in the face of overwhelming evidence coupled with the arrogance necessary to believe that he is correct and the rest of the scientific community is not. This is probably true no matter what sort of science is being abused. However, when it’s medical science that leads to outright quackery, there are other issues that come into play.

The first thing that one needs to take into account when considering the evolution of a medical crank is that most physicians are not scientists. As much as it pains me to admit it, sadly it’s true. Indeed, I have lamented time and time again how little training in the scientific method most medical students and residents receive. This makes all too many physicians very susceptible to pseudoscience because they don’t have a good grasp of what good scientific methodology is, and I’ve provided ample examples of this in this blog, perhaps most prominent of which is Dr. Jay Gordon, who rejects the science and epidemiology that have failed to find a detectable correlation between either mercury in the thimerosal preservative that used to be in vaccines or vaccines themselves and autism in favor of his “personal clinical experience,” to the point that he frequently shows up on TV as a “vaccine skeptic” and writes articles arguing against holding anti-vaccine parents legally responsible if their child infects another. In other words, he favors anecdotes over science and, no matter how many times I’ve tried to convince him how easily we as humans can be deceived into confusing correlation with causation or into thinking that a useless treatment works, he cannot seem to accept that he can be deceived as easily as you or I.

Indeed, from my perspective the sine qua non of crank is a certain arrogance. Among medical cranks in particular, this arrogance manifests itself in the failure to acknowledge just how easily all humans, including them, can confuse correlation with causation, engage in selective memory such as confirmation bias, and are fooled by anecdotes, personal experience, and regression to the mean. I can understand how this can happen. Even among people steeped in the scientific method, it is sometimes hard not to fall prey to these shortcomings in human cognition. It is this tendency that will lead them to liken themselves to Galileo, persecuted scientists who will someday be vindicated. They will invoke Ignaz Semmelweis, whose evidence showing how handwashing could greatly reduce the rates of pueperal fever in the obstetrics wards was initially rejected by much of the medical establishment, and the more recent example of Barry Marshall and Robin Warren, who discovered that most duodenal ulcers were caused not by acid but by an organism called H. pylori.

Of course, the case of Semmelweis is more complex than usually proffered by cranks in that he was hesitant to publish and present his results and tended to antagonize his critics, coupled to the lack of an explanatory mechanism for his observations, given that his discovery was made before Pasteur’s germ theory of disease, leaving only the “contagion” concept as a possible explanation. The case of Marshall and Warren is also not a good example in that, although there was initial skepticism of their results, in actuality Marshall and Warren essentially won the day within a decade, by which time the standard of care for treating duodenal ulcers had evolved to using antibiotics. Since then, ulcer surgery has declined to the point where fewer and fewer surgeons even know how to do it anymore except in the case of emergencies (such as perforation or bleeding), so rarely is it necessary. That’s actually an incredibly fast about-face for medicine, given how long it typically takes to bring an idea from bench to bedside. In any case, even if we view the cases of Galileo, Semmelweis, and Marshall and Warren were exactly as described, examples of iconoclast scientists triumphing over the orthodoxy, that would not support the quacks who like to invoke them. As Michael Shermer once said, “Heresy does not equal correctness.” Shermer also correctly put it in his book Why People Believe Weird Things (a book I highly recommend to anyone interested in improving his or her critical thinking skills):

For every Galileo shown the instruments of torture for advocating scientific truth, there are a thousand (or ten thousand) unknowns whose ‘truths’ never pass scientific muster with other scientists. The scientific community cannot be expected to test every fanstastic claim that comes along, especially when so many are logically inconsistent.

Or, as Robert Park put it:

Alas, to wear the mantle of Galileo it is not enough that you be persecuted by an unkind establishment; you must also be right.

Cranks want to claim the mantle of Galileo without evidence to show that they are correct.

The second thing that needs to be considered is that there is a component of being a physician that doesn’t exist for basic scientists that provides added impetus to the transition from scientist/physician to kook, and that component is direct interactions with patients. This component is a powerful contributor to physicians becoming what Prometheus likes to call them, “brave maverick doctors.”

Consider this: Despite what many who do not like “conventional” physicians say, the vast majority of physicians go into medicine because they want to help people. They honestly want to help their patients, and not being able to help their patients causes them intense feelings of inadequacy and disappointment. In other words, there is a strong incentive, both positive (to get that fantastic feeling we get when we realize that we’ve really helped a patient) and negative (to avoid that feeling of inadequacy and frustration that we get when we cannot help a patient), to find treatments that the physician perceives to help patients. There’s also the ego gratification that comes from patients telling one that he’s great and has helped him enormously. The problem with this desire, however noble, is that it makes physicians very susceptible to the siren call of pseudoscience in the form of quackery. Here’s why. “From the ground,” a single physician looking at a group of his or her own patients being treated with a therapeutic modality will almost always “see” that the therapy “works.” The reasons, of course, include the placebo effect and regression to the mean. Without a controlled clinical trial, the placebo effect will almost always bestow upon almost any therapeutic modality at least the illusion of therapeutic efficacy, particularly at the single practitioner level. Thus, it is not surprising that homeopathy, reiki, acupuncture, and all manner of modalities that clinical trials show to be no more effective than placebo can easily appear to be effective when a single practitioner does what is in essence an uncontrolled, single-arm observational trial by treating patients with these modalities. Add to these human tendencies a significant financial incentive, and one can see how the slide into quackery can start out as an exercise in idealism, with “start out” being the operative phrase.

For example, for all the venom I’ve dripped on Dr. Mark Geier (venom he richly deserves for using powerful antiandrogenic drugs on autistic children), I have little doubt that he probably honest believes that he is helping autistic children with his “Lupron protocol,” as autism is a condition of developmental delay, not stasis. Many autistic children improve simply with growth and development, and without a control group and controlled, blinded randomization it’s impossible to tell whether a given intervention leads to an improvement in symptoms over and above what would have occurred anyway. Unfortunately, this belief has led them into some incredibly unethical activities in the service of their belief that they are somehow “helping” autistic children and with the claim that they “know” it works. Indeed, it is rather interesting to read Dr. Geier’s statement in defense of Clifford Shoemaker, a lawyer who has made a cottage industry of bringing complaints to the Vaccine Court, in which he complains of Kathleen Seidel’s activities against his pseudoscience as though he’s a poor, persecuted crusader for good. Of course, poor crusaders for good rarely charge the exorbitant fees that Dr. Geier charges or skirt human subjects research ethics the way he does, but in his world-view he is a lone iconoclast fighting the good fight against an unyielding orthodoxy.

This is where physician cranks (i.e., quacks) then become just like cranks of all scientific stripes, the sole exception being that their crankery endangers patients. They no longer try to falsify hypotheses or do trials to figure out if their remedies work. Why should they? They know to the very core of their being that they work! Instead, such physicians cherry pick studies that support their idea and, if they do any clinical studies or science at all, it is almost universally bad science. Over time, they come to believe that they are right “because I see the evidence in my patients,” as quacks like to say, a statement echoed in the statement of a nonphysician like Jenny McCarthy, who has been widely quoted as saying that her son Evan “is my science.” They forget utterly how easy it is to be fooled by a combination of the placebo effect, expectation, confirmation bias, and observation effect when one is a single physician treating patients. Whether it’s preexisting arrogance or a developed arrogance, these physicians will then often dismiss as “sheeple” the physicians who practice science- and evidence-based medicine as lacking the vision that they have, all the while making excuses for not doing rigorous clinical studies that would confirm or disprove the efficacy of their remedies over and above a placebo. Some, like Dr. Rashid Buttar, will charge enormous fees for their services and think it justified to the point that when they are questioned about the evidence supporting their therapies they will dance around the question and when they are finally brought in front of medical boards for their activities they will behave as an aggrieved, persecuted party, sometimes even going so far as Dr. Buttar as referring to the medical board as a “rabid dog.”

I tend to consider physician-cranks to be almost a special case of scientific cranks in general. In no other field of which I’m aware can the combination of an attraction to a hypothesis and arrogance combine with an honest desire to help patients in a manner that is so toxic to both science and patients. For most scientists, the forces that seduce them into pseudoscience are largely a combination of intellect and arrogance. For physicians, a genuine concern for patients and the placebo effect enter into the equation to form a perfect storm that can tempt them into even the most indefensible pseudoscience.

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Health Fraud, Science and Medicine

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116 thoughts on “How do scientists become cranks and doctors quacks?

  1. apgaylard says:

    I quite like Feyerabend’s discussion of the crank:

    “[...] The crank is usually content with defending the point of view in its original, undeveloped, metaphysical form, and is not at all prepared to test its usefulness in all those cases which seem to favour the opponent, or even to admit that there exists a problem. It is this further investigation, the details of it, the knowledge of the difficulties, of the general state of knowledge, the recognition of objections, which distinguishes the “respectable thinker” from the crank. The original content does not. If he thinks that Aristotle should be given a further chance, let him do it and wait for the results […]”

    [Feyerabend, P. “Realism and Instrumentalism: Comments on the Logic of Factual Support“, in The Critical Approach to Science and Philosophy, ed. M Bunge, New York Free Press, 1964, p.305]

  2. Jules says:

    Your description of cranks reminds me of the description Sam Gosling (Snoop) gave for narcissists. I don’t know enough about psychology to know whether that’s true, but in this matter I’m willing to take his word for it.

    I agree with you on the basic premise that cranks start out with exciting hypotheses which they are unable to relinquish once they turn out to be wrong. But dogma might not have any real evidence to back it up, either. I have in mind the astonishing absence of data with respect to raw diets for pets, but I suppose the same would apply for any theory which sounds tenable and probably might be true except there’s not a single study out there pointing one way or the other. 3 of the 4 vets I’ve had were convinced that my cats would get food poisoning and die–despite the evidence to the contrary (healthy cat sitting before them–Shadow has never been to the vet for anything other than her shots) and the complete lack of evidence for a dreadful outcome in the literature.

    I’m not trying to defend cranks–not being able to see reason is like willingly stabbing your eyes out and then complaining about being blind. Just pointing out that stubborness is an endemic problem–less so in some places than in others–and is equally unflattering when a doctor just won’t listen.

  3. Alaskan says:

    If interested in discovering some reasons why people abandon science just type “scientific method problems” and scroll around.

    There are plenty of sites that claim to dispel the “myth of the magical scientific method.” Unfortunately, they aren’t talking about a magical scientific method, but the scientific method!

    I’ve met individuals who simply don’t like discovering that someone may understand a concept more thoroughly than them. I don’t know if they are embarrased, angry at not having been taught previously, or fearful of what a discovery may mean for them.

    Arrogance also has a part to play for sure. And this article really does a good job at driving that home for me. Appreciated.

  4. hatch_xanadu says:

    Hmmm. I suppose it’s easier said than done, but perhaps the best thing to teach a budding scientist is to not get too attached to a pet hypothesis before he’s had a chance to test it. A scientist should never begin with “X causes Y” and then set out to prove it. He should always begin with “I wonder if X causes Y” and be prepared to stick by “I wonder if X causes Y” for a considerable amount of time. And, as an added benefit, a scientist doesn’t have to admit he was wrong if all he did was *wonder*.

  5. daedalus2u says:

    Very nice article; so much to agree with, so difficult to add more. I think there are fundamental aspects of neuroanatomy that make people more or less susceptible to crankdom. I think it relates to building a world-view from the top down (as taught by someone else), or from the bottom up (from self-learned facts, tied together with logic). You need to have some of both, the higher level concepts, the ground facts and the conceptual network that ties them together.

    I see this as being related to where one is on the autism spectrum. More on the spectrum one has more minicolumns with finer scale connections that can handle more little facts but at the expense (to some degree) of being able to handle larger concepts (like emotion based communication). A forest for the trees problem vs. a trees for the forest problem. I think (but this is somewhat speculative), that because the neurotransmitter that mediates functional connectivity is NO, that low NO favors crankdom (because there is less functional connectivity) but neurodevelopment under conditions of low NO favors anti-crankdom because that forces higher short range connectivity. Because NO is essential for forming new connections, chronic low NO can preclude the neural changes necessary to abandon wrong ideas and by doing so escape from crankdom. (It is more complicated than this and my thoughts on this are still quite in flux).

    When I was a freshman at MIT, one of the most frequent expressions used by other freshmen was “that is counter-intuitive”. I never used that term, and still cringe when I hear people using it. I saw it as an attempt to externalize the “fault” of not understanding the concept. The “fault” didn’t lie with the student’s intuition; the fault was with the concept for not corresponding to that student’s intuition.

    Virtually all MIT freshmen had been one of the smartest people in their classes since kindergarten, now fully half of them were below average. That transition is extremely difficult for many, when I was there freshman year was pass fail to try and keep the suicide rate down.

    I see intuition as a non-algorithmic method for arriving at an approximate answer (and an answer that needs to be checked with more reliable methods, i.e. algorithmic via facts and logic, or direct experiment). I came of age using a slide rule, which would only give you 2+ significant figures. You had to figure out where the decimal point was yourself. You had to have an intuition as to the order of magnitude or you couldn’t use a slide rule. When ever my intuition was wrong, I always changed my intuition. Intuition that produces wrong answers is worse than useless, it is worse than no intuition at all.

    Bora had a recent quote up that fits quite well

    http://scienceblogs.com/clock/2009/06/clock_quotes_321.php#trackback

    Different groups have other names for it, “other ways of knowing”, “mommy sense”, “divine revelation”, “tradition”, “old wives tales”, dogma, politics. The villagers “saw” the emperor’s new clothes because they thought everyone else saw them. The compulsion of peer pressure is extremely strong and what leads to groupthink. I think the “crippling” of communication in ASDs is a “feature” to provide greater resistance to groupthink.

    Things believed via intuition have the feel of truthy to them. You don’t know they are true through your intellect, but with your gut, they feel true. Unfortunately your gut can’t process facts using logic. If you can’t tie something back to facts with logic, you don’t know if it is true. (Similarly, if you can’t show that there is no way to tie it back to facts with logic then you don’t know if it is wrong).

    I think this is the fundamental problem of cranks, they have intuition that produces wrong answers and are incapable of changing their intuition or even conceiving that their intuition is wrong, or allowing their intuitive ideas to be tested against reality. In physics, researchers have divided themselves into two groups, theoreticians and experimentalists where they explicitly carry out these two different aspects of doing physics. Physics is of trivial simplicity compared to physiology, so the division can be made explicit and essentially the entire physics research community can agree on what needs to be done next.

    I do appreciate that many think of me as a crank obsessed with nitric oxide. That is not my perception because I do feel that I have facts and logic that tie everything together and am continually modifying my conceptualization as new facts emerge. What I don’t have are the resources to do experiments that would cleanly and simply support my hypotheses.

  6. overshoot says:

    What I don’t have are the resources to do experiments that would cleanly and simply support my hypotheses.

    And there lies the problem: isn’t the whole point of this discussion that your statement should rather have been, “What I don’t have are the resources to do experiments that would cleanly and simply disprove my hypotheses.”

  7. Ryan says:

    As a young scientist, I have a difficult time seeing how someone trained as a researcher could find themselves heading down the road to crankdom. I find my ideas, manuscripts, presentations, grant proposals, etc. under constant scrutiny from my peers, and I take immense comfort in knowing that there is an entire group of people questioning all the details of my work. It forces me to ask questions at every step in the process and to become my own harshest critic, as I attempt to anticipate potential problems and flaws with my approach to certain problems.

    On the other hand, I see some colleagues who after having several large grants funded and multiple papers published in high-impact journals lose the desire to criticize and challenge their own assumptions. I think it might be easy for some people to take even limited validation of their work and interpret that as being above the scientific process.

    Why? Because doing good science is much more difficult than being a crank. When you add into the mix that fact that cranks often receive media attention for being an opposing view to conventional science (rather than for having anything to say that is actually supported by evidence), I think it’s easy to see how this type of thinking could snowball into the more sinister situations you’ve cited. I think the way the mainstream media reports science feeds into this by giving attention to sensational claims, rather than focusing on the much less sensational process.

    I don’t believe that any of this justifies becoming a crank, but I think it speaks to the integrity of the scientific community that this doesn’t occur a lot more often.

  8. zen_arcade says:

    daedalus2u – Is the irony of invoking your own pet cause here, in a post on this topic, completely lost on you?

  9. Diane says:

    > “I tend to consider physician-cranks to be almost a special case of scientific cranks in general. In no other field of which I’m aware can the combination of an attraction to a hypothesis and arrogance combine with an honest desire to help patients in a manner that is so toxic to both science and patients. For most scientists, the forces that seduce them into pseudoscience are largely a combination of intellect and arrogance. For physicians, a genuine concern for patients and the placebo effect enter into the equation to form a perfect storm that can tempt them into even the most indefensible pseudoscience.”

    In the field I am part of, physical rehab and human primate social grooming for non-pathological persistent pain (AKA PT), not only do cranks and crank theories proliferate with blinding speed but new actual “professions” form every day based on the latest packaging/re-packaging of various tired old a-, pre-, anti-and pseudo-scientific memeplexes. Certain of these are fond of, have always been fond of, calling themselves “doctors”.

  10. daedalus2u says:

    Overshoot, it is extremely difficult to prove a negative. My hypothesis is that NO/NOx from skin bacteria can be important in NO physiology in humans.

    In some ways it is similar to the hypothesis that some ulcers can be caused by Helicobacter pylori. The definitive experiment was when Marshall drank a culture of H, pylori, infected himself, producing a gastric inflammation and then cured it with antibiotics. From his autobiography

    http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/2005/marshall-autobio.html

    But 1984 was a difficult year. I was unsuccessfully attempting to infect an animal model. There was interest and support from a few but most of my work was rejected for publication and even accepted papers were significantly delayed. I was met with constant criticism that my conclusions were premature and not well supported. When the work was presented, my results were disputed and disbelieved, not on the basis of science but because they simply could not be true. It was often said that no one was able to replicate my results. This was untrue but became part of the folklore of the period. I was told that the bacteria were either contaminants or harmless commensals.

    At the same time I was successfully experimentally treating patients who had suffered with life threatening ulcer disease for years. Some of my patients had postponed surgery which became unnecessary after a simple 2 week course of antibiotics and bismuth. I had developed my hypothesis that these bacteria were the cause of peptic ulcers and a significant risk for stomach cancer. If I was right, then treatment for ulcer disease would be revolutionized. It would be simple, cheap and it would be a cure. It seemed to me that for the sake of patients this research had to be fast tracked. The sense of urgency and frustration with the medical community was partly due to my disposition and age. However, the primary reason was a practical one. I was driven to get this theory proven quickly to provide curative treatment for the millions of people suffering with ulcers around the world.

    Becoming increasingly frustrated with the negative response to my work I realized I had to have an animal model and decided to use myself. Much has been written about the episode and I certainly had no idea it would become as important as it has. I didn’t actually expect to become as ill as I did. I didn’t discuss it with the ethics committee at the hospital. More significantly, I didn’t discuss it in detail with Adrienne. She was already convinced about the risk of these bacteria and I knew I would never get her approval. This was one of those occasions when it would be easier to get forgiveness than permission. I was taken by surprise by the severity of the infection. When I came home with my biopsy results showing colonization and classic histological damage to my stomach, Adrienne suggested it was time to treat myself. I had a successful infection, I had proved my point.

    His experiment didn’t “prove” anything. A negative result wouldn’t have disproved his hypothesis. A positive n=1 anecdote is easy to dismiss.

    I have produced a self-sustaining colonization of these bacteria on myself; I have instrumentally measured NO production by them in vivo, from basal sweat, from exercise induced sweat and from exogenous ammonia. I have instrumental measures of NO production by these bacteria coincident with instrumental measures of a physiological effect that is known to be mediated by NO, in vivo, in a human. I have found surface biofilms of these bacteria on multiple eukaryotes. All of this data is many sigma above baseline.

    I know how easy an n=1 anecdote is to dismiss because virtually every NO researcher I have talked to does exactly that. Some of them think I am right, but say I have to “prove it”, which means a much higher n, something which I don’t have the capability of doing and so far something that no one has been willing to help me with.

    In Marshall’s own words in his autobiography, what really got the field going was the publication in a non-peer reviewed journal, the

    ”Star” newspaper, a tabloid that often features with stories about alien babies being adopted by Nancy Reagan. This was right up their alley. The next day the story appeared, “Guinea-pig doctor discovers new cure for ulcers … and the cause.”

    This became one of the serendipitous, life changing events in my life and I have Rob’s temper to thank for it. Firstly, I was contacted by a continuous line of patients in the USA who read the story and were desperate for treatment. I was able to help. I was treating patients by proxy in the USA as early as 1984.

    I think there are many conditions that will be helped dramatically by topical application of my bacteria. I don’t have any data, just anecdotes and a gigantic amount of theory from the literature that supports the prior plausibility. Without data I can’t get funding, and without funding I can’t get data.

    Zen, if I were a crank it would be ironic. One of the reasons I post here is because the authors have very high standards. To call someone a crank, you have to show where their ideas don’t correspond with reality and yet they persist in their ideas. If you can’t show that the ideas are wrong, a skeptic has to default to the “I don’t know” position, not the “you must be a crank” position that non-skeptics often adopt. If I am wrong, I would like to know it. I would like people to show me where my facts are wrong or where my logic breaks down. If someone did that, I would thank them and change my understanding until it did correspond to the facts as held together by logic. Any scientist would.

  11. Joe says:

    In 1995, Duesberg published two books disputing the possibility that HIV causes AIDS. I was familiar with the subject since I had studied drug-design for another virus in 1989 and had read the literature on development of anti-HIV drugs. So, I thought I knew a bit about the subject when I perused his books.

    The books chronicled Duesberg’s many years trying to have his notions accepted. He had an ad hoc rationalization for every fact that contradicted his notions. Thinking of him as a person, I was depressed as it seemed that he had a diagnosable illness.

  12. Cyanide says:

    As a family medicine doc in Canada and a former bioscience researcher, I have had a number of opportunities to witness the “birth” of a crank or quack.

    Now, as for researchers going off the deep end, I found that the most common mechanism involved initial successes that led to the development of reputation and, further, the attainment of a station-in-life that was quite favourable. It’s when the researcher seemed to start falling off their “A game” would the cranking begin. Imagine a researcher coming up through the ranks, getting their PhD, fellowship, assistant-professorship, professorship, tenure. With that comes respect by your colleagues, who largley make up your peer/social group. Along with that, you become known for your keen intellect and it is this facet of your being that comes to largely define you. You start getting grants on the merits of that keen intellect. You come to be able to afford a new car, house, provide for your family. It is at this point that the stakes are incredibly high. You are older now, changing careers is going to be tough and there is now a family depending on you. This is all fine and good if you exist within an academic environment that forgives mistakes. Then, we can all latch onto the wrong hypothesis, wrong methodology, etc. But, there is still an element of gambling here, and sooner or later, if you don’t maintain a certain level of untouchable genius, sooner or later you mistakes will catch up to you and your funding may dry up. Further, you don’t know when that is going to be. So, some succumb to that pressure and stress and start clinging to failed hypotheses, on into failed theories, on into complete pseudoscience all in an attempt to avoid the consequences that I describe above. In many ways, it seems to be the progression of an minor adult-onset personality disorder, complete with maladaptive coping mechanisms.

    At least, that is the anecdotal examples I have witnessed.

    As for docs becoming quacks….I agree a large part of it is not having a proper exposure to research methodologies/”the scientific process”. Many of my colleagues seem to look at all treatment modalities with a certain equality. Attempting treatment option A = attempting treatment option B = C = D. In many cases its a means by which to deepen the array of “your bag of tricks”. It is hoped that working through the contents of your “bag” will lead you to a solution sooner or later. This is where I frequently see GP’s pull out homeopathic agents (not off their sample shelf, and not scribed onto a prescription, but certainly uttered to or even presented to the patient). Once again, this is anecdotal. I am commonly reminded of one colleague I was working with (in the same clinic) that would frequently whip out this box of herbal mish-mash to show patients declaring that “it cured my sinusitis, it will cure yours as well”. But, this is a minor form of quackery. Its quackery by ignorance/lack-of-initiative, as opposed to quackery by pervasive faulty thinking.

    Hope this adds to the discussion, as opposed to just taking it off tangentially. Not much evidence, just a whole lot of anecdote.

    Cheers

    Cy

  13. Cyanide says:

    When I say “latch onto the wrong hypothesis”, I mean “latch onto the wrong hypothesis and then move onto a more correct line of thought when proven incorrect, all without penalty.”

  14. Tim Kreider says:

    Wow, great post.

    daedulus, as late as 2004 they were still saying “counter-intuitive” at MIT! I wonder if we learned it from the professors; I remember hearing it from a 6.041 lecturer. At the time I thought it was a cop-out that justified his inability to effectively explain a tricky concept in probability… However, it’s useful to point out that reality does not, in fact, often align with our intuition.

    I think this is a crucial point: human intuition is sometimes a great tool and sometimes a crappy tool for understanding reality. I add, for further emphasis, that each of is human! It is so hard to accept that “I” fall for all the same foibles of the human mind as everyone else obviously does. But I do, and so do you. Science is hard because it is a process that deliberately tries to circumvent our natural tendencies to believe in patterns and causes with too little evidence. As for physicians, I’m reminded of survey evidence that physicians worry about “other doctors” being influenced by Pharma gifts but are confident that they themselves are not swayed at all. Everyone but the (hopefully rare) outright frauds believes he is operating according to evidence and reason.

    We can have empathy for “cranks and quacks” by remembering that they are human, often well-meaning and high-functioning. We can protect ourselves from dogmatic or closed-minded tendencies by remembering that we are human, too.

  15. daedalus2u says:

    Tim, I completely agree that often our intuition doesn’t correspond with reality. Intuition isn’t a single thing that all humans have that always reaches the same conclusion. Each person has a different intuition, and no, each person’s intuition is not as good as everyone else’s. How good a particular individual’s intuition is depends only on how closely it corresponds with actual reality, nothing else. When someone says a concept is counter-intuitive, they are only speaking about their own intuition; they are saying nothing about the concept.

    I think this is the basis for the quote by Max Planck.

    A scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.

    My understanding of the basis for this is that intuition about reality is based on the “theory of mind” that people have, which is generated during neurodevelopment, while people are growing up. To some extent those thinking patterns become “fixed” and are difficult to change. To some extent that immutability is good because it keeps the language stable. In science a degree of this immutability can be thought of as Thomas Kuhn’s scientific paradigms. Essential to do what he calls “ordinary science”, but they can be difficult to break out of for some. Those who have the most difficulty are the people Max Planck was referring to.

    I have no doubt that they are still using “counter-intuitive” at MIT. They are just people; even the professors are just people with the need to protect their egos just like everyone else. What being at MIT does do is teach you not to BS because the person you are trying to BS might know more about it than you do. That person you think is a scruffy-looking grad student might actually be a tenured professor. That is why all the cranks and quacks hang out in an echo chamber, where their BS goes unchallenged and all dissent is censored away.

    I do have empathy for cranks and quacks, for the human feelings they have which compel them to act as they do. My empathy stops when they start harming and defrauding people. As Clint Eastwood says, “A man’s got to know his limitations”. If you are going to treat people, then you have to hold yourself to the standard of care which requires a certain standard of evidence, and no, intuition isn’t good enough.

  16. Tim Kreider says:

    Daedalus, I’m worried that my previous comment was ambiguous, so just in case: the only part of it that was addressed specifically to you was the bit about MIT. In the rest of the post I meant “you” to mean anyone reading. I intended my post to be reflecting on the skeptical endeavor generally, not as a directed criticism of you at all. Thanks for your response, though; your comments are always interesting.

  17. MBoaz says:

    Thanks for the great article. Why is content like this, or Shermer’s “Why People Believe Weird Things” not required reading for undergraduate science majors?

    My experiences talking with acupuncture advocates specifically is that some people identify so strongly with their beliefs that they seem psychologically/emotionally incapable of even considering that they’re wrong. Their idiosyncratic beliefs seem to be a huge part of who they are. Perhaps that’s why critiquing their belief is so often perceived as a personal attack. It just seems like, as you said Dr. Gorski, some people are so proud or so arrogant that they can’t accept their own fallibility. The scientific illiteracy dudn’t help either.

    It’s a shame, but I for one will continue to endure personal attacks and painfully ignorant arguments in an effort to combat the misinformation I encounter.

  18. pec says:

    “So basically the key ingredients of a scientific crank are an inordinate attraction to an idea or hypothesis to the point that he won’t abandon it in the face of overwhelming evidence coupled with the arrogance necessary to believe that he is correct and the rest of the scientific community is not.”

    Sometimes what these “cranks” are resisting is actually peer pressure, not evidence. There are scientists who tend to go with the consensus, whatever it may be and whether there is evidence or not. They get very angry at the “cranks” for going their own way, but I think in at least some cases the “cranks” are the ones following the evidence.

    Is there a single mainstream consensus idea that Gorski doesn’t go along with? I kind of doubt it.

    Those who always go with the consensus make up all kinds of theories about why there are dissenters, who are always labeled “cranks” and “quacks.” But the real reason, very often, is that the question has not been settled and the consensus view, although popular, is often weak and lacking good evidence.

    The cause of evolution, for example, has never been determined. But a consensus hypothesis has been settled on anyway. And critics of this consensus are attacked by organized political “scientific” groups who get their funding revoked.

    Science is political, and if you don’t want to end up in a basement you better at least pretend to go along with the majority.

  19. Harriet Hall says:

    “Is there a single mainstream consensus idea that Gorski doesn’t go along with?”

    He would be foolish to go against a mainstream consensus unless he had very compelling evidence. Mainstream consensus is not a political contest. It represents the combined wisdom of the world’s scientists based on the best currently available evidence. If a mainstream consensus is contradicted by new evidence, the consensus quickly changes.

    “The cause of evolution, for example, has never been determined. But a consensus hypothesis has been settled on anyway. And critics of this consensus are attacked by organized political “scientific” groups who get their funding revoked.”

    What do you mean? I thought there were several identified causes of evolution that were well understood. What do you think the consensus hypothesis is? What do the critics want funding for?

  20. David Gorski says:

    Is there a single mainstream consensus idea that Gorski doesn’t go along with?

    You say that as if it were a bad thing to be for the current mainstream scientific consensus. It’s not.

  21. daedalus2u says:

    What about the consensus opinion that there should be funding for such a thing as the NCCAM?

  22. Danio says:

    The cause of evolution, for example, has never been determined. But a consensus hypothesis has been settled on anyway. And critics of this consensus are attacked by organized political “scientific” groups who get their funding revoked.</blockquote
    Bloody hell, Pec. Just when I think you’ve displayed every possible way in which to willfully misunderstand science, you prove me wrong (It’s ok–I’m a scientist. I’m used to it.).

    Um….what? What ’cause’? If cause = ‘mechanism’, there are reams of studies exploring every miniscule detail of the evolution of life on this planet. There are many hypotheses wrapped up in this broad scientific theory, each one based on years of data collection and hypothesis-driven research. It’s good stuff, some of the best, most elegant, integrative and impacting science of all time, IMO. Nevertheless, if the ‘critics’ of this consensus had anything genuine to bring to the discussion, I assure you they would not be turned away on principle. Trouble is, they don’t. Most don’t offer alternative hypotheses for any of these well-studied mechanisms–only loose, morphing criticisms of the existing studies that, rather than revealing any embarrassing ‘weaknesses’ in the TOE, instead reveal much about the scholarly shortcomings and unscientific biases of these ‘critics’. Occasionally they do propose a testable hypothesis, though (Irreducible complexity, e.g.), and so far all of these have turned out to be easily refuted, again revealing much about the biased, limited scientific thinking employed by these maverick scholars.

    And critics of this consensus are attacked by organized political “scientific” groups who get their funding revoked.

    [citation needed]

    Dr. Gorski, a splendid post, as usual. I apologize for the off-topic response, but I just couldn’t let that one go.

  23. Danio says:

    Ack. HTML fail. My first quoted text should end at ‘revoked’. Can a sister get a ‘preview’ option on this site?

  24. The Blind Watchmaker says:

    “What about the consensus opinion that there should be funding for such a thing as the NCCAM?”

    That is probably not a consensus of scientists. Consensus of quacks?

  25. Harriet Hall says:

    “What about the consensus opinion that there should be funding for such a thing as the NCCAM?”

    That’s a political decision fueled by a poor public understanding of science. It is not a scientific consensus. Most of the scientists I know would like to see NCCAM abolished.

  26. weing says:

    “That is probably not a consensus of scientists. Consensus of quacks?”

    That would be a box of quackers. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

  27. daedalus2u says:

    Harriet, I know, I was just cherry picking, trying to find some consensus, any consensus that Dr Gorski doesn’t subscribe to. Even though it is a political consensus, it is probably the only consensus remotely involving medicine that pec does subscribe to. I should have used a ;)

  28. Fred Dagg says:

    I would appreciate it that when you talk of “scientists”, and use the word, would you please be a bit more specific.

    For example, a “Social Scientist” or “Political Scientist” may look at the issues differently.

    The use of the word “scientist” in the way used here invokes a strong sense of a model of how things should be investigated in a reductionist manner. Whereas, a social scientist using a model based on the theory that the “whole is greater than the sum of the parts”, would disagree. He may look at the global issues involved, have a valid viewpoint, but not want to reduce things to an infinite degree.
    He is still a “scientist”, but his model may different from someone else.

    I think it a careless use of the word “scientist”, without an adequate definition of it.

  29. Alaskan says:

    Science, as I understand it, is not a culture of consensus. It is a culture of untiring doubt.

    For some, I suspect, such a description may be baffling, embarrassing or even laughable. But I’d simply ask you think about what it means and how such a system may be beneficial.

    Someone famous once said science can purge faith of natural errors and superstition; while faith can purify science from false absolutes.

    I don’t know if I fully agree with the statement but I think at its core it is a decent starting point when trying to understand two very different approaches to discerning the natural world.

    Again, science is anything but consensus. It is untiring, limitless and devoid of emotion, we think. If I may be so bold as to attempt a personification of science I would say it has one goal: to entice the curious student to think she is on to something.

  30. tmac57 says:

    P erpetually – E ndorsing – C ranks ! ! !

  31. David Gorski says:

    Again, science is anything but consensus.

    Not true. The thing is that a scientific consensus is always being tested and challenged. It is always tentative. But to say that consensus is not a part of science is going way too far.

  32. pmoran says:

    I am not even sure that there is a distinct thing called “science”. The scientific method is merely a collection of error-limiting devices based upon the same reasoning that we use (or should use) for decision-making in everyday life.

    “Scientific knowledge” is a collection of provisional judgments of varying validity (closeness to truth) and based upon everyday experience as well as purposeful observation and experimentation. For example, in the billions of experiences of everyday life, dilution does not under any circumstances enhance the properties of a solution. This, rather than any “scientific” study, is the largely unspoken barrier to the acceptance of homeopathy.

    The reason that medical science (we have to have a word for it) looks alien to some people is its very necessary bias towards the null hypothesis i.e. it’s not true/it doesn’t work/it doesn’t work as claimed. David and others have supplied some of the reasons why such a provisional bias is necessary for the efficient advance of medicine.

    But the lay person cannot understand. Medicine is supposed to be about helping the sick. Doctors should be eagerly grasping at anything that might help.

  33. DLC says:

    So, according to Pec, “science is political, and if you don’t want to end up in the basement you better go along with the majority.”

    First. . . were I a physicist I would cheer at being given an office in the basement, because that’d be closer to the linear accelerator.
    But that’s a side point.

    The rest of the statement is an assertion that “don’t you dare disagree with the mob!” Except, scientists disagree with each other all the time. Sometimes even vehemently so. Homeopathy, Reiki, Antivax and so on are all just manufactureversies compared to the real controversies you’ll find at any scientific conference or congress. However, if you’re going to disagree with the scientific consensus, you need to be at least plausible in your reasoning.
    Just saying “no! you’re all wrong! Megadosing vitamin C *does* cure cancer! , Really! ” won’t get it. you have to not only be able to argue your point, but you have to offer at least pointers and at best some form of proofs. And when it turns out that, no, Vitamin C does not cure cancer, you need to suck it up, admit you were wrong and move on.

  34. Alaskan says:

    David Gorski,

    I think I understand your objection considering my lack of context and appreciate the chance to clarify.

    First, I disagree that a scientific consensus is always being tested on the grounds that a scientific consensus isn’t a scientific argument nor a part of the scientific method for that matter. In otherwords, particular claims may be tested but consensus itself is a collective–and not necessarily unanimous I might add–judgement about a claim.

    To bring some context to what really is a paraphrasing of the often repeated clarion call that “science is not a consensus” I can’t help but think of the physician/author Michael Chrichton who also stated:

    “The work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics.” (2003/M. Chrichton)

    And:

    “…consensus is invoked only in situations
    where the science is not solid enough. Nobody says the
    consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody says the
    consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would
    never occur to anyone to speak that way” (M. Crichton).

    It is in the above types of contexts that I dug out a definition for science proper; not indicating clearly enough I should add, that it is usually easier to say what something isn’t (science, not scientific consensus) that what something is. And for that I apologize.

    -M.

  35. Mojo says:

    Again, science is anything but consensus. It is untiring, limitless and devoid of emotion, we think.

    Science is, like any human endeavour, not devoid of emotion, and the failure of some scientists to realise that they have allowed themselves to become too attached to a particular idea is precisely why some scientists become cranks.

  36. Alaskan says:

    “like any human endeavour, not devoid of emotion”

    Fair enough.

  37. David Gorski says:

    Alaskan,

    Sadly, your bringing context to dismissing “consensus” as ever being part of science is more apropos than you know for this discussion. You may not be aware of this, but the casual dismissal of scientific consensus as being some how antithetical to science is often a sign of crankery. Not always, but so often that it is a reasonable rule of thumb.

    Indeed, Michael Crichton is an excellent example of just that characteristic, because, well, Crichton was a crank par excellence when it came to his “skepticism” over anthropogenic global warming. No, I’m not calling you a crank; however I am pointing out that you are citing a crank in support of your position. Indeed, Crichton made every one of those quotes you’ve cited in reference to AGW. More than that, Crichton was an excellent example of a physician who was clearly not a scientist and routinely demonstrated it by spewing pseudoscience about a topic outside of his area of expertise.

    One of the best sarcastic smackdowns of Crichton’s “consensus” speech was written by a friend of mine:

    http://scienceblogs.com/denialism/2007/10/attacking_consensus_a_sure_sig.php

    A key excerpt after a quote from Michael Crichton dismissing “scientific consensus” as not being science:

    Readers of this blog will remember that line comes from Crichton’s infamous anti-global warming crank speech “Aliens Cause Global Warming”, which is one of the more pathetic crank attacks on science of all time. It’s just one long Galileo gambit that suggests whenever scientists agree, you’re being hoodwinked. This is, of course, total nonsense. Scientists strive for consensus on difficult topics. Review papers essentially are statements of consensus by people familiar with the field. Consensus conferences are routinely held to pour over data and determine things like the best treatments for a disease, or policy recommendations. The attack on scientific consensus is illegitimate, and is more or less, a subtle Galileo gambit. The article also has this great line:

    Often the argument will continue for ever, and should, because the objective of science is not agreement on a course of action, but the pursuit of truth…

    Boy I bet the cranks would love for this to be true. Sorry to burst their bubble but HIV causes AIDS, humans evolved, the CO2 causes global warming, the holocaust happened, and we landed on the moon. This idea that scientific concepts should be debated endlessly is absurd. If the data do not fit the theory, that’s when you have a debate. If new methods and new findings show a theory is limited, that’s when you have a debate. You don’t have a debate because some people don’t like what they hear.

    A less snarky takedown was written by a blogger whose work I often read:

    http://scienceblogs.com/islandofdoubt/2007/05/warm_winds_for_europe.php

    The bottom line is that scientists look for consensus all the time, particularly in medicine. What are staging systems for tumors but consensus statements based on current medical science and clinical trials? What are treatment guidelines, other than a statement of the current consensus on the best care for a condition? Yes, often consensus statements are needed when a topic is somewhat contentious. So what? It does not mean that there isn’t broad agreement and extensive evidence behind a consensus. Indeed, if there weren’t, there wouldn’t be a consensus, and sometimes consensus conferences fail to come to a consensus when the topic is particularly hotly debated. Moreover, the existence of a scientific consensus does not prevent anyone from questioning it or doing research outside of it or even attacking it, nor does it prevent such consensuses from changing with time. Indeed, medical consensuses often change over time. In any case, attacks on the consensus should be made on the basis of scientific evidence, not on the dubious idea that there is “no such thing” as a scientific consensus, the latter of which tends to be a variation of the “Galileo gambit.”

    Personally, I agree with Mark that dismissing the very concept of a scientific consensus as being “not science” or “anti-scientific” is often a red flag for crankery. You don’t have to look far to find numerous examples of cranks like Michael Crichton who do just that. The reason why they do it is obvious. They don’t have any good science or compelling evidence upon which to base their attacks.

  38. Alaskan says:

    “that the casual dismissal of scientific consensus as being some how antithetical to science is often a sign of crankery.”

    I can agree with this. However, I was attempting a consise, careful, if not subtle, distinction in my phrasing about consensus. I did not dismiss the value of consensus. I simply reject the acceptance of scientific consensus and science as being one and the same. I appreciate your taking me to task on being clearer.

    “No, I’m not calling you a crank; however I am pointing out that you are citing a crank in support of your position.”

    Fair enough though a bit murky for me. Are you saying I am not a crank because of some other criterion (which certainly cannot be objectively known here as we don’t know each other personally) or are you indeed saying that my position may still be tenable despite being supported by a bona fide crank? If that’s the case I don’t see how your comment is relevant.

    Permit me to rephrase what I think you are saying (and polease correct me if I’m wrong): a scientist herself is a practitioner, if you will, of the scientific method, by default a thousand scientists united in one voice can form a legitimate factual consensus that has value and in that sense scientific consensus exists.

    On that paraphrase I wholeheartedly agree. But to state that science is consensus without acknowledging how it is also not consensus is to miss, in my opinion, an intrinsic component of science: an observation not dependent on consensus and therefore, in a very real sense, capable of being void of consensus.

    Does this help?

  39. David Gorski says:

    I did not dismiss the value of consensus. I simply reject the acceptance of scientific consensus and science as being one and the same.

    In which case you were making a straw man argument, because no one ever said anything of the sort. In any case, science-based medicine is by its very nature a scientific consensus. It has to be, because it involves the application of often ambiguous, incomplete, or conflicting scientific evidence to the task of treating patients.

  40. Alaskan says:

    David Gorski,

    I do understand what you are stating. Thank you for taking the time to address these points. I am relatively new to this forum and look forward to digesting many of the articles.

    Cheers,

    -M.

  41. Sam says:

    Thr research conducted by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine is not the last word on dietary supplements. Since Linus Pauling and vitamin C was mentioned, here is a summary of recent research on vitamin C:

    http://www.lef.org/magazine/mag2008/apr2008_Newly-Discovered-Benefits-Of-Vitamin-C_01.htm

    The final paragraph begins with this sentence:

    Modern science is now eagerly embracing vitamin C’s enormous potential as an antioxidant capable of preventing and, in some cases, reversing a host of human ills.

  42. daedalus2u says:

    What is interesting to consider in the context of “scientific consensus” is the opposite phenomena, that of “crank consensus”, otherwise known as “crank magnetism”.

    http://scienceblogs.com/denialism/2007/06/crank_magnetism_1.php

    http://scienceblogs.com/denialism/2009/06/the_psychology_of_crankery.php

    Cranks do flock together. All the crank and quack medical practitioners have banded together in the NCCAM. Alternative medicine is based on multiple treatment modalities which have no commonality other than they are not supported by any science or data. There is no common theoretical basis that links homeopathy, Reiki, acupuncture, chiropractic, crystal healing, chelation, anti-vax, and magnet healing. That they have found common cause together can’t be because they share any fundamental common theoretical basis because they don’t, there is no common theoretical basis for their beliefs. I think they have banded together under the social heuristic, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.

    In a scientific consensus, all the parties agree as to what the facts are, what the data is that they are interpreting and putting together and how that data fits together in a scientific consensus. A scientist who disagrees with the consensus interpretation still agrees with all the same facts and data as those who agree with the scientific consensus agree on, he/she simply has a different interpretation. This was not the case in the Galileo persecution. His persecutors didn’t have the facts and data to support their position; they refused to consider Galileo’s facts and data. In no way, shape or form did the opposition to Galileo’s position constitute a “scientific consensus”.

    Someone who disagrees with the consensus by denying facts and data isn’t a scientist; he/she is a denialist. Sometimes they try to disguise this by arbitrarily changing the criteria for data acceptance, in effect denying what is/is not acceptable data. Cherry-picking data is a form of this, because by omission all data not cherry-picked is rejected.

    There can be many valid reasons for rejecting conclusions in the literature, there are very few (essentially none other than fraud or mistakes) valid reasons for rejecting data. The recent fourteen studies anti-vax debate is a good example of this. They couldn’t even keep their criteria within the arbitrary bounds they defined for it, giving negative scores in a 0 to 10 scale. Why scale things and apply numerical values if you are going to disregard the scale? only if your intent is misdirection and denialism, not reasoned debate.

  43. pec says:

    [Is there a single mainstream consensus idea that Gorski doesn’t go along with?]

    [You say that as if it were a bad thing to be for the current mainstream scientific consensus. It’s not.]

    When someone goes along 100% with any group (scientific or political, or whatever), then I wonder about their ability or desire to think critically and question authority. On any controversial issue, the mainstream consensus is usually based as much on opinion as fact, or it wouldn’t be so controversial. When there is clear and unambiguous evidence on any question, it usually stops being highly controversial. People just have to give up when their pet theories are obviously contradicted by hard evidence — not always, but almost always.

    So if you side with the mainstream consensus on all scientific issues, you are probably not being scientific and objective all the time. Scientific curiosity and a desire for understanding are probably not your strongest motivators.

  44. pec says:

    [science-based medicine is by its very nature a scientific consensus. It has to be, because it involves the application of often ambiguous, incomplete, or conflicting scientific evidence to the task of treating patients.]

    Right. The authorities and experts make a decision based on inconclusive evidence, and that becomes the policy. Dissenters are ridiculed and called quacks and pseudo-scientists, but sometimes they are just interpreting the inconclusive evidence in a way that is different but equally valid.

  45. pec says:

    [“The cause of evolution, for example, has never been determined. But a consensus hypothesis has been settled on anyway. And critics of this consensus are attacked by organized political “scientific” groups who get their funding revoked.”]

    [What do you mean? I thought there were several identified causes of evolution that were well understood. What do you think the consensus hypothesis is? What do the critics want funding for?]

    The mainstream consensus on evolution is that the origin of species can be mostly explained by natural selection acting on undirected genetic variations. This is a hypothesis, and the only reason it has become accepted is that it is an entirely materialist explanation. It doesn’t depend on any tendencies of nature to evolve, or any sort of non-physical intelligences.

    But we should not feel obligated to accept a hypothesis which is unsupported by evidence, merely because it agrees with a particular ideological perspective.

    The critics of the mainstream evolution consensus are the intelligent design theorists. They are despised by mainstream science and accused of being Christian Creationists and pseudo-scientists. They were stripped of funding by mainstream materialist organizations.

    There methods are scientific and mathematical. I am not a spokesperson for ID and I do not agree with every ID theorist on every question. I agree with them that the mainstream consensus on evolution is not only unproven, it is merely an untested hypothesis.

    This is one example of the political nature of our current scientific establishment. In the middle ages, the Church was the mainstream and scientific dissenters opposed some of its consensus views. Now the scientific establishment has taken the place of the Church as the provider of Truth.

  46. Calli Arcale says:

    To Jules (re: raw pet food)

    While it is true that there isn’t a study showing whether pets generally do better on raw or cooked diets, I’d like to point out that the same is true of humans. I’m not aware of any clinical trial comparing the health of humans on raw diets versus cooked diets. (I’m assuming these are diets containing meat, BTW, since it is common to eat raw vegetables but relatively unusual to eat raw meat, at least in the US.)

    Humans can actually eat raw meat, and most of them time, they’ll be just fine. I’ve had steak tartare. I’ve had sashimi. I’ve eaten supermarket-purchased hamburger that hadn’t been cooked yet. (It’s one of my guilty pleasures, actually; it’s quite delicious raw.) I have never had food poisoning. Is this evidence that raw meat diets are safe? No, it is not, and there are people getting food poisoning from undercooked meat all the time.

    You don’t need a clinical trial to tell you that cooking meat kills any pathogens that might be in it, and while most meat is not contaminated, since you can’t tell which ones *are*, you’re essentially playing a lottery if you eat raw meat. It’s up to you to decide if the flavor justifies the risk, and to mitigate the risks of cross-contamination. (There are food handling practices which can greatly reduce the risk, though they are not as foolproof as thorough cooking.) I know that if I were a vet, I would not encourage the practice. While you can make the choice to subject your cat to that risk, I would not want to be liable for a cat dying of food poisoning. And I say that despite the fact that I’ve fed raw meat to my own dog. I would not expect my vet to endorse my doing so, nor accuse him of not listening to me for expressing his own concerns about food poisoning.

  47. daedalus2u says:

    Calli, cooked food is much easier to digest. There is considerable evidence that humans require food to be cooked to maintain a healthy calorie intake. There has been no hunter-gatherer society that does not practice cooking food, and when adults “hunt and gather” at a supermarket and eat only uncooked food they lose weight and women become amenorrheic. It seems unlikely that a human population could sustain itself without cooking. If the energy demands of living in an industrial society (Germany) cannot be sustained with a raw diet, how can the higher demands of pregnant and/or lactating hunter-gathers in the wild be sustained?

    Even animals extract more calories with less digestive effort from cooked food.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14527628

    and great apes prefer (in general) cooked food over raw food.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18486186

  48. pec says:

    And by the way, I do NOT think every theory that dissents from the mainstream consensus is true! I always get accused of that, but it’s ridiculous to think that’s what I am saying. I am saying that some dissenters are treated unfairly by the mainstream, merely because their theories do not support the materialist ideology, which has become the prevalent mainstream ideology in recent decades.

    The mainstream consensus is based on ideology and groupthink, as well as evidence. As I said, whenever there is an intense controversy the evidence is incomplete and unclear. When there is obvious evidence for or against a theory, there is no intense controversy. The clear and obvious evidence can always be demonstrated and the argument can be won.

    There is definitely an us versus them, in crowd versus out crowd battle going on, between mainstream and alternative medicine. If you agree 100% with either side on every controversy, then you are not an objective skeptical scientist.

    The people I call pseudo-skeptics are those who automatically agree with any hypothesis that supports materialist ideology, whether there is good evidence or not.

  49. Harriet Hall says:

    I think of scientific consensus as the joint recognition that the weight of evidence is sufficient for everyone to agree on the same conclusion. When the evidence is not sufficient, there is no scientific consensus, but there may be a political consensus.

    The weight of evidence for evolution is so overwhelming that no reasonable person could disagree with the scientific consensus. By suggesting that the theory of evolution is unsupported by evidence and that ID is scientific, pec has demonstrated that she is not one of those reasonable people.

  50. Scott says:

    “On any controversial issue, the mainstream consensus is usually based as much on opinion as fact, or it wouldn’t be so controversial. When there is clear and unambiguous evidence on any question, it usually stops being highly controversial.”

    That’s rather off base when it comes to science (though pretty accurate for social and political questions). In science, a “scientific consensus” generally only arises AFTER controversy is settled by clear and unambiguous evidence. There are exceptions (string theory being one from my own discipline) of course, but they are pretty rare.

    That’s the beauty of being the most objective way humans have ever come up with to answer questions about the world.

  51. Joe says:

    @pec on 16 Jun 2009 at 10:04 am

    Wow- you have it bassackwards. Evolution is a theory not a hypothesis. A theory is a hypothesis that has survived thorough investigation.

    “Intelligent design” is hardly even a hypothesis, it is a mere notion, because it is based in scripture rather than scientific principles.

  52. Alaskan says:

    The jury is still out on cooked food versus BARF (biologically appropriate raw food, formerly bones and raw food) regarding domestic animals. There simply isn’t enough published data on that subject. What does exist is clinical experience among veterinarians that food borne illness is a valid concern for both animals and the public health with such a raw diet.

    While it may be true that a few proponents of a raw food diet for an otherwise healthy animal may have their dietary formulas “together,” the fact is without published trials science-based veterinarians will be understandably hesitant to recommend homemade raw meals when owner compliance with veterinary instructions is typically abysmal in the first place.

    Owners ideally trust their doctor to provide information that is safe and effective. It is simply unethical to prescribe a non studied diet that has so many potential hazards when a known effective, commercial feed (or homemade diet) exists.

    That said, do I think raw food for pets is a by default poison? Nope. But there is a good reason why veterinarians proceed the way they do. Should science determine that raw food advocates are spot on, then and only then will there be faster change.

    On the flip side there is scientific evidence and of course clinical experience that domestic animals with certain metabolic pathologies do require specialized commercial diets and or adjunct medication if good health is to be accomplished.

  53. pec says:

    “the weight of evidence for evolution is so overwhelming that no reasonable person could disagree with the scientific consensus.”

    I have NEVER EVER denied evolution. Never, not once. I believe in evolution and have said so countless times at this blog. I am getting very tired of repeating it. Harriet pretends she did not notice what I really said. I said the CAUSES of evolution are not understood. I said there is no evidence that the current mainstream theory about what causes evolution is correct.

    By pretending that I deny evolution, Harriet can seem to win her argument. Because every scientific person knows that evolution has been proven beyond doubt. And as a scientific person, I am entirely in agreement with the fact of evolution, which is supported by clear and unambiguous evidence.

    And I can’t believe I am explaining all this yet again.

  54. Harriet Hall says:

    No, pec, the causes of evolution are part of the theory of evolution, and by denying that the causes are understood you are denying the theory.

  55. Scott says:

    “Intelligent design is hardly even a hypothesis, it is a mere notion, because it is based in scripture rather than scientific principles.”

    More precisely, it is not even a hypothesis because it has no predictive power and is therefore not falsifiable. So it is empirically untestable, and the scientific method does not apply.

  56. Pliny-the-in-Between says:

    A great post. I would only add that part of the problem is that we forget that scientists and the scientific method are not the same thing. To err is human, to detect it is science.

  57. pec says:

    “No, pec, the causes of evolution are part of the theory of evolution, and by denying that the causes are understood you are denying the theory.”

    I’m sorry Harriet, but that is so silly. Why can’t I believe in evolution without thinking it has been completely explained? You have a childish view of science.

  58. daedalus2u says:

    pec, you are entitled to your own opinions, you are not entitled to your own facts (Senator Moynihan) . The current scientific consensus on evolution “doesn’t depend on any tendencies of nature to evolve, or any sort of non-physical intelligences” precisely because there is no data to suggest that there are “any tendencies of nature to evolve, or any sort of non-physical intelligences.”

    That there are no reported facts that support the idea that there are ”tendencies of nature to evolve, or any sort of non-physical intelligences” is itself a fact, a fact that you want to deny because you want to subscribe to some non-materialistic idea of reality.

    If facts are ever found that do support the idea that there are ”tendencies of nature to evolve, or any sort of non-physical intelligences”, then we can (and will) revise that scientific consensus. Until then, by using “facts” that are not accepted as such by the scientific community, and denying facts that are accepted by the scientific community, you are demonstrating yourself to be a denialist and a crank.

    One can be a scientist and not agree with the scientific consensus, but one cannot deny the data used to formulate that scientific consensus and still be a scientist.

    You may apply the label “evolution” to what you believe in, but if you ascribe it to non-physical intelligences, you are meaning something completely different than what the scientific consensus of evolution means. That you try to use the same term without defining it precisely so as to trick us into thinking you mean the same thing is dishonest.

  59. Harriet Hall says:

    pec,

    You can accept the theory of evolution without thinking it has been completely explained, but you can’t reject an integral part of the theory.

    Straw man: no one has suggested that evolution has been “completely” explained. Our understanding is, you might say, “evolving.”

    You said “The mainstream consensus on evolution is that the origin of species can be mostly explained by natural selection acting on undirected genetic variations. This is a hypothesis, and the only reason it has become accepted is that it is an entirely materialist explanation. It doesn’t depend on any tendencies of nature to evolve, or any sort of non-physical intelligences. But we should not feel obligated to accept a hypothesis which is unsupported by evidence, merely because it agrees with a particular ideological perspective.” and you went on to claim that the methods of ID are scientific.

    All of this is so demonstrably wrong that it deserves no comment.

  60. pec says:

    [ there are no reported facts that support the idea that there are ”tendencies of nature to evolve, or any sort of non-physical intelligences”]

    There are also no reported facts to support the idea that life originates and new species evolve solely because of natural selection and unguided variations. We have no reason to believe that an non-living mindless universe can create life and intelligence. We have no reason to adhere to the philosophy of materialism, or to insist that all substances, fields and energies have already been discovered and observed by science.

    Materialism has become popular without having been supported by any scientific evidence. You won the popularity contest, for now, but you have not proven anything.

  61. Scott says:

    “There are also no reported facts to support the idea that life originates”

    Hold on there! Evolution doesn’t have anything to do with the origin of life. That’s an entirely distinct question.

    “and new species evolve solely because of natural selection and unguided variations.”

    When there is no evidence for other factors being involved, or that the known factors are inadequate, then the minimal hypothesis must be that there are no other factors. In order to argue that there are, or that it is important to search for other factors, evidence must be provided.

    “We have no reason to believe that an non-living mindless universe can create life and intelligence.”

    Quite thoroughly irrelevant to the question of evolution, but we should also note that similarly have no reason to believe that it can’t.

    “We have no reason to adhere to the philosophy of materialism,”

    Philosophy is, again, completely irrelevant to the question.

    “or to insist that all substances, fields and energies have already been discovered and observed by science.”

    No serious scientist does so insist. But without evidence to demonstrate something novel, there is no way to tell what it is that we don’t yet know. Is it *possible* that there are other factors in play? Certainly. Is there the slightest reason to believe that the factors you’re suggesting are real? In the absence of evidence supporting that contention, absolutely not.

  62. daedalus2u says:

    Occam’s razor is a perfectly good heuristic to choose the simplest explanation that fits all the data. There is no data that requires a non-materialist explanation. There are infinitely many non-materialist explanations that fit the data equally well.

    There is no data that excludes a non-materialist explanation; there is no data that excludes Mickey Mouse or the Tooth Fairy as that non-material explanation. What criteria should we use to decide between Mickey Mouse, the Tooth Fairy and your “non-physical intelligences”? The data we have supports them all equally well (that is not at all), which should we choose? Or should we accept them all? Accept infinitely many non-materialistic explanations, none of which have any more explanatory power than the simplest materialistic explanation?

  63. pec says:

    “Hold on there! Evolution doesn’t have anything to do with the origin of life. That’s an entirely distinct question.”

    Oh yes, materialists always yell that one out. Because you have no plausible theories for life originating by chance in a non-living universe. Sorry, the origin of life is a big problem for materialism. And it is relevant to the controversy.

  64. pec says:

    [When there is no evidence for other factors being involved, or that the known factors are inadequate, then the minimal hypothesis must be that there are no other factors.]

    The fact is that the cause of evolution is NOT KNOWN. But you materialists insist that it IS KNOWN, and that your hypothesis is correct. You don’t want to allow anyone to look for other possible explanations. You devoutly believe that you know the ultimate answer to the ultimate question.

  65. pec says:

    “Accept infinitely many non-materialistic explanations, none of which have any more explanatory power than the simplest materialistic explanation?”

    NO — accept that you DO NOT KNOW. Yeah, I know that’s hard for a materialist to admit.

  66. Harriet Hall says:

    pec,

    You have dug yourself into a very deep hole. There’s no way you can get out of this one.

  67. David Gorski says:

    So if you side with the mainstream consensus on all scientific issues, you are probably not being scientific and objective all the time. Scientific curiosity and a desire for understanding are probably not your strongest motivators.

    Who said I agree with the mainstream consensus on all issues? I simply meant that in general I tend to support the scientific consensus, particularly in medicine; perhaps I shouldn’t have said it in such a lightheartedly sarcastic manner, as clearly pec is sarcasm-challenged, at least when the sarcasm is directed at her.

  68. David Gorski says:

    The fact is that the cause of evolution is NOT KNOWN. But you materialists insist that it IS KNOWN, and that your hypothesis is correct. You don’t want to allow anyone to look for other possible explanations. You devoutly believe that you know the ultimate answer to the ultimate question.

    I have to go with Harriet on this one, pec. You’ve dug yourself into an incredibly deep hole here, and your latest straw man argument is risibly nonsensical.

    Please, tell me: Who here has claimed to know the “ultimate answer to the ultimate question” (except that it’s 42–no, I don’t expect pec to get that one)? Who here has claimed that the “cause” of evolution is known. There’s a lot known about the mechanisms by which evolution occurs (natural selection, sexual selection, genetic drift, etc.), but science is not about finding The One True Cause of anything.

  69. David Gorski says:

    There are also no reported facts to support the idea that life originates and new species evolve solely because of natural selection and unguided variations.

    Whoever said that life originates because of natural selection? The question of abiogenesis and the question of evolution are two separate issues. Come to think of it, who says that new species evolve solely because of natural selection? There are multiple other mechanisms of evolution, including genetic drift, sexual selection, etc. that contribute to speciation. Arguably genetic drift is as important as natural selection, at least once two populations of organisms of the same species are separated.

    We have no reason to believe that an non-living mindless universe can create life and intelligence.

    Argument by assertion. Actually, we do have considerable reason to believe that life can arise in the universe and evolve to intelligence.

    We have no reason to adhere to the philosophy of materialism, or to insist that all substances, fields and energies have already been discovered and observed by science.

    My goodness you’re good at straw man arguments! Who here has ever said that all substances, fields, and energies have been discovered and observed by science?

  70. pec says:

    [please, tell me: Who here has claimed to know the “ultimate answer to the ultimate question”? Who here has claimed that the “cause” of evolution is known. There’s a lot known about the mechanisms by which evolution occurs (natural selection, sexual selection, genetic drift, etc.), but science is not about finding The One True Cause of anything.]

    We could start with Richard Dawkins, for example, who is a leading spokesperson for contemporary materialism. He has no doubt — none at all — that life originated by a series of unlikely random events. And he is absolutely certain that the new synthesis hypothesis about the cause of evolution is correct.

    I would be very surprised if any blog authors here are in disagreement with Dawkins’ basic materialist attitude. If you are, great, but I doubt it.

    The ultimate question, or one of the most important, is “why and how did we end up here, as a primate species, on the planet earth”?

    Materialists will not hesitate to inform us that this question has been answered, and the answer is random accidents acted on by natural selection.

    Anyone who doubts the materialist stories is immediately labeled as unscientific and called a pseudo-scientist, or worse.

  71. pec says:

    [ho says that new species evolve solely because of natural selection? There are multiple other mechanisms of evolution, including genetic drift, sexual selection, etc. that contribute to speciation. ]

    Oh yes, I love that one. It isn’t just natural selection, it’s all these other wonderful things you have come up with. You just hope no one notices it’s still essentially natural selection and random variation.

  72. pec says:

    “except that it’s 42–no, I don’t expect pec to get that one”

    Go stick your head in a pig.

  73. Joe says:

    Scott on 16 Jun 2009 at 12:03 pm

    [quoting me] “Intelligent design is hardly even a hypothesis, it is a mere notion, because it is based in scripture rather than scientific principles.”

    Scott’s reply: “More precisely, it is not even a hypothesis because it has no predictive power and is therefore not falsifiable. So it is empirically untestable, and the scientific method does not apply.”

    I deliberately left that out because it smacks too much of philosophy, which I do not care for. Some assertions are defined as unfalsifiable, e.g., every human has a soul which is undetectable, that is definitely unscientific (supernatural). However, unfalsifiable notions sometimes become testable with the arrival of new technology, or someone more clever than we are. So, while I agree that you have correctly assessed the current situation: in principle, that is subject to change.

  74. Harriet Hall says:

    pec,

    You’re only digging yourself deeper.

  75. David Gorski says:

    Oh yes, I love that one. It isn’t just natural selection, it’s all these other wonderful things you have come up with. You just hope no one notices it’s still essentially natural selection and random variation.

    Such ignorance is painful to behold.

  76. David Gorski says:
    except that it’s 42–no, I don’t expect pec to get that one

    Go stick your head in a pig.

    Well, no, that isn’t the answer to the ultimate question of Life, The Universe, and Everything. But nice try, and thanks for playing!

    Apparently pec has never heard of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, has she? :-)

  77. Scott says:

    “Oh yes, materialists always yell that one out. Because you have no plausible theories for life originating by chance in a non-living universe. Sorry, the origin of life is a big problem for materialism. And it is relevant to the controversy.”

    You’re the only person talking about materialism that I can see. The rest of us are talking about evolution.

    And you’re badly behind the times on origin-of-life research; there are quite a few promising avenues which are being actively pursued.

    “The fact is that the cause of evolution is NOT KNOWN. But you materialists insist that it IS KNOWN, and that your hypothesis is correct. You don’t want to allow anyone to look for other possible explanations. You devoutly believe that you know the ultimate answer to the ultimate question.”

    No, scientists state that, based on the current evidence, there are several known factors which contribute to evolution. And that there is no convincing evidence for other factors. If such evidence were to be found, you can be quite sure that it would be embraced.

  78. Mark Crislip says:

    pec wins.
    Big time

    “Go stick your head in a pig” is an obscure reference to HHGTTG and shows a true mastery of the books.

    It is from the sirius cybernetics complaint division:

    Share and enjoy!
    Share and enjoy!
    Journey through life
    with a plastic boy
    or girl by your side.
    Let your pal be your guide!
    And when it breaks down
    or starts to annoy
    or grinds when it moves
    and gives you no joy
    ‘cos it’s eaten your hat
    or had sex with your cat,
    bled oil on your floor
    or ripped off your door
    and you get to the point
    you can’t stand any more:
    Bring it to us,
    we won’t give a fig!
    We’ll tell you,
    Go stick your head in a pig!

    ooohhhhhhh.

  79. pec says:

    “Apparently pec has never heard of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, has she?”

    Apparently your memory is defective, if you did read it.

  80. David Gorski says:

    Apparently so–this time. Ah, well, such is life. Brain farts do occasionally occur when I make the mistake of making a quickie response, and, unlike you, I take my lumps when memory fails me. :-/

    But, of course, the whole HHGTTG thing is all a sideshow. None of it changes the fact that your arguments about evolution remain utterly and completely specious.

  81. tmac57 says:

    pec-”The people I call pseudo-skeptics are those who automatically agree with any hypothesis that supports materialist ideology, whether there is good evidence or not.”
    What do you call those who automatically agree with any hypothesis that supports NON-MATERIALIST ideology, whether there is good evidence or not ? pec-o-skeptics ?

  82. tmac57 says:

    P reeing – E ccentric – C avalier ! ! !

  83. The ability to fail to admit one’s mistakes, and digging one’s self in deeper into a hole through self-delusion is not only a problem in medicine, but in many fields. The tendency to reduce cognitive dissonance is something that is deeply engrained in human psychology (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_dissonance for more details.) We’re not only working against ignorance and misinformation, but aspects of psychology that appears according to research to be at least partly innate.

    In addition to Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things, Carol Tarvis’s Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) is a good book on how this problem applies to medicine and other fields.

  84. Danio says:

    Pec,
    As has been pointed out, Evolution ≠ Abiogenesis, although i would argue that the principles of ‘descent with modification’ would have been in play for the physical/chemical/molecular events that preceded bona fide ‘life’. You still haven’t defined ’cause’, as in “the cause of evolution”, but if you mean ‘first cause’ you might find this New York Times article of interest.

    We could start with Richard Dawkins, for example, who is a leading spokesperson for contemporary materialism. He has no doubt — none at all — that life originated by a series of unlikely random events. And he is absolutely certain that the new synthesis hypothesis about the cause of evolution is correct.

    Hmmm…I don’t recall him making these claims. Perhaps you could provide a reference?

    I’ve heard Richard Dawkins opine on the matter of absolute certainty in a number of interviews and speeches, and he invariably says things like “I think any scientist would be unwise to commit himself to saying there definitely *isn’t* anything” (these particular words taken from his ‘Real Time with Bill Maher’ interview in April ’08, explaining his self-assigned 6 out of 7 on the god belief scale). Absolute certainty is anathema to the scientific method.

    Oh yes, I love that one. It isn’t just natural selection, it’s all these other wonderful things you have come up with. You just hope no one notices it’s still essentially natural selection and random variation.

    Yet there are very distinct differences between natural selection and sexual selection. The way I look at is is that Natural Selection tends to select against traits that impede survival–the traits that make it through the ‘selection’ just didn’t get caught in nature’s killing dragnet. Sexual selection is sort of the inverse of this. It’s a lot more dependent on behavior, in which traits (colorful plumage, rosy bum-cheeks, whatever) are actively (though unconsciously) selected ‘for’ by the prospective mates. Yes, the traits under selection in both cases are caused by random genetic mutations, but the ways in which they are acted upon by each type of selection are quite distinct.

    The ultimate question, or one of the most important, is “why and how did we end up here, as a primate species, on the planet earth”?

    In point of fact, this is two questions. The answer to both is ‘evolution’.

  85. Danio says:

    Another Dawkins quote, re: “absolute certainty” (from the PBS program ‘Faith and Reason’):

    It’s a different argument to say how did the whole process start – how do we begin with the origin of life? The origin of life — the key process in the origin of life was the arising of a self-replicating molecule. This was a very simple thing compared with what it’s given rise to. By far the majority of the work in producing the elegant complexity of life is done after the origin of life, during the process of evolution. There does remain the very first step — I don’t think it’s necessarily a bigger step than several of the subsequent steps, but it is a step. And it’s a step which we don’t fully understand — mainly because it happened such a long time ago, and under conditions when the Earth was very different. And so it’s not necessarily possible to simulate again the chemical conditions of the origin of life. There are various theories for how it might have happened. None of them is yet fully convincing. It may be that none of them ever will be, because it may be that we shall never know fully what the conditions were. But I don’t find it at all a deeply mysterious step.

    Just sayin’.

  86. trrll says:

    Those who always go with the consensus make up all kinds of theories about why there are dissenters, who are always labeled “cranks” and “quacks.” But the real reason, very often, is that the question has not been settled and the consensus view, although popular, is often weak and lacking good evidence.

    I’ve known a number of scientists who have at one time or another dissented from the current consensus view in a field. None were labeled “quacks” or “cranks.” Scientists are a contentious lot, and disagreement with consensus is not at all unusual. Nobody gets much upset about it. What gets people labeled “cranks” or “quacks” is the use of particular types of fallacious arguments, the cherry-picking of data, ignoring, mischaracterizing, or nitpicking results that do not fit with one’s pet hypothesis, while embracing uncritically results that seem to support it.

  87. Prometheus says:

    Pec is back….

    Materialism has become popular without having been supported by any scientific evidence. You won the popularity contest, for now, but you have not proven anything.

    Actually, Pec has that completely backwards. As usual.

    Materialism is the idea that – essentially – “what you see is what you get”; that the “material” (i.e. physical, observable) world is all that there is.

    Scientists – good scientists, anyway – will consciously or unconsciously modify this to “the material world is all that we can know about”. This doesn’t foreclose the possibility that a “non-material” (i.e. “spiritual”) world exists, it just cannot be detected because it has no impact on the “material” world.

    In reality, if energy or matter from the “spiritual” world were “leaking” into the material world, we would be able to detect it by its interaction with matter or energy in the “material” world. That, in turn, would make this “leakage” part of the “material” world.

    Pec’s ranting about “materialism” simply indicates a lack of true understanding of the consequences of “non-materialism”. If there is a non-material universe, it remains so because it has no interaction with the material universe. That includes interaction with the human mind (i.e. brain).

    If – as Pec seems to argue – there are non-material “forces” that interact with the human mind, they should be detectable because the “mind” is simply the “software” that runs on the “hardware” (“wetware”?) of the human brain. Anything that can influence the brain has to be able to interact with material matter or energy and so is – by definition – “material” itself. Thus, if it interacts with the mind (brain), it isn’t non-material.

    If Pec really means that there are energies or forms of matter that we are unable to detect, he/she is probably correct. It would be utter hubris to claim that we are currently able to detect all forms of matter and energy in existence (in the “material” universe). However, those as-yet-undetected types of matter or energy would be firmly in the material universe if they interact with our brains.

    Here is where I see the problem with Pec’s “argument”:

    Pec claims that there are non-material (or as-yet-undetected) forms of energy or matter that are interacting with the human brain (but not the most sensitive human instruments) in ways that only the human brain can detect.

    However, decades of neurological research has shown us that the human brain has a fairly limited number of things that can cause it to react. Energies that can cause these reactions are readily detectable by currently available instruments.

    In addition, testing of these reputed “non-material” (or as-yet-undetected) interactions with the brain has shown that they appear to be “caused” by either conscious deception or unconscious self-deception. ESP, spoon-bending (telekinesis), “remote viewing”, etc. have all failed when subjected to rigorous testing.

    So, Pec is essentially asking us to “take it on faith” that these non-material interactions exist, even though they have routinely failed rigorous testing. The argument seems to be that these “energies” interact only with the human brain (and not our super-sensitive instruments) and that the failures of the human brain to consistently detect these “energies” is due to….. what? Low signal-to-noise ratio? Erratic human performance (equal to random chance)? “Hardware” incompatibility?

    In fact, Pec is proposing a hypothesis (“non-material forces”) to explain phenomena that don’t seem to exist.

    In reality, any truly non-material energy or matter is irrelevant to us because it doesn’t interact with our universe. There may be angels and demons and fantastic energies galore in some other “astral plane” or parallel universe, but if they don’t interact with our universe, we have no way of knowing they are there. And if they do interact with out universe, then they aren’t non-material.

    Prometheus

  88. pec says:

    “If Pec really means that there are energies or forms of matter that we are unable to detect, he/she is probably correct…. However, those as-yet-undetected types of matter or energy would be firmly in the material universe if they interact with our brains.”

    If you define materialism that way, then it has to be true, but the concept is meaningless.

  89. pec says:

    “In reality, any truly non-material energy or matter is irrelevant to us because it doesn’t interact with our universe.”

    Well if you choose to define it that way, then non-materialism is impossible. But we don’t have to define it your way.

    [In addition, testing of these reputed “non-material” (or as-yet-undetected) interactions with the brain has shown that they appear to be “caused” by either conscious deception or unconscious self-deception. ESP, spoon-bending (telekinesis), “remote viewing”, etc. have all failed when subjected to rigorous testing.]

    That statement is completely untrue. But of course you haven’t looked at any parapsychology evidence so you have made your decision based on ignorance.

    I am not going to debate anyone on parapsychology if they refuse to look at any of the evidence.

  90. pec says:

    The mystery of life is a mystery no longer because [Darwin] solved it.”

    Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker

  91. Danio says:

    Nice quote mine, Pec. Context is important, especially:

    “This book is written in the conviction that our own existence once presented the greatest of all mysteries, but that it is a mystery no longer because it is solved. Darwin and Wallace solved it, though we shall continue to add footnotes to their solution for a while yet…”

    n.b. ‘the mystery *of our existence*’, not of ‘life’.

    and

    “This book is not a dispassionate scientific treatise. Other books on Darwinism are, and many of them are excellent and informative and should be read in conjunction with this one. Far from being dispassionate, it has to be confessed that in parts this book is written with a passion which, in a professional scientific journal, might excite comment. Certainly it seeks to inform, but it also seeks to persuade and even – one can specify aims without presumption – to inspire. I want to inspire the reader with a vision of our own existence as, on the face of it, a spine-chilling mystery; and simultaneously to convey the full excitement of the fact that it is a mystery with an elegant solution which is within our grasp. More, I want to persuade the reader, not just that the Darwinian world-view happens to be true, but that it is the only known theory that could, in principle, solve the mystery of our existence. ” (my bold emphasis)

    Both quotes are from the preface to The Blind Watchmaker.
    This quote swapping sure is fun, but how about addressing some of the specific rebuttals I’ve made to your dismissal of the key tenets of a scientific theory you claim to ‘believe in’?

  92. Scott says:

    “Well if you choose to define it that way, then non-materialism is impossible. But we don’t have to define it your way.”

    That’s the standard, generally accepted definition among scientists. If you want to define it some other way, go ahead – but you’re no longer talking about the same thing, so don’t try to claim you are.

    “That statement is completely untrue. But of course you haven’t looked at any parapsychology evidence so you have made your decision based on ignorance.
    I am not going to debate anyone on parapsychology if they refuse to look at any of the evidence.”

    Very many people here have looked in great detail at the available evidence on these matters, and come to precisely the conclusion stated. In fact, I dare say that nobody who HAS looked objectively and logically at the evidence has come to any other conclusion. It’s just that overwhelming, so long as you don’t cherry-pick the evidence that supports your preconceptions.

  93. pec says:

    “Very many people here have looked in great detail at the available evidence on these matters, and come to precisely the conclusion stated.”

    Only if they are dogmatic materialists, such as Dawkins. Look how utterly thrilled he is to believe:

    “not just that the Darwinian world-view happens to be true, but that it is the only known theory that could, in principle, solve the mystery of our existence.”

    Well I guess I would be thrilled too if I thought I had it all figured out. But I don’t, and he doesn’t, and no one does. And never will. Sorry Dawkins.

  94. Scott says:

    “Only if they are dogmatic materialists, such as Dawkins.”

    Why are you so hung up on Dawkins? And what makes you think that only “dogmatic materialists” could possibly disagree with you?

  95. weing says:

    What about all the non-dogmatic materialists? Only the dogmatic psychics and spiritualists refuse to recognize material reality except in the form of cash.

  96. trrll says:

    “In reality, any truly non-material energy or matter is irrelevant to us because it doesn’t interact with our universe.”
    Well if you choose to define it that way, then non-materialism is impossible. But we don’t have to define it your way.

    So if “non-material” does not mean, well, non-material, what does it mean? How is it distinguished from, say such material energy and matter as photons, electrons, protons, neutrons, etc.? Or does it just mean “any mechanism for which there is no good evidence?”

  97. Danio says:

    pec, if your reading of Dawkins is so shallow that you interpret his championing of evolutionary theory as having it ‘all figured out’, I feel sorry for you.

    Clearly the impasse here is that you find unsolved mysteries more compelling, exciting and meaningful than answers. You don’t *want* anything to be disproven, because testable, mechanistic theories of how the material universe operates are apparently crashingly boring compared to the squishy ‘what if’ state that exists if every conceivable explanation for anything, however uninformed or contradictory, is equally plausible.

    In contrast, many professional scientists and pro-science laypeople alike are enthralled by the glimmers of understanding that years of rigorous, hard, impassioned scientific research has afforded us, and we yearn for even more knowledge. One of the coolest, most humbling experiences of my life has been to really comprehend how little anyone actually knows, as compared to all that *could* be known given the right tools, insight, and time. This is not an uncommon realization. An honest scientist quickly comes to realize his or her own intellectual and technological limitations, but that doesn’t mean we have to accept that those limitations are permanent, especially as there is already ample evidence to the contrary in our human history.

    To paraphrase Captain von Trapp, you seem to be suffering from a deplorable lack of curiosity.

  98. pec says:

    Danio,

    You are marvelous. Your intelligence just blows everyone away. I am so grateful to you for feeling sorry for me. Thank you. I mean it.

  99. cloudskimmer says:

    I’m disappointed that an ignoramus who is impervious to reason has managed to take this post so far off topic. It started as a discussion of doctors becoming cranks/quacks.

    My concern is the topic of chronic pain which, if the proliferation of pain treatment clinics is any evidence, is a lucrative field. Many M.D.’s, particularly anesthesiologists, have decided to make a little more money by claiming to treat chronic pain. In addition there are the certified quacks, such as acupuncturists, who make a living at this. By applying similar approaches (soothing assurances, plus some modality, such as injections or medications, needling, etc.) the patient feels better… for a time. Then the modality is reapplied, or some variant is applied. Most people with back pain get better after a few weeks, regardless of the treatment, and often the last treatment is credited for the recovery. But ultimately, the treatment was probably worthless. The patient would have recovered anyway. For a significant percentage of patients the pain returns, and the search for a remedy continues.

    Progressing through the various quack modalities gives similar “results.” Back pain is notoriously resistent to treatment for many people, and doctors who indulge in useless practices, then delude themselves with remembering only the recoveries and ignoring people who have not been helped, are really no better than the quacks.

    I’m focusing here on chronic back pain, though I realize that there are many forms of chronic pain. The latest treatment I’ve noticed is the Laser Surgery Center (only two locations in the U.S.) which urge people to travel long distances for their surgical treatments. I have no doubt that they are making a lot of money and have real doctors doing the procedures, but wonder, in the absence of long-term follow-up, if their modality is any more “effective” than any other. When asked, they cite anecdotal evidence (“We have lots of satisfied patients!”) and nothing else. So, are they any better than the chiropractors, acupuncturists, and other quacks who claim to treat back pain? My own anecdotes include friends and family members who have had laminectomies and fusions which seemed to be effective, but the pain has returned. Was the surgery simply an elaborate placebo? Without good follow-up, aren’t these doctors fooling themselves?

  100. Chris Noble says:

    “The work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics.” (2003/M. Chrichton)

    Crichton was a fool and a crank.

    Both science and politics are about building a consensus. The difference is that science achieves that through evidence.

    When a scientist writes a scientific paper they are trying to convince the scientific community that their hypothesis is correct. The most important factor is the quality and strength of the evidence that is presented.

    By far the majority of scientific consensuses are consensuses exactly because the evidence is so convincing. Without strong evidence that something has gone wrong with the scientific process it is sensible to conditionally accept scientific consensuses. Fantastical conspiracy theories about bigPharma and bigPhysics don’t count.

    Crichton was trying to convince everybody that global warming was not a problem. You have to wonder what he would have done if he actually achieved this and established a new consensus. Would he still have said that if it’s a consensus it isn’t science? Or does his rule only apply to consensuses that he doesn’t agree with?

    And one final difference between cranks and scientists is that scientists attempt to convince the relevant scientific community whereas cranks write books targetting lay-audiences.

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