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Science under Siege

A new book, Science Under Siege: Defending Science, Exposing Pseudoscience addresses many of the issues near and dear to the hearts of SBM bloggers and readers. A compilation of some of the best writing from the last few years of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, it’s not only good reading but can serve as a useful reference.

Skeptical Inquirer is the official magazine of what was formerly called The Committee for the Skeptical Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). It was formed in 1976 and in its early days it concentrated on things like Bigfoot, UFOs and psychics. It has morphed into the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the magazine is now described on its cover as “The Magazine for Science and Reason.” It has gone way beyond paranormal claims to address everything from intelligent design to AIDS denial. In the 3 decades of its existence it has performed an invaluable service by investigating alleged phenomena and testing claims scientifically, providing natural explanations for weird observations, refuting pseudoscientific arguments, and teaching people how science works and how to think critically.

We now have many skeptical magazines, including Michael Shermer’s Skeptic in the US and similarly named publications in the UK, Australia and elsewhere. But Skeptical Inquirer was the first. It was the trailblazer and set the standard.

The word “skeptic” has negative connotations for some. But it is really a positive, inquisitive, reality-based approach to all aspects of life. A skeptic is a person who asks for evidence before accepting a belief and who asks if there could be another explanation other than the first one that is offered. Scientists are skeptics. Skeptics think scientifically.

As a longtime subscriber to the magazine, none of the articles in the book were new to me, but they were all well worth re-reading and I noticed things I had forgotten or missed the first time around. More importantly, the way the articles were selected and juxtaposed creates a whole that is greater than the parts.

Science is indeed under siege. Its value is questioned by postmodernists. Its findings are rejected by people who put belief and testimonials above the results of scientific studies. Jenny McCarthy tells women to ignore the scientific evidence on vaccinations and trust their Mommy instincts. Evolution is called “only a theory” as “Intelligent Design” tries to infiltrate our schools. Much of the public is scientifically illiterate, and incompetent reporting by the media is only making things worse. Even some scientists fail to truly understand the scientific method.

Science is respected by the public, but “the evidence shows they don’t know much about it and they poorly understand and appreciate the methods science uses to pursue the truth about nature.” As Carl Sagan says in this book, we need to “present science as it is, as something dazzling, as something tremendously exciting, as something eliciting feelings of reverence and awe, as something that our lives depend on.”

This book offers a spirited defense of the scientific approach and applies it to every kind of human endeavor. Science is flexible, self-correcting, a joint enterprise, and a discipline that works the same everywhere regardless of your religion, political beliefs, or culture of origin. It is the one field where people around the world can reach a consensus about reality. It doesn’t claim to offer absolute “truths” but it offers the best (the only) rational tool to asymptotically approach the best approximation of truths about the real world we share. Incidentally, a rare proofreading error misspelled “asymptotically” twice in Carl Sagan’s article as “asymptomatically.” I couldn’t find anything else in the book to criticize, so I thought I’d mention that.

It would be impossible to choose the best out of so many superb essays, but here are some of the highlights: Carl Sagan’s last Q & A on science and skeptical inquiry. A paean to the wonder and awe of real science by Sagan’s wife, Ann Druyan. An article explaining Ray Hyman’s Categorical Directive: “before we try to explain something, we should make sure it actually happened.” John E. Jones, III’s eloquent decision in the Dover “Intelligent Design” case. An article on AIDS denialism by Nicoli Nattrass, who is director of an AIDS research unit in South Africa and can testify to the incalculable harm denialism has caused her compatriots. Common myths about evolution and how to refute them. The anti-vaccination movement (by our own Steven Novella). Ray Hyman investigates a girl who claims to have x-ray vision, Benjamin Radford finds natural explanations and succeeds in reassuring the frightened inhabitants of an allegedly haunted house, and Joe Nickel infiltrates Camp Chesterfield in disguise to show how so-called psychics deliberately lie and trick their customers. The patent office myth (that a director quit because there was nothing more to discover) is put to rest once and for all (but can be predicted to rise again). Philosopher Mario Bunge illuminates the philosophy behind pseudoscience, helping define what it is and helping us understand how to think about it. Bruce Flamm destroys what little is left of the fraudulent Columbia University study about prayer and in vitro fertilization. Other subjects include energy medicine, health claims for magnets, bogus oxygen therapies, and the now defunct PEAR study of psychic power over machines. Marvin Gardner covers vacuum energy. Other articles address global warming, a proposal to reduce the cost of energy, and thoughtful essays on how science can contribute to political decisions and even ethical discussions and is essential to the democratic process. There is even a skeptical look at the reaction to 9/11, – with a rebuttal by Steven Pinker and his later revised rebuttal after he changed his mind! Overblown fears (Halloween candy from a stranger never ever hurt a child), animal rights terrorism, and more. My favorite anecdote from the book is Massimo Polidoro’s account of accompanying magician James Randi on a live TV show as he tried to replicate a psychic’s magic trick of reproducing a drawing that was in a sealed envelope. They used controls that they had not applied to the psychic and that prevented the kind of tricks the psychic used. It looked like Randi had been backed into a corner with no way out, but he calmly improvised new methods of deception on the spot and proceeded to astound everyone. He fully deserves the name of The Amazing Randi as well as the MacArthur Genius Grant he was awarded in 1986.

This collection is a keeper. If you are a subscriber to Skeptical Inquirer, you will want to have this volume on your reference shelf where so many of your favorite gems will be right at your fingertips. If you are not a subscriber, you have a real treat in store.

Disclaimer: two of my own articles were selected for inclusion in this collection, but I am not receiving any royalties. My share of any profits will revert to the organization.

Posted in: Book & movie reviews

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36 thoughts on “Science under Siege

  1. Alaskan says:

    The title Science Under Siege evokes an image for me whereby a personified image of “Big Pseudo” prowls academia making libelous claims against the rows and rows of peer-reviewed data by throwing its own texts at them.

    Would that this metaphor existed, actualized in a court, and with truth being an absolute defense against libel be done with the matter of pseudoscience forever.

  2. Fred Dagg says:

    Hello Harriet (one T, not two)

    You have made some really gross generalisations in this article, that seriously detract from the intent. You do not define what a “scientist” is. Nor do you define what “science” is. You use the word carelessly, because what some people think is “science”, others would consider rubbish.
    One looks at issues according to the self determined model they use to assess items. As such, they should qualify their view. For example, a pharmacologist would say,
    “Using the pharmaceutical reductioinalist model of the physiology of general anaesthesia, we have determine with the scientific method at our disposal, that this is how it works”.
    Whereas a Behavioural Scientist would use the “model” as he understands issue to be, to determine a certain set of facts. He would say, “Using the behaviour model, the scienctific method I have use determines this.”

    Different methods, difference “science”, but the intent may be the same and that is to prove or disprove something.

    One needs to qualify the use of the word “science” to be able to make such broard based assumptions as you have made.

  3. Zetetic says:

    I’ve observed something funny in public misconceptions about science and skeptical thinking… Some confuse being skeptical with being cynical!

  4. daedalus2u says:

    Fred, perhaps you should read the book, you might learn something.

  5. Harriet Hall says:

    Fred Dagg,

    In this and in previous threads, you have quibbled about my use of language but have not offered any cogent criticisms of my content.

    You accuse me of “gross generalizations” without naming specifics. If you think I made false statements, please specify what and why.

    You accuse me of not defining science or scientist. The very first post on this blog explained what the authors mean by science. http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=1
    “Science is nothing more than a systematic and careful use of evidence and logic to evaluate factual claims”
    Even without reading that initial post, I think everyone who reads this blog regularly has a very good understanding of what we mean by “science.”

    You didn’t define “gross generalizations” or “broad-based assumptions” either.

    I don’t buy your “models.” The pharmacologist and the behavioral scientist study very different subjects but they use the same principles of rational inquiry and finding appropriate ways to test hypotheses. There is no question of using “a scientific method at our disposal”- the scientific method is a general approach to learning about how the world works, not a cookbook of specific techniques.

  6. David Gorski says:

    ou have made some really gross generalisations in this article, that seriously detract from the intent. You do not define what a “scientist” is. Nor do you define what “science” is. You use the word carelessly, because what some people think is “science”, others would consider rubbish.

    Oh, really? Then perhaps you could enlighten us with your definition of what science is. By the way, I don’t accept your distinction between the pharmacologist and the behavioral scientists as requiring different definitions of “science.” In fact, I reject your apparent contention that there are different definitions of “science” depending upon the field. Science is based on hypothesis testing; i.e., the scientific method. If a field isn’t using methodology that is recognizable as the scientific method, it is not a scientific field.

  7. The Blind Watchmaker says:

    The book looks like an interesting read. I put it on my wish list. Thanks Dr. Hall.

  8. Fred Dagg says:

    Here we go…….

    Your statement

    “Scientists are skeptics. Skeptics think scientifically”, is contradicted by the following quote. “Even some scientists fail to truly understand the scientific method’.

    If they do not understand the scientific method, then they are not scientists. What are they? I would bet you that they would still believe in the ‘scientific method”, even though it may be using a different model than you do.

    My experience in dealing with skeptics, (I belong to the local skeptics society), is that they tend to form an opinion, then attempt to base their rationale on a false sense of pseudo-science, that does not look at all the issues.

    What I am saying is, that the scientific method may vary according to the science you are studying. This is a bit like arguing religion versus faith. What is science to one person, i.e. rigorous study, may be garbage to someone else.
    To me, science, the discovery of knowledge is in continual flux. It is the method of discovery, i.e. the “scientific method”, that is more rigid, but depends upon the topic you are studying

  9. Fred Dagg says:

    ………..and then there is the problem that “science and research” can and is used politically to justify some treatment methods ahead of others.

    Reassure me, David and Harriet that this does not happen?

  10. Tsuken says:

    @ Fred Dagg:

    ““Scientists are skeptics. Skeptics think scientifically”, is contradicted by the following quote. “Even some scientists fail to truly understand the scientific method’.”

    Nit-pick much? The fact that some people working in scientific fields (and thus generally labelled scientists) might not really “get it” does not at all invalidate the general principle (the scientists as skeptics bit).

    As for this: “………..and then there is the problem that “science and research” can and is used politically to justify some treatment methods ahead of others.”…

    How on Earth does the misuse of science by politicians impact upon the reality or validity of scientific method/thought?

    Harriet – nice post, and I will be adding this book to my “want list” 8)

  11. Fred Dagg says:

    Here is another fly on your ointment…

    I believe there is no such thing as Medical Science, Earth Science, Mathematical Science, Behavoural Science, or any other “?????Science”

    What it should really be referred to is….
    “Science as it relates to Medicine”, “Science as it relates to Mathematics et al.”

  12. Harriet Hall says:

    “If they do not understand the scientific method, then they are not scientists. What are they?”

    Pseudoscientists.

  13. David Gorski says:

    I believe there is no such thing as Medical Science, Earth Science, Mathematical Science, Behavoural Science, or any other “?????Science”

    What it should really be referred to is….

    “Science as it relates to Medicine”, “Science as it relates to Mathematics et al.”

    This strikes me as nothing more than pedantry and nitpicking about nomenclature, quite frankly.

  14. David Gorski says:

    If they do not understand the scientific method, then they are not scientists. What are they? I would bet you that they would still believe in the ’scientific method”, even though it may be using a different model than you do.

    Harriet nailed it. You are describing pseudoscientists. If a scientist has abandoned something that is recognizable as the scientific method, then that scientist has become a pseudoscientist. The line between science and pseudoscience may not always be totally clear, but some ambiguity in certain fringe instances is not a justification for concluding that there is no definition of science that fits all scientific disciplines or that you should pedantically and nitpickingly refer to “science as related to X discipline” rather than simply calling them science. Moreover, that the methodology used in different sciences may vary, there is still always the scientific method; it’s just the techniques that apply the scientific method that may vary between disciplines.

    In any event, of course pseudoscientists fervently believe that they are doing science. The problem is, they’re doing it wrong.

  15. Fred Dagg says:

    However, in the name of “science” one can prove what ever one wants to (or not).
    For example, a pharmacologist may look at the “Placebo Effect”, and say,
    “Because of my reductionalist model of science, and there is nothing in the compound that has of any pharmacological component, then science has proven to me that placebo is all in the mind and does not work.”

    However, a Pain Management Scientist will say, ” Experimental studies have shown that any individual at any time is liable to express a placebo-response, depending on the circumstances”.
    (PDN Wall. The Placebo Effect. Pain 1992;51:1-3)

    Both used valid scientific methods to achieve the conclusions they came to.

    I can quote a lot more on the placebo response. The aim of this is just to prove that “science” is used or misused acording to the model or perception one already has.

    Who is right?
    Who is the “scientist”?
    Who is the “Pseudo-scientist”?

    Both are correct in their assumptions. Both have used science to validate their arguments, even though the ultimate results is that they are diametrically opposed in their conclusions.

  16. Harriet Hall says:

    Fred Dagg said
    “in the name of “science” one can prove what ever one wants to (or not).”

    One can take the name of science in vain. That’s what pseudoscientists do. A real scientist asks “if” something is true; he doesn’t try to prove what he wants. If the results are different from what he wants, he follows the evidence.

    It’s curious that with your concern for precise terminology, you describe pseudoscience and call it “science.”

    Your comments put you in the ranks of those who have science under siege because they fail to understand it. Thanks for providing such a good (bad) example of what the book is all about.

    I second daedalus2u’s recommendation above.

  17. Joe says:

    @Fred Dagg on 17 Jun 2009 at 12:09 am “However, in the name of “science” one can prove what ever one wants to (or not).”

    Where did you get that notion? You obviously have no practical, or real philosophical knowledge, of the subject. Maybe you should read the book.

  18. daedalus2u says:

    Fred, in your example, if the pharmacist and the pain management specialist were actual scientists, they would communicate their data and conclusions to each other, if there are discrepancies, they would consult the literature, design and do experiments (after getting IRB approval) until they had a conclusion that fit all the data they both had, as well as all the data from the literature.

    Once they have agreed on all the data (their own and what is in the literature), and agreed on what the data means and what conclusions can be drawn from it, they have reached a scientific consensus (which is by its nature tentative).

    If they agree on the data but don’t agree on the conclusions, then they are having a scientific disagreement.

    If one rejects the data of the other because it doesn’t fit his/her preconceived idea (i.e. doesn’t lead to the conclusion he/she wants to reach) then the other one stops trying to work with him/her because the first one is a pseudoscientist and a crank.

    If they both reject data from the literature but reach conclusions anyway, then they are both cranks.

  19. David Gorski says:

    However, in the name of “science” one can prove what ever one wants to (or not).

    That you would even say such a thing demonstrates that you have no understanding of science.

  20. tmac57 says:

    Fred Dagg-”My experience in dealing with skeptics, (I belong to the local skeptics society), is that they tend to form an opinion, then attempt to base their rationale on a false sense of pseudo-science, that does not look at all the issues.”
    So, you are a mole ? I bet you are the ‘belle of the ball’.

  21. Diane says:

    It would be fun to design some sort of study or set of studies to investigate an hypothesis that some people may suffer from “perceptual prefix blindness” (PPB) to the extent that they consider the noun “science”, and the same word with “anti-”, “a-”, “pre-”, and “pseudo-” prefixes placed in front of it, to connote 5 categories of equal salience, all assumed to mean, roughly, “science”. From these five categories, construed under the putative condition, PPB, it appears that those with PPB feel free to choose the one or more with which they feel the most affinity, then champion it, in accordance with postmodernism and in the interests of promoting cultural relativity, due to instinctive proclivity perhaps. There is likely to be a way to design a study or studies in which subjects could be tested to a) determine if such a condition does exist, and/or b ), whether or not science attracts more than its fair share of misconstruers than do other human primate activities.

    Such an hypothesis derives from scientific consensus based on the multiple and multiply reinforcing investigations that have accumulated to date on the ubiquity of perceptual error in human populations.

  22. Scott says:

    “Both used valid scientific methods to achieve the conclusions they came to.”

    This is grossly wrong. Your quoted “Pain Management Scientist” does seem to have applied the scientific method, but the pharmacologist most emphatically has not.

  23. Harriet Hall says:

    Fred Dagg said,

    “My experience in dealing with skeptics, (I belong to the local skeptics society), is that they tend to form an opinion, then attempt to base their rationale on a false sense of pseudo-science, that does not look at all the issues.”

    My experience in dealing with skeptics is that they used to believe in something weird (like dowsing, UFOs, or psychic spoonbending) and changed their mind when presented with contradictory evidence or natural explanations. They were angry that they had been fooled, and they found the experience of critical thinking and correcting false beliefs so satisfying that they kept applying the same critical thinking methods to other areas. One of my skeptic friends is from Czechoslovakia and she remembers the moment she became a skeptic: when her teachers removed Stalin’s name from the history books. Diane Swanson, the author of “Nibbling on Einstein’s Brain,” gives workshops on critical thinking to grade-school children and they are delighted with the discovery that they can think for themselves and don’t have to blindly accept everything their teachers say.

    My experience in dealing with Fred Dagg is… well, just read what he wrote about science and draw your own conclusions.

  24. Chris says:

    Fred Dagg:

    My experience in dealing with skeptics, (I belong to the local skeptics society), is that they tend to form an opinion, then attempt to base their rationale on a false sense of pseudo-science, that does not look at all the issues.

    So you were that annoying guy last month who was pontificating on astrophysics, and refused to have your errors corrected by an actual astrophysicist! Apparently, this guy (if it was not you) seemed to think since he was an engineer that he could understand all forms of science, and yes he did mention that we had to look at all the issues (except the “issues” he mentioned were showed severe gaps in his understanding of subject).

  25. Fred Dagg says:

    I get the impression that you seem to think that “science”is finite. It is not. It is always in a state of flux. Even the scientific method will change with time. So, knowledge will always be changing.

    Whilst the scientific method may be rigorous and a conclusion formed, when it comes to implementing it, watch what the politicians, economists and other interested parties do with it.

  26. Joe says:

    @Fred Dagg on 17 Jun 2009 at 2:02 pm “I get the impression that you seem to think that “science”is finite. It is not. It is always in a state of flux. Even the scientific method will change with time.”

    I get the impression that you don’t know what “finite” means (limited in time or extent).

    Nevertheless, I await your description of how the scientific method will change with time.

  27. David Gorski says:

    Whilst the scientific method may be rigorous and a conclusion formed, when it comes to implementing it, watch what the politicians, economists and other interested parties do with it.

    Now I get it. Fred is confusing science with the policy implications of science. I see that frequently, particularly in the ongoing kerfuffle over anthropogenic global warming. AGW “skeptics” conflate the policy recommendations based on the science with the actual science itself, concluding that, because they don’t like the policy recommendations that the science behind them must be one in the same and as weak as they perceive the policy recommendations.

  28. Fred Dagg says:

    Is it not interesting to you, that some of the worlds most rigorous environmental scientists do not believe that Man Made Global Warming exists, but believe through their scientific observations, that it is due to the fluctuations in solar radiation.
    As I said, science can be used to prove anything you want.

  29. pmoran says:

    “As I said, science can be used to prove anything you want.”

    “Prove? ” The available evidence can be consistent with a range of possibilities and favour some more than others, but it cannot “prove” contrary positions.

    Your recent posts have been so loose in expression as to suggest a wish to stir, rather than provoke serious debate.

  30. Fred Dagg says:

    What I am endevouring to do is to stimulate serious debate, to question your thought processes and just possible get you to think that just because you quote “science” does not mean you are right. Because “science” can just as easily prove you are wrong. It is a global approach, rather than a reductionalist approach. More “free thinking” rather than “closed mind”.

  31. Joe says:

    @Fred Dagg on 17 Jun 2009 at 6:52 pm “What I am endevouring to do is to stimulate serious debate …”

    Mr. Dagg, we understand your notion. The problem is, as you have been repeatedly admonished, that you don’t know the basics of the topic. Put another way, you cannot teach us something about which you know less than we do. You have amply demonstrated that you have neither practical, nor theoretical, understanding of science.

  32. tmac57 says:

    Fred- ‘What I am endevouring to do is to stimulate serious debate, to question your thought processes and just possible get you to think that just because you quote “science” does not mean you are right. Because “science” can just as easily prove you are wrong. It is a global approach, rather than a reductionalist approach. More “free thinking” rather than “closed mind”.”
    It is pretty presumptuous of you Fred ,to assume that skeptics need your help in questioning their thought
    processes , or need you to point out that currently existing scientific ideas might be wrong. You are also making it sound as though any scientific idea is equal in power to any other competing idea (“…can just as easily prove you are wrong.”) That is just illogical on the face of it. Obviously the more rigorously that a hypothesis has been put to the test, the more likely it is to be correct against another hypothesis that has undergone little challenge . Note, that I did not say that it HAD to be the correct one, but more likely.
    Regarding free thinking versus closed mindedness, I see skeptics as striving to be careful thinkers versus wishful thinkers.
    What beliefs do you hold ,Fred , that you actively questioned lately?

  33. Gary P says:

    I was a subscriber to the Skeptical Inquirer for many years. One needed a skeptical mind to read some of their articles. I remember them debunking the myth that the lunar tides in the brain caused people to behave weirdly during a full moon. There were some statistical analysis that showed no link to a full moon and human behavior. I had a little question about this. A full moon is pretty bright. I enjoy a summer night-time drive under a full moon. It changes my behavior, but because of the light not brain tides. Somehow the author did not think that their study would need to compare behavior with full moon under clear and full overcast skies. It made that particular article worthless.

    I should thank them though for the last copy I bought at a book store. It had a full story about global warming and how it was a risk to society. Have you ever noticed how you can tell that someone is lying by the tone of the story? I have all my reading of Skeptical Inquirer articles on pseudoscience advocates to thank for that. After carefully reading the global warming article I decided I better look up some of the references. A reference that debunked evidence about a silly theory that solar cycle modulated cosmic rays could control the climate caught my eye. But the referenced article seemed to be about as valid as the lunar brain tides article. Not too convincing.

    I followed the references from the Inquirer reference to the original papers by Henrik Svensmark. (See the book, The Chilling Stars, by Svensmark) Wow. A real theory, real data, a real experiment (the Sky experiment), and an up coming CLOUD experiment at CERN. I was intrigued. More study and I found the ClimateAudit website and WattsUpWithThat (#1 rated science website). I have to thank that original Skeptical Inquirer for starting me on the path from darkness into the light.

    Looking back at that global warming article, I half expected to see that the rest of the magazine had articles confirming the existence of Bigfoot and the Lochness monster. I no longer have it. Maybe it was an April Fool’s edition.

    Oh. And Marten Gardner. if you want to write a book review in the Skeptical Inquirer criticizing Ann Coulter for her silly denial of evolutionary theory then stick to the point. Do not go off spending two thirds of the review taking her witty comments on politics out of context.

  34. Fred Dagg says:

    OK, here is some science into the treatment of depression.

    http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/abstract/330/7490/503

  35. @Fred
    Oh my, evidence.
    But what were you going for?
    Noone argues that St John’s Wort has been researched for the treatment of depression. In many other studies it has been found wanting. Among other things St John’s Wort affects the metabolism of MANY other drugs.
    Cochrane even did a review that was potentially favorable, :

    http://www.cochrane.org/reviews/en/ab000448.html

    I don’t really see how this proves, or in any way supports your points. That’s science in action – treatments are researched.

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