Being Right Versus Being Influential

On May 9th I had the pleasure of lecturing to an audience of critical thinkers at the NYC Skeptics meeting. The topic of discussion was pseudoscience on the Internet – and I spent about 50 minutes talking about all the misleading health information and websites available to (and frequented by) patients. The common denominator for most of these well-intentioned but misguided efforts is a fundamental lack of understanding of the scientific method, and the myriad ways that humans can fool ourselves into perceiving a cause and effect relationship between unrelated phenomena.

But most importantly, we had the chance to touch upon a theme that has been troubling me greatly over the past couple of years: the rise in influence of those untrained in science on matters of medicine. I have been astonished by the ability of “thought leaders” like Jenny McCarthy to gain a broad platform of influence (i.e. Oprah Winfrey’s TV network) despite her obviously flawed beliefs about the pathophysiology of autism. Why is it so hard to find a medical voice of reason in mainstream media?

The answer is probably related to two issues: first, good science makes bad television, and second, physicians are going about PR and communications in the wrong way. We are taught to put emotions aside as we carefully weigh evidence to get to the bottom of things. But we are not taught to reinfuse the subject with emotion once we’ve come to an impartial consensus. Instead, we tend to bicker about statistical analyses, and alienate John Q. Public with what appears to him as academic minutiae and hair-splitting.

I’m not sure what we can or should offer in place of our “business as usual” behavior – but I’ve noticed that being right isn’t the same as being influential. I wonder how we can better advance the cause of science (for the sake of public health at a minimum) to an audience drawn more to passion than to substance?

I would really enjoy your input, dear readers of Science Based Medicine, because I’m at a loss as to what we should do next to reach people in our current culture, and with new communications platforms. What would you recommend?

Posted in: Public Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

Leave a Comment (46) ↓

46 thoughts on “Being Right Versus Being Influential

  1. the_cooker says:


    It’s really sad. But I’ve always thought a central website, maybe government, with loads of science and aggressive debunking, promoted by ads and maybe celebrities, wouldn’t hurt. “The Skinny on Homeopathy” Just something the public would trust. I think public health info is too scattered and Joe doesn’t read these sites.

  2. superdave says:

    What a tough question. We definitely need to humanize the scientists and doctors more. We need to show the public that doctors and scientists are just regular people, who are working hard to help people suffering from various ailments. What we need to emphasize though is that even though the day to day workings of most scientists does not result in miracle cures, it does not mean we are not making progress or that we are any less dedicated.

    If you watched Jenny on the syndicated show “The Doctors” (which I think went terribly) the one point I was happy to see the doctors on that show make is that they are not the villiains in this story and that they are just as passionate about helping kids be healthy about anyone else. It seems absurd that people have to be reminded that someone who has decided to dedicate his life to pediatric medicine is passionate about helping children, but maybe we need to do it.

    Another issue is that people who are adept at studying webmd may not only grow overconfident in their own knowledge, it may lead them to be under-confident in the knowledge of doctors. How many people do you know who don’t trust doctors or think they know just as much as any doctor?
    We need to emphasize that the web is no substitute for the years of experience and training a doctor has. On the other side of that coin though, doctors should respect the fact that a layperson can learn a lot from a legitimate medical website and that they are only trying to take an active role in their medical lives.

    Well ok, that’s all I got for now.

  3. pec says:

    “I wonder how we can better advance the cause of science (for the sake of public health at a minimum) to an audience drawn more to passion than to substance?”

    First, use insults and ridicule instead of those boring rational arguments. Make sure to throw in plenty of words describing excrement (some of your co-authors at this blog can give you lessons in this). Have no respect whatsoever for your opponents — they are uneducated idiots after all. Remind yourself that humanity is vulnerable to hallucinations, delusions, wishful thinking and is generally irrational. Even people with an advanced scientific education can turn into morons at any instant. The minute you notice one of your colleagues is becoming respectful of CAM, report him or her to the organized skeptics immediately! No one is safe from the irrational forces of idiotic human nature.

    And remember, you are not safe either! Constantly guard your mind against the infiltration of CAM delusions. If you catch yourself thinking a CAM idea makes sense, immediately start ridiculing and insulting yourself until you come to your senses.

  4. Harriet Hall says:

    pec, you say you support science, yet when Val asks a serious question about how to advance the cause of science, you offer a sarcastic put-down. You are behaving like a troll instead of contributing to the discussion.

  5. dlk says:

    I think part of the problem is that “the other side” speaks with certainty, and scientists use language that reflects the tentative nature of scientific knowledge. This gives the perception that we have the weaker position. When speaking in their forum, we need to adopt a more certainty-based vocabulary.

    For example, at the conclusion of a multi-year, high quality study, scientists will report, “we found no evidence that X causes Y”. To a lay person, this says, “X could cause Y, but we just didn’t happen to find the evidence to prove it yet”. What should be reported is, “the evidence shows that Y is not caused by X”. Period.

    Similarly, in the evolution-ID debates, we need to stop wasting time countering the “evolution is just a theory” arguments with “they are confusing the term ‘theory’ with ‘hypothesis’, blah blah blah”. Let’s just make the point, “evolution is a fact, our understanding of all the details of how it works is what science calls ‘the theory of evolution'”.

    Of course, we need to continue educating people about the tentative nature of scientific knowledge (if for no other reason than to avoid the “last year they said this was bad for me, now they tell me it’s good for me” issues). But in dealing with sound-bite argumentation, we need to speak with greater certainty.

  6. pec says:


    It’s just because I found her question so ludicrous. She wants to know how to talk down to the irrational emotional (in other words idiotic) masses. That is the kind of thinking that drives me to sarcasm. I can’t help it.

    And furthermore, this blog is so full of insults and ridicule I can’t imagine she really thinks the authors here are generally rational and unemotional!

    You are the most rational and the least contemptuous of the authors here, so I really am not directing the sarcasm at you.

  7. weing says:

    “Remind yourself that humanity is vulnerable to hallucinations, delusions, wishful thinking and is generally irrational. Even people with an advanced scientific education can turn into morons at any instant.”

    That is a true description of the human condition. Unfortunately, people don’t want to hear that as it does not massage their egos. I think you are fighting a losing war as the media depends on ratings and frequently achieves this by stroking the viewers egos.

  8. pec says:


    I agree that people, all of us, are stupid, but my reasons are 180 degrees different from yours. Materialists think it’s because we don’t follow logic and the scientific method in all our decisions — if only everyone did that, all idiocy would end. But I think it’s because the universe is infinite while our understanding is, by comparison, infinitesimal. We want to know more than we can now, so we fill in the enormous gaps in our knowledge with mythology. Some people crave certainty more than others, and they become the extreme advocates for an ideology, such as dogmatic intolerant brands of Christianity or Islam, or scientific materialism (which is NOT the same as science!).

    Although I agree with you that people are stupid, I do not think a scientific education is the cure. Science is great but, like us, it is limited. I don’t think there is a cure for our ignorance. The universe is vast and we are curious — and that’s all fine! But we will never get onto that pedestal that some of you are longing to stand on.

    I respect humanity, and nature in general. If you look at humans, whether educated or not, you will see them behaving rationally and sensibly in the things that matter for their survival. This is also true of non-human nature. Rationality is everywhere, and is not confined to the ivory towers and laboratories (actually it can sometimes be hard to find any rationality in the ivory towers).

    People become irrational in the areas that are unknown, because we tend to fill in the gaps with mythologies and fight over which ones are correct.

    The ideology of materialism is wrong, and so are all the others. Materialism cannot tell us how or why the universe and life began — that is a myth. Materialism cannot reassure us that all the strange and sometimes frightening paranormal and mystical experiences people have are mere delusions and hallucinations. Materialism does not know.

  9. Mojo says:


    I agree that people, all of us, are stupid…

    Er..I don’t think that was what weing was agreeing with. The passage of yours quoted, while you may have intended it to mean that people are stupid, doesn’t quite read that way – it merely says that people are irrational (the word “moron” is obviously not being used in its original technical meaning).

    Although I agree with you that people are stupid, I do not think a scientific education is the cure. Science is great but, like us, it is limited. I don’t think there is a cure for our ignorance.

    OK, so stop posting here and go back to banging the rocks together.

  10. skepdude says:

    Actually, the answer is simple, but it is hard to actually do it. As the saying goes, you fight fire with fire, as such you can only fight celebrity with celebrity. Amanda Peet’s stand for vaccinations make a perfect example. You want to shut Jenny McCarthy up, or at least dilute her effect on the public? You need more well known celebrities to become spokespeople for the science side, and that’s where it gets really hard. If we could get a Brad Pitt to counter Jim Carrey in the public eye , or a J Lo to go against Jenny McCarthy, that’s when we’ll make inroads. People tend to trust celebrities much more than well educated but unknown scientists, regardless of the data or science they present. That is a sad but true fact, I think.

  11. pec says:


    You missed my whole point, but I don’t have the patience to explain it to you.

  12. Joe says:

    pec on 14 May 2009 at 1:24 pm wrote “Mojo,

    You missed my whole point, but I don’t have the patience to explain it to you.”

    You missed your whole point, but I don’t have the patience to explain it to you.

  13. Prometheus says:

    My cynical side tells me that the battle for public opinion will never be “won” by science because most people don’t really want the truth, they want to be comforted.

    While it might make better press to say – as DLK suggested – “Y is not caused by X.”, that isn’t the truth. In reality – and that’s what science is all about, isnt it – the study really does only show that the data don’t support Y causing X.

    The reason to stick to the facts – the truth, if you like – is that subsequent studies of greater power or better design might show that Y does cause X. In that case, the public would see an earlier pronouncement of “Y doesn’t cause X.” as evidence that “scientists” either lie or don’t know what they’re doing.

    It will take, I fear, a major catastrophe to convince people that the “alternative” medicine and amateur, self-taught “experts” are not to be trusted. I would like to think it won’t, but I strongly suspect it will.

    When enough people die from taking bad fantasy-based medical advice or from following other woo-based “experts”, the public will – I hope – be ready to hear science again.


  14. Jules says:

    I’m sorry, but the fact of the matter is, science just isn’t sexy without explosions.

    Most scientists are poor writers for the general public, and do a terrible job conveying the significance of their findings, and, perhaps more importantly for the general public, the excitement that they feel for their work. The guy I work for is a case in point: his papers are excellent, solid, and good science. The bio he wrote for our website? He couldn’t even get his verb tenses to agree, and I swear I’ve never seen the adverb so misused.

    If you want to be influential you have to sell stories. The problem is, most of what the public knows about DNA is a sound-byte, not a story. They see a glow-in-the-dark mouse. They don’t understand why we need one, they don’t see the fight to get funding, the veiled insults, the nearly-lost litter, or the PETA peeps threatening vandalism, and the pursuit of the goal in spite of all these things. Jenny McCarthy is so successful because she’s got a boy who started out normal, was cursed with a dreadful disease, and she fought the system and “won”, in spite of all the naysayers. Scientists in general fail at the sturm-and-drang, and I suppose that’s a consequence of our training. “The plural of anecdote is not data”, but anecdote is how you get people to listen, and if they don’t listen, it doesn’t matter how right you are.

    Take a look at PhD Comics. It’s a little restrictive, because it’s mostly graduate school-oriented, but it’s got the kind of storyboards that are easily accessible to everybody, and story lines that are interesting because the characters are accessible. If you want to start influencing people, there’s no better place to start.

  15. bob_calder says:

    Prometheus is correct that disasters teach people lessons. Unfortunately people don’t have long memories.

    Transparent processes and easy access to information is probably the most practical approach. It won’t come from journalists, but could come from enough interested citizens posting information in a verifiable and easy to verify way. People whose friends die because of their stupidity with other people supplying evidence based explanations of how it happened.

    Privacy legislation is a potential problem but let’s skip that for a minute.

    For instance, when someone posts an story about an unregulated food supplement, an easily verified factual entry in wiki format could validate facts concerning the probability of the anecdote being true. Verification could be done in a peer review fashion that establishes authority of sources. A good source of information might be clips from college lectures posted as video clips and transcribed briefly. Unqualified trolls would be dealt with the same way Wikipedia does it.

    One of the most interesting statements I have heard from Jimmy Wales is that the most fought-over articles have the highest quality. I think that’s promising.

  16. schmiedesgruebl says:

    The people who revere Oprah as a goddes and take celebrity advice on public health and childrearing are living in the emotional part of their brains. I don’t know that this is a horrid reaction to the massive amounts of data we all have to process in a day, but it can be dangerous when it comes to medicine.

    There are a lot of people who have been hurt by the antivax set. We can lobby to see interviews (or Jenny-free Oprah episodes) featuring parents of kids caught in the latest measles/whooping cough/mumps outbreak. Or maybe distraught immune-compromised people and the dangers they face. It would be hard for even the most gullible American housewife to look at McCarthy’s smug grins with anything other than revulsion after seeing a report about little Dana McCaffrey of Australia. Throw in a few more stories from people closer to home, and the public tide will turn against the antivax crowd. Yes, it’s fighting anecdotes with anecdotes, but as I’m learning from Daniel Gardner in _The Science of Fear_, this may be our best shot.

    If we need to be scienc-y, it would be helpful to remind the public about the history of the diseases for which we vaccinate. People who have experience with polio or tetanus or whooping cough or diptheria or Hep-A wouldn’t think of missing out on vaccination. Autism worriers should be asked if, were such a thing possible, they would vaccinate their kid against autism.

    We are extremely lucky to live when and where we do. But our relatively narrow experience with disease leaves a lot of people without an “intuitive” grasp of any public health issue beyond a current crisis. It’s time to give our collective emotional brains something to hold on to other than the woo peddled by whatever pretty face comes along.

  17. Calli Arcale says:

    The answer is probably related to two issues: first, good science makes bad television, and second, physicians are going about PR and communications in the wrong way. We are taught to put emotions aside as we carefully weigh evidence to get to the bottom of things. But we are not taught to reinfuse the subject with emotion once we’ve come to an impartial consensus.

    And right there, in that insight, lies the answer!

    Because it’s actually not true that no scientist (or non-scientist trying to communicate about science) manages to reinfuse the subject with emotion. There are some very effective science popularizers who do it, and do it well.

    Of those alive today, one of my favorites is without a doubt Neil DeGrasse Tyson, sort of a funny version of Carl Sagan. The man is *passionate* about science. It is beautiful. It is amazing. It is breathtaking. It is truly wonderous. He’s also laugh-out-loud hilarious at times, which is a great deal of his mass-market appeal. He doesn’t talk down to the masses. He just talks to them, sharing his sheer joy in the best way he knows. It probably also helps that he’s black, because not enough minorities go into science. They need the chance to see a black man succeed in a highly-competitive field dominated by white guys — and succeed without becoming a stereotypical geek. Tyson is *cool*. He really is.

    So I think more people on the side of science need to do what he does. It’s not about talking down to people. It’s about showing them just how amazingly awesome this all is.

    And, as Jules alluded to, a few explosions wouldn’t hurt. ;-) Which brings me to another bunch of science popularizers: the Mythbusters. Oh, their science isn’t rigorous by any stretch of the imagination. They don’t have time. But they talk to that deficiency, encourage fans to participate in the discussion, and in so doing, encourage scientific *thinking*. How many “viewer specials” have they done because of fans writing in that they failed to test this or that possibility? Loads, and that’s an entrance into scientific thinking for the general public.

    They also never talk down to the viewers. It’s not so much “you dummy, you need to know about this that we know and you obviously don’t”, and more of a “hey, check this out, it’s *awesome*.”

  18. KerryC says:


    If you want more information on how to communicate with the public, a good place to start is Dr. Peter Sandman’s website. He is a risk communications expert and works frequently with scientific community.

    He wrote instructions on how to communicate with the public for scientists which can be found here:

    He also talks about how to convey risk data to the public here:

    The rest of his website has lots of great information on communicating with the public on all sorts of different topics.

  19. Val Jones says:

    “The plural of anecdote is not data”, but anecdote is how you get people to listen, and if they don’t listen, it doesn’t matter how right you are.

    Great quote, Jules. Thanks everyone for your comments. I guess your summary advice would be: tell stories, identify popular spokespeople, speak the truth with conviction, remain respectful, have a great sense of humor, and occasionally resort to explosive devices to make your point. :)

    That sounds about right.

  20. Khym Chanur says:

    So then, Pec, as an example, the scientists who say that vaccines don’t cause autism have become irrational in their search for certainty, while the parents who say that vaccines caused autism in their children are using the same thought processes that have enabled humanity to survive for thousands and thousands of years, so they’re probably right?

  21. Carl Bartecchi says:

    I these replies, I noted the mention of the afternoon television show, “The Doctors”. I happened to view one show where the Pediatrician, listing possible helps for sinus problems, mentioned a homeopathic remedy. I was shocked. It’s hard to imagine just how much damage he might have done with that recommendation. I tried, without success, to find out how I might contact the show and express my concerns about that recommendation.
    Carl Bartecchi

  22. Danio says:

    I’d put in a vote for somehow making outreach/science communication a regular part of the curriculum in medical or graduate schools–and if this could go hand in hand with some training on critical thinking and the scientific method, so much the better.

    Would some sort of concerted effort to instruct new graduates on how to use their expertise to instruct, enlighten, and lead, as opposed to merely attending to the specific subspecialty of their training be institutionally supportable, do you think? Sure, not everyone would be comfortable (or competent enough) to do this, and a lot of institutions would probably balk at spending the time on this rather than on something strictly academic, but if even a fraction of new researchers/doctors gave some thought to how they might interact and transfer their newfound knowledge with the general public, instead of immediately sealing themselves in the ivory tower, we might begin to see a bit more balance in presentations of science and medicine pitched to the layperson. Accessibility is half the battle, I think.

  23. Mandos says:

    The problem is ultimately that scientific education is not widespread. Not as widespread as it should be.

  24. estherar says:

    I think websites like are on the right track.

    The site features regular people grappling with the vaccine decision, and testimonials of (again) regular people whose loved ones have been injured by vaccine-preventable diseases. It helps people identify with the victims of VPDs and understand that there, but for the grace of vaccines, go their own children.

  25. Dash says:

    There is a project in Australia called “Science in the Pub” Scientists travel to small towns across Australia and go to the local pub, which is usually the social centre, to talk about science. While I don’t know if that particular venue would translate well to the US, it is an innovative way of making science accessible. As well as people and language, it’s worth looking at where you are trying to contact people.

  26. Mojo says:

    You missed my whole point, but I don’t have the patience to explain it to you.

    This lack of patience seems to be rather characteristic. You exhibit a similar lack of patience whenever you’re asked for references to back up your assertions.

    I was merely pointing out your misrepresentation of weing’s position, and implying (albeit elliptically) that there’s a certain irony in your use of the internet to post an appeal to different ways of knowing.

    OK, now back to your rocks.

  27. daedalus2u says:

    This relates directly to my research on trying to understand the mechanisms behind the neuroanatomy and the behaviors of autism. I go into this in considerable detail in my blog post on theory of mind vs theory of reality.

    All communication can only be the transfer of mental representations. One individual has an idea which is instantiated in his/her brain (via mechanisms we do not understand). To communicate that idea, the individual converts the mental representation into a data stream of language via what I term his/her “theory of mind”. The data stream is transmitted, speech (spoken language), gestures (sign language), text (written language), body movements (body language), and so on. The receiving individual then must up-convert the data stream back into a mental concept using his/her own “theory of mind”, which must be able to emulate the theory of mind that the first individual used to generate the data stream. If the data stream cannot be up-converted into a mental concept, then communication cannot occur.

    In principle, there is no “correct” theory of mind, a theory of mind is only “correct” if it matches that of the individual being communicated with.

    There are several ways that communication can fail; the most fundamental way is if the receiving individual doesn’t have the neuroanatomy to instantiate the idea as a mental concept. By “neuroanatomy”, I am meaning the physical structure including all the connections (which changes on a daily basis as new connections are made and old ones broken). The only way you can think an idea is if you have the neuroanatomy to represent that idea. I think that is why learning takes a long time; the brain has to be remodeled to generate the neural structures that the new concepts map into. Until there are neural structures that the idea can map into, the idea cannot be understood, or even thought.

    This is one of the fundamental difficulties that non-scientists have in trying to understand science. They don’t have the neuroanatomy to do so. They could acquire the neuroanatomy, but remodeling one’s brain such that it has the hardware to instantiate scientific ideas is what a scientific education does. A scientific education takes a long time because scientific ways of thinking are not “hard wired” into human brains the way that communication and social ways of thinking are (for the most part, but this is complex, people with ASDs have more of a “theory of reality” than do NTs (see the blog)). Language is acquired easily because there are hard-wired structures that cause it to happen without conscious effort on the part of the individual learning the language. It is not an “easy” thing that is happening, is simply seems “easy” because all the difficulty is transparent to the user.

    Different brains do have different degrees of facility in acquiring new ideas of different types. That degree of facility depends on what the initial neuroanatomy is, and what remodeling is necessary to achieve a neuroanatomy that can instantiate the idea.

    Being “influential” means being able to generate a data stream that compels remodeling of the receiver’s neuroanatomy such that they understand and believe the idea being conveyed is correct. The idea does not need to describe actual reality for this to happen. Being influential doesn’t convey understanding, it conveys belief. That belief can be in things that are correct, or it can be nonsense.

    Being right means that your idea actually corresponds to reality; that is the idea follows from facts using logic and so are consistent with all that is known.

    The ability to be influential is a property of the dynamic between two individuals. Like all communication it requires two parties. A single individual can be correct. It takes two individuals for one of them to be influential.

  28. tmac57 says:

    What I would like to see, in a perfect world, is something the Science Channel , The Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel,and the History Channel promised, but failed to deliver. That is, the best understanding of our world using fact and science based critical thinking.

  29. epersonae says:

    I was very impressed with the advice on communication in the book Made to Stick, so impressed that I put their mnemonic device for making a message stick on the bulletin board next to my desk.


    A lot of the recommendations above touch on one or more of those elements. Similarly, the book The Science of Fear touches on a number of common cognitive distortions around fear, and ways to either be aware of or to counteract them.

  30. RickK says:

    This is such an important and difficult topic.

    People like McCarthy find emotional triggers and use them to forward their agendas. Fact, truth, objectivity are all meaningless.

    McCarthy uses “save our children” and grand conspiracy arguments. Creationists use fairness and “teach the controversy” arguments. Post-modernists and New Agers appeal to democratic instincts, laziness, and/or self-importance by assuring people that all opinions have equal value regardless of how much education someone has.

    And then there’s the whole segment of the society that simply is not influenced by logical, data-based arguments, but are instantly convinced by the right anecdotes.

    It’s so hard to influence people once they’ve staked out their ideological turf. Science must be as aggressive in using tactics to promote itself.

    This is unnatural for science. As others have said, good science makes poor theater. And scientifically-minded, problem-solver people do not make good marketers. This was dramatically illustrated when Carl Sagan was denied entry to the NAS because he was viewed as wasting his time on popularizing rather than doing hard science.

    Somehow the “reality-based community” must find and fund popularizers. Promoting science – lobbying, advertising, participating in debates, TV shows and appearances – these should be lucrative career alternatives. And since ideologies are often cemented early in life, it is CRITICAL that we focus on children and schools. This all gets so much easier if kids start life with some literacy in science, even if they don’t pursue it as a career. Critical thinking, *how to think*, should get more hours of school time than the study of foreign languages or music.

    To daedalus2u’s point, we need to shape those brains to be capable of rational, scientific thought.

    Finally, young people are on the internet. Everyone here should spend some time where the kids are. I strongly recommend spending a few minutes a week in the “homework help” or “biology” or “alternative medicine” sections of Q&A sites like Yahoo!Answers. You’ll come up against idiots, but you’ll also encounter real people with real questions. And your answers will be seen by young people whose minds and world views have not yet hardened.

  31. Versus says:

    My perspective, as someone who is not a scientist, is that the general public isn’t hearing the scientists’ side of the “alternative medicine” story, not because they don’t want to, or can’t understand it, just that no one is telling it. I wish there were a website with reliable information devoted to sCAM. I think Quackwatch is great, but it is hard to navigate and not the most polished looking site. We need the information of Quackwatch in a WebMD format. (I also worry about what will happen to Quackwatch when Dr. Barrett is no longer able to publish it.)
    It is most unfortunate that the term “alternative medicine” has gained such currency. As I’ve said elsewhere on this blog, we really need a new term.
    It would be effective, I think, for a prestigious scientific group to issue a “statement of concern” or “position paper” or the like on sCAM — perhaps the AAAS. It would certainly make headlines. And/or form your own group — Eugenie Scott has been very successful with the National Center for Science Education in fighting creationism/ID in the public schools. NCSE was instrumental in the plaintiffs’ case in Dover.

  32. DLC says:

    One of the biggest things missing is trying to get people to see that science isn’t a bunch of dull fuddy-duddies blathering at the speed of an old 78 rpm record played at 33. I don’t know how you do that. Certainly it’s been tried with physics and chemistry before.

    It also doesn’t help when you have people out there like Cancer Treatment Centers of America, pushing their treatment style with the standard testimonial of “The stone-faced doctor-bully told me I was going to die.” Oh, and the never-mentioned-here cranky annoying jerk addict Dr House from the TV show of the same name probably doesn’t help either.
    (potential CoI: I actually watch House reruns…. they’re sometimes amusing. )

  33. daedalus2u says:

    I don’t feel that my point has gotten across.

    There is a fundamental difference between how one arrives at a correct idea and how one arrives at a belief. A belief is arrived at by being influenced by someone else; it is a top down imposition of a belief via communication. The “teacher” conveys an idea which is adopted as being “true” by the “learner”. The “learner” has no way of evaluating if the idea is true or not, it is simply adopted as being true.

    A correct idea can only be generated from the bottom up, from facts tied together with logic. If you don’t know the facts or don’t have them tied together with logic, you have no way to tell if the idea is correct or not. If you can’t tell if an idea is correct or not your default should be to put less credence on the idea than if you do have facts and logic to back it up. Unfortunately, this is not the way people think.

    The degree of certainty that people hold depends on the “influence” of the individual spouting the idea, not the facts and logic which may or may not be present. There are no facts and logic that support a 6,000 year old Earth. YECs believe in a 6 kyo Earth because and only because someone told them it was correct and they (erroneously) believed it. No one ever arrived at a belief in a 6 kyo Earth using facts and logic because there are no facts and logic that support that idea. No amount of facts and logic are going to change the belief because it has no basis in facts and logic.

    Often the way that people lose their “faith” is when the charismatic leader who imposed the belief on them is shown to be a dishonest lying hypocrite. It is not that new facts and logic have changed their belief; it is that the credibility of the person who influenced them to have the belief has changed.

    Belief is attaching a truth value to an idea. Understanding is being able to calculate the truth value of an idea from more fundamental concepts, from facts and logic. If you attempt to calculate a truth value using flawed premises or flawed logic, you will end up with a flawed truth value.

    The ability to “influence” is the ability to invoke beliefs in others when they lack the facts and logic to generate those beliefs themselves (i.e. in the absence of understanding). In many cases (in virtually all non-scientific cases), the reason the person lacks the facts and logic to arrive at that belief is because there are no facts and chain of logic that gets you there because the belief is in fact wrong (i.e. the 6 kyo Earth).

    When scientists develop and use the ability to “influence”, that is to get people to believe without supplying facts and a chain of logic to connect them, then they cease doing science.

    I think that many scientists don’t want the ability to “influence” because it will very much get in the way of doing science. Science is hard enough as it is without worrying about fooling yourself. If you had an increased ability to generate belief without supplying understanding, there is the temptation to use it on oneself. This is what Feynman warned about, “the easiest person to fool is yourself”.

    Some people will only abandon belief systems that are devoid of facts and logic when the “leaders” espousing those beliefs are shown to be lying frauds. I think this is one of the fundamental problems of trying to have a civil debate with such people. If the debate is civil, the followers misinterpret the civility as respect for the person and their flawed position, not respect for using facts and logic to try and evaluate the truth value of an idea.

  34. Harriet Hall says:

    I wish it were true that discrediting an authority figure led his followers to give up their belief. Peter Popoff was exposed as a fraud – Randi caught him using an earpiece and information from backstage to bamboozle his faith healing victims – but he is back to business as usual.

    When the world doesn’t end on the predicted date, the apocalyptic sects just readjust the date or claim that their activities prevented the event.

    The exposure of Wakefield’s many sins against science have not deterred his large body of followers from believing his research proved MMR causes autism.

    True believers simply refuse to admit into their consciousness any information that would discredit their belief. Or if they admit it, they can easily rationalize it away.

  35. Dacks says:

    High school and middle school science teachers who understand science. If we had those, we would have a public that understands science.

  36. Harry says:


    I think the approach to this question is to talk to those who have succeeded the most in educating the masses about science.

    Carl Sagan though his widow and his writings
    Neil deGrasse Tyson
    The Mythbusters.

    I think it takes showmanship that a lot of science lacks…

    This post lacks original content :-P

  37. Harry says:


    I think you post on SBM more than any of the regular commentators. Do you mind giving us a short bio of who you are and why you are here?

    Feel free to remove any identifying factoids. I’m just really curious about the who and why of you. I think all I know is that you are female, you practice yoga and have a skeptical naturopathic world view. That and you have the time and ability to write prolifically to a (mostly) hostile audience.

    I’m just curious

  38. urology-resident says:


    We need more Tim Minchins and George Carlins!!

  39. Newcoaster says:

    The problem is, of course, that sCAM markets itself much better than SBM.
    They advertise, they get celebrity endorsements, they go on Larry King and Oprah and promise miracles. They’ve got a lot of charismatic passionate people on their side making potent emotional arguments. This is what regular people respond to. We can bemoan the lack of a scientific education, but addressing that is a long term problem.
    I think we need to show the same passion, and use the same vehicles. We have to be more than “the token skeptic” on these panels. We have to get past the medias idea of fairness, and write more op ed pieces in popular press.
    Part of the problem is that SBM is still in a relative minority position in medicine itself. Most are shruggies, but there is an alarming number of sCAM practitioners that have an MD. The local TV doctor on the Vancouver supper hour news regularly advises naturopathy, homeopathy, acupuncture and other sCAM along with otherwise sound medical advise.

  40. TSS says:

    Hi Val,
    It was a great talk, thanks for coming to NYC.

    The solution that I am still clinging to in all of this is a better understanding by the public of human physiology and biology (as I suggested in my question to you *wink*). Many pseudo-scientific claims can be easily debunked by a simple understanding of how our immune system fights viruses and bacteria, why we get runny noses, or how over the counter pain relievers works. A rudimentary understanding of how our bodies work seems to be completely missing from the social consciousness. Whether this is the fault of public school science or health teachers, busy doctors (as you suggested) or some greater mistrust and fear of science, I have no opinion.

    Some might counter my argument by saying that “a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing,” but I would argue that a lot of ignorance is more dangerous than a little knowledge.

  41. yeahsurewhatever says:

    “second, physicians are going about PR and communications in the wrong way”

    Two words: Sanjay Gupta. Meaning, the ones that go about it the “right way” end up being douchebags who put their public image ahead of their opportunity to educate, and they either talk a lot of meaningless nonsense, or else act solely as a mouthpiece for CDC and NIH advisories.

  42. Richard says:

    I think we can be passionate and still be intellectual. “You can’t find out everything from just anecdotes!” “It’s more complicated than that! You can’t just compare vaccination schedules from one year with autism prevalence in Scandinavia for another. The diagnoses are different.” “Pseudoscience proponents can gallup from one argument to the next, but scientists have to explain why those arguments are wrong and why the scientific consensus is what it is. Science is rigorous, and it’s that way to protect us from error and bias.” “Science doesn’t mean to be elitist. Science is undemocratic and elitist because Nature is an undemocratic elitist who doesn’t give up her secrets easily.” “It’s not that simple! It’s not that simple!” “Just because I’m unemotional or angry or don’t have a photogenic personality, that doesn’t mean I’m wrong. And just because you’re a mother, or you radiate love and concern onscreen, that doesn’t make you right. You have to examine the evidence! Rigorously, unemotionally, methodically examine the evidence from both sides. Usually, it’s not the passionate heart but the cold, methodical, impassionate head that finally comes up with the right answers. This guy (point to head) has saved more children than that guy (point to heart). The heart and the intuition are mates of the ship, but the head should be the captain.” “Just because a drug comes from Big Bad Pharma, that doesn’t make it bad. Research it yourself.” “I’m speaking out because I care about children too! And I care about civilization. I want our accepted medical practices based on sound science, not on anticorporation fearmongering and new-age witchcraft. That way lies madness and death!”

  43. wellnessmom says:

    I’m a biomedical engineer who wants their family to be the most well they can be (period). Having recently been introduced to a ‘total wellness company’ I’ve been doing regular research on different things. The way people blindly follow celebrity endorsement is frightening – and the US who has the most wealth and education is the sickest nation in the world! We have the most chronic diseases – and lifestyle is the main cause. Translation – people are too lazy to take care of themselves. Because the body is SO AMAZING and can take so much abuse – people are just beating the crap out of their bodies on every front possible then wondering why a doctor can’t just give them a magic pill (also a chemical, btw whose side effects are likely diarrhea and death).

    Autism – my sum total of exposure to this condition was Rainman – until I recently became aware of products that families use support environmentals for their autistic kids. I am not an expert or physician, but I’ll tell you – seems to me drinking water, eating food and breathing air loaded with chemicals and getting 3 hours of sleep a night doesn’t exactly support growing the healthiest baby possible from EITHER PARENT – these children are born behind the 8-ball – then – give them shots – sure, some of these weak bodies will react! It’s the sum of so many moving parts – and if we don’t clean up our air, water and food and sleep – 1 in 150 kids is going to get even more epidemic than it already is.

    Your article is one of the sanest I’ve seen in a long time – my recommendation – stop looking to others for your health and well being, wake up and take care of your family – then teach others to do the same.

  44. AppealToAuthority says:

    In reply to Val’s original question: “what we should do next to reach people in our current culture, and with new communications platform” (and apologies for coming in late), I would like to ask a question: do authors on this blog see its goal as reaching non-believers in science, or is it pitched at jus those teetering on the edge or already converted?

    Writers on this blog often appeal to emotion, unapologetically: eg David Gorski’s comment that Mark Crislip’s writing had ‘just the right mix of snark, science, and statistics’. The snark means I cannot refer non-believers in science to articles on this site. They will read that writers here have already judged issues (eg acupuncture), and then infer that they are trolling the research for things which reinforce that belief.

    I hugely appreciate the massive (and voluntary) effort put in by writers here to not only write, but to do the work of thinking and analysis.

    But if you want to convert people, leave out the snark — or find ways of using your audience’s emotions effectively.

    “Homeopathy only treats symptoms, not the underlying cause” might be a useful campaign to start with.

Comments are closed.