The denial of science

Daniel’s recent battle with a Thai monkey got me thinking about vaccinations. He has had all of his rabies vaccinations now but it was quite a detailed process with lots of shots required and at very particular intervals and all of the same type i.e.there are a few options for rabies vaccinations I am told and whichever particular variety is chosen at the outset must be continued for the duration. It was also *very* expensive.

But I don’t doubt for a second that we did the right thing. The risk may have been very, very small but the consequences were so awful to contemplate that it really was a no-brainer in the end. Yet there are many people, particularly in New Zealand, who deny the effectiveness of vaccines. They take it even further than this by claiming that vaccines are harmful. One such organistion, WAVES (warnings about vaccine expectations NZ Inc), writes in its brochure that “Vaccines contain very toxic substances that are poisonous to our bodies.” and also “Vaccines are not very effective in preventing the disease that they are supposed to protect against.” 

Vaccines do contain substances which could be considered toxic if they were consumed in large amounts but the quantities contained in vaccines are insufficient to be so. The doctor who treated Daniel told me that whenever one of his patients brings this up, he asks them whether they drink alcohol. Alcohol is a risk factor in breast cancer even when consumed in very moderate amounts. This is one of the reasons why I don’t drink.

Today I read a paper called Denialism: what is it and how should scientists respond? (h/t to uknowispeaksense for this). It gives a good definition for denialism:

The Hoofnagle brothers, a lawyer and a physiologist from the United States, who have done much to develop the concept of denialism, have defined it as the employment of rhetorical arguments to give the appearance of legitimate debate where there is none, an approach that has the ultimate goal of rejecting a proposition on which a scientific consensus exists.

They then go on to present five characteristics, any1 subset of which may form the basis of denial. One of these is to selectively present isolated scientific papers which are outliers in the field. A good example in the case of vaccinations is the now retracted 1998 Wakefield paper which purported to find a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. The General Medical Council recently ruled that the author acted dishonestly. But despite all of this the MMR-autism myth continues to be live. Why do people cling to a shred of discredited evidence against a mountain of more reputable stuff? In other words, why do they deny science?

The same thing happens in other areas like climate change, the links between HIV and AIDS and smoking and cancer. I think it’s worth highlighting the five elements of denial that McKee and Diethelm write about:

1. Identify conspiracies. In climate science denial, people have argued that scientists are doctoring the temperature records to make it look like warming is happening when it is not. This idea must be incredibly hard to justify to oneself as it is ridiculous to think that thousands of scientists from lots of different countries could be in on some conspiracy theory which will not benefit them in any way and which all of us want to be wrong.

2. Using fake experts. This technique was employed by the tobacco industry which had a strategy of employing scientists whose views were at odds with the consensus in the field. The same tactic can be seen in climate change. From the McKee article: “In 1998, the American Petroleum Institute developed a Global Climate Science Communications Plan, involving the recruitment of ‘scientists who share the industry’s views of climate science [who can] help convince journalists, politicians and the public that the risk of global warming is too uncertain to justify controls on greenhouse gases’.”

3. Highlighting outliers. I mentioned this previously with my MMR-autism example. A similar thing happens in climate change when contrarians make a big deal out of research that claims figures for climate sensitivity lying outside the IPCC range. They are highlighting a few research papers that are outliers while ignoring the majority of evidence.

4. Placing impossible expectations on research. The repeated phrase that the “models failed to predict the pause” fits with this. No-one can predict the future exactly. Scientists do not work with ouija boards.  Climate models – just like all models of physical systems – contain uncertainty and it is unreasonable to expect them not to. But although the model projections do a remarkably accurate job of making future projections of climate, contrarians still place unreasonable expectations on what they can do.

5. Using misrepresentation and logical fallacies. And I have to reproduce this quote from the same paper because of how it seems to echo my post yesterday about Roy Spencer and his global warming Nazis. “For example, pro-smoking groups have often used the fact that Hitler supported some anti-smoking campaigns to represent those advocating tobacco control as Nazis (even coining the term nico-nazis), even though other senior Nazis were smokers, blocking attempts to disseminate anti-smoking propaganda and ensuring that troops has sufficient supplies of cigarettes.”

So the question now is how to respond to this? The authors offer a suggestion:

Whatever the motivation, it is important to recognize denialism when confronted with it. The normal academic response to an opposing argument is to engage with it, testing the strengths and weaknesses of the differing views, in the expectations that the truth will emerge through a process of debate. However, this requires that both parties obey certain ground rules, such as a willingness to look at the evidence as a whole, to reject deliberate distortions and to accept principles of logic. A meaningful discourse is impossible when one party rejects these rules. Yet it would be wrong to prevent the denialists having a voice. Instead, we argue, it is necessary to shift the debate from the subject under consideration, instead exposing to public scrutiny the tactics they employ and identifying them publicly for what they are. An understanding of the five tactics listed above provides a useful framework for doing so.

1. My mathematician husband insists that I insert the word “non-empty” here. Pedantic!