Pseudoscience can lead to real harm


By Tom Burns - Stargazing



As I read the final essays written by students in my Popular Science Writing class, I am filled with contradictory feelings of sadness and elation.

I am saddened because Ohio Wesleyan needs me to teach other classes next year. As a result, the course will most likely disappear from the course catalog forever. The world needs new voices to battle against the anti-science movements that are sweeping the Internet and the world. It has been my high honor to help create such voices.

I am filled with joy because many of the essays are written so elegantly. They combine scientific precision and logic with deeply felt emotion. They are ultimately persuasive of their scientific points of view in a way that will reach non-scientists. And let’s face it. We are primarily non-scientists in a world ruled by science.

We pick up our cell phones and access a wide range of facts and opinions unmatched in human history.

But we cannot process all the information we need to function intelligently in our complex culture. We need help. We must trust the experts, but at times they repel us with their know-it-all attitude.

Granted, science can be tentative and inexact. As new information comes in, scientists change their minds. We must trust that, no matter how many times scientists have drawn conclusions from limited data, science is systematic. It moves ever closer to the truth. The scientific method takes time. Meanwhile, we must trust that the process will eventually lead us in the right direction.

A case in point is the anti-masking movement. Anti-maskers often point to the changing point of view of science as it amasses new data. Early in the pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who many of us have come to trust, did not suggest the wearing of masks.

Masks were probably effective against the spread of COVID-19. However, researchers had not studied masks systematically. Besides, health care workers, who were especially vulnerable to the disease, desperately needed the few face coverings then available to avoid sickening and perhaps dying. Where would we have been without them?

As scientific evidence of masks’ efficacy against the disease became available, Dr. Fauci changed his tune. But the anti-maskers will forever cite Fauci’s initial pronouncements as evidence that scientists don’t know what they’re talking about.

In fact, scientists themselves are often the most skeptical critics of a given scientific conclusion. Scientific papers published in journals go through lengthy peer reviews.

Other scientists in the field examine a set of findings with microscopic scrutiny. Assumptions are questioned. Data are analyzed and re-analyzed. Only then will a scientific paper be given the honor of publication in a mainstream scientific journal.

Sometimes bad science slips through even the most rigorous scrutiny. Fortunately, science has self-correcting mechanisms that lead to the truth in the end.

On Feb. 28, 1998, the prestigious medical journal The Lancet published a study of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine by Andrew Wakefield and other distinguished scientists. Wakefield claimed to have proven a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

However, subsequent studies by other researchers could not find the link. As a result, most of the other authors of the study repudiated its conclusions.

Careful analyses of Wakefield’s research indicated that he had faked some of his data and ignored data that contradicted his conclusions. Worse yet, investigative reporter Brian Deer discovered that Wakefield had been paid the British equivalent of over $600,000 to find evidence against the MMR vaccine.

But the damage had been done. Thanks in part to the dubious power of the Internet, Wakefield’s claims persist. The current anti-vaccination movement feeds off Wakefield’s discredited scientific study to this very day.

The complexities of the scientific process take time, and human nature looks for quick and easy answers. The result is pseudoscience, which often produces facile solutions without the benefit of scientific rigor.

A quick look at the Internet on any given scientific mystery proves it. Early on, some practitioners of pseudoscience, including even the then-president, advocated the ingestion of a deadly antiseptic called hydroxychloroquine. Subsequent studies showed the chemical to be of no value against COVID-19.

In astronomy, Internet pseudoscience is ubiquitous. Conspiracy theorists tell us that Americans never walked on the moon. Extra-terrestrials have visited Earth. Some folks sincerely believe that planet Earth is flat.

Despite their violation of the basic rules of physics, those beliefs survive and even prosper. As the old political dictum suggests, tell a lie enough times, and for some people, it becomes the truth no matter what evidence systematic thinkers array against it.

Still, the belief in aliens and a flat Earth are relatively harmless delusions. The real harm comes when the pronouncements of pseudo-science leak into our health care and political decisions.

In the case of COVID-19, the anti-vaccine movement could prevent us from achieving herd immunity.

The anti-vaxxers claim that nobody knows the long-term effects of the vaccines. Of course, the potential side effects of the vaccines have been carefully and thoroughly studied. Potential risks exist for a tiny percentage of humans, but the short- and long-term dangers of sickening and perhaps dying from COVID-19 far outweigh the minuscule potential risks.

And conspiracy theories abound. Vaccines, some claim, have a tiny computer chip in them. The government invented 5G, the latest version of cell phone communication, to use that chip to track the movements of hundreds of millions of vaccinated Americans.

Of course, your movements, attitudes, and consumer preferences become an open book every time you use the Internet. Of course, Facebook and Twitter “mine” your data to track your consumer preferences every day.

Apparently, the government needed to concoct a multi-billion dollar vaccination program to track everybody’s movements when it can easily do so without the vaccination program.

However, the delusion persists partly because its adherents misuse the technical language of science to promulgate their patently false ideas. Throw a “5G” or two, and our collective ignorance of what 5G really means or what it really does, wins the day.

Health-based pseudoscience threatens our health and safety. Political pseudoscience threatens the foundation of our democracy.

As I write these lines, the pseudoscientists of the self-styled Cyber Ninjas are conducting an “audit” of the Arizona presidential election results. Their methods sound suitably scientific because they seem to be based on the principles of forensic science.

They are analyzing the paper on which the ballots are printed. They are studying the ink used to print the ballots. They look like scientists as they examine the folds of the ballots under microscopes.

They look for traces of bamboo in the paper. Asian paper manufacturers use bamboo in their paper manufacturing. They analyze ink formulations for foreign origin. The law requires that ballots be printed in the United States. If they find Asian paper and Asian ink, the ballots must be foreign forgeries.

In reality, the Cyber Ninjas base their research on a fatally flawed assumption. Even if they find bamboo in the paper and ink, that discovery means only that the paper and ink might have been manufactured outside the United States. In that regard, your car is a relevant example. Even if carmakers assembled your vehicle in the U.S., they might have imported the parts from other countries.

In the end, their pseudoscientific posturing doesn’t hide a straightforward fact. Neither the Cyber Ninjas nor anyone else has provided one shred of evidence — zilch, zero nada — that the suspect ballots were secretly introduced into the mass of legitimate votes.

But such is the technique of pseudo-science. It depends on our lack of knowledge of the scientific method and the preconceived prejudices that lead us to ignore contrary evidence.

As a result, I mourn the loss of my science-writing class. Science needs sincere and thoughtful advocates. Science writers are, as Carl Sagan once wrote, like candles in the darkness. We attempt to illuminate a dark world with our flickering light.

Because of anti-science biases and pseudo-science posturing, we are confronted with many locked doors. No light, no matter how bright, can penetrate that door.

If hope exists for us as a nation, we may find it in the small crack at the bottom of most doors. As my dim candle flickers and fades, I will count on one undying belief — that at the center of every person, no matter how locked in they are to their prejudices, a rational human soul struggles to emerge.

A single candle cannot shed much light, but a million candles will light up the world and banish the darkness.

I cannot claim to be a great science writer. Despite my 34 years of writing this weekly astronomy column, my fading light has not penetrated many locked doors.

The best that I can do is use my feeble flame to ignite a few more candles and count on the crack at the bottom of the door.

As my final act as a science-writing teacher, I will urge my last students to be the light shining under the door. I encourage you, gentle readers, to be the same.

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By Tom Burns

Stargazing

Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.