Biology in the News Explained

On scientists, the internet, and viral science denialism

An article at the New York Times’ Well blog on the retraction of the 1998 Lancet paper that was instrumental in sprouting the anti-vaccine movement is a prime example of a new, internet-enhanced relationship among scientists, media, and the public.

As alluded to in the blog, it used to be that internal scientific squabbles and tossing-around-of-wacky-ideas were never in the public eye. Scientific papers were discussed within the scientific community, and only after consensus emerged about a new idea did that idea enter the public realm; this process generally took years.

But the internet coming into popular use changed all that, in several stages. First, years before the internet was widely used by average citizens, scientists were already online in the 1980s, collaborating and having discussions via email and news groups (now known as chat groups). This allowed ideas to flow more freely and widely to a larger scientific audience, generally to the benefit of science.

Then, beginning in the late 1990′s, journals finally began producing online editions instead of being in print only. At the same time, use of the internet skyrocketed among the public. So suddenly, anyone could do a search and look at paper abstracts online (full articles still require expensive subscriptions) whereas before this, a person had to make the effort to go to a scientific library to locate a specific journal article in the stacks, which had to first be identified through obscure search engines generally only available to academics.

Naturally journals and institutions producing research have always tried to garner publicity, so they have always produced press releases that got some science in the news. But only recently has it become much easier for interested non-scientists such as journalists or bloggers to regularly follow discussions that used to stay in the scientific community.

Unfortunately, many scientists still believe they are living in a world in which science is controlled by the scientists until they make it available for public consumption, even while numerous recent “controversies” have belied that belief. While there have always been wacky scientists who promote ideas that are unsupported by the overwhelming scientific evidence, they used to be collectively relegated to the scientific fringe and generally ignored, their occasionally published rants unknown to the general public.

Now, the availability of the internet has caused the problem that these fringe scientists collect a devoted following among the scientifically illiterate, and their discredited ideas go viral on the internet, sucking in people who want easy answers that science cannot always provide. Why does a particular anti-science idea gain traction? In the case of climate-change denialism, there are obvious short-term economic motivations by powerful interests. In the case of vaccines, there seems to be an intersection of many regular people wanting answers for a condition that does not yet have any clear answers, and an anti-medical establishment/corporate anger and paranoia that is easy to fuel given the grain or two of truth in the idea that pharmaceutical companies do not always have the general public’s best interest as their number one priority.

(Ironically, the anti-vaccine furor has also been so easy to stoke because vaccines have all but eliminated many deadly and debilitating diseases from our society, and thus people do not truly grasp anymore the magnitude of the benefits they provide; they simply take those benefits for granted, believing that the vaccines must not be necessary (see many “homeopathic” web sites for examples). Simply reminding someone of the lives that used to be destroyed by infectious diseases is not enough for denialists, because they have no personal connection to that particular tragedy; their personal connection is to a condition for which they would probably gladly embrace a vaccine, if we had one.)

One more example of a large denialist community is among the HIV/AIDS connection deniers. They have been in the scientific news as well because of an unfortunate sequence of events in which anti-HIV papers were published in the journal Medical Hypotheses, and then retracted. This has sparked a heated discussion (see comment thread in the above article) about the role of peer review and scientific consensus in the application of scientific ideas. What is only being touched on in these discussions is how interactions among scientists are now, for better or for worse, in the public view, and what the consequences should or should not be for the scientific progress.

It is good that the Well blog has begun a discussion on the implications of fringe (non)scientific ideas going viral in the public, but that still leaves the question of whether or how scientists should address these in how they conduct themselves. It is this scientist’s opinion that scientific business-as-usual must change if we want to keep control of a narrative that we are actually the ones trained to deliver. It is simply not working in the world of the internet to tell the public, “The scientific mainstream knows best, so listen to us,” because in the growing trend of anti-elitist populism, this will not be accepted; in any case the statement is undermined by the growing awareness that a scientist is a human being just like everyone else, with his own ambition and agenda that can color scientific conclusions. Science simply must change to accommodate this new reality, and this will be the subject of a future essay.


10 Responses to “On scientists, the internet, and viral science denialism”

  1. Cam says:

    Just came over from TigerHawk and read a few other articles as well. Very interesting & well reasoned blog…I will be a frequent visitor!
    As a non-scientist who has been quite active following the Global Warming debates over the last few years , I was interested in your “denialist/viral science” post.
    I began reading some of the early denialist arguments on the net back in 2006 and while much of what I saw was obviously not well grounded in fact…there was enough that seemed to poke holes in the “facts” as they were being presented by the IPCC and the other major players. I continued my quest for answers by digging into the actual research papers being cited and found that I agreed with SOME of the denialists that the data did not support the conclusions and that something was rotten in the base science.
    Over a year before the Climategate scandal became news, I posted that the biggest tragedy of the GW alarmism would be the loss of credibility of ALL scientists in the public mind for a generation…and that tragedy would impact us all because we NEED to believe in our science and scientists if we are to rationally deal with our future challenges.
    I thank God for the Internets’ ability to challenge and expose fraud even at the expense of the additional quackery. In this case alone, (while the fight is certainly not over), the critics of mainstream climate science have saved us trillions of $$’s in ill-considered remedies for a problem that has more to do with a socio-political belief system than real science.

  2. When was this mythical time when scientists waited and hashed it all out before letting the public know? It depends, I suppose, on what you mean by “public.” Scientific American is not the publication it was – much sexier now – but reading back issues from the 70′s won’t give you the sense that the scientists had held off before making pronouncements. If you check out some back issues of National Geographic or the later chapters of textbooks you will get a “hmm, not that different” feeling.

    The fields I know a little about, historical linguistics and the brain sciences, do not fit the description you give of Science Then/Science Now. The reporting of results is different, but not in this way. I think there is a silent evidence problem here. Summary articles and introductory textbooks start from information that is a hundred years old and has been banged around pretty well and is reliable. That creates a false impression that the state of the science at that time was orderly, with significant agreement about what was solid and what was speculative. Just a little deeper into any subject this certainty should have evaporated, but seldom did. Science news of the era was as unreliable as now, just different.

    Your argument is identical to that made by the Roman Catholic Church in the 14th-16th C’s about translating the Bible into the vernacular. Maybe they were right, and the knuckleheaded sects and controversies would now be less prominent if they’d been able to hold the line. But I’d be amused to read modern scientists defending that view in the older context.

  3. The internet is a tool, like a hoe or an axe, or a 454 Life Sciences DNA-sequencing machine for that matter. It extends human capabilities beyond the reach and grasp of our ten little fingers.

    That means, though, that some will use it for good purposes and some for ill. They’re humans, after all. (And most of the people using it for ill purposes actually think they’re doing good — for instance, the anti-vaccine zealots you mention: they are mistaken, but sincere).

    Ultimately, the countermeasure to bad information is good information. Good information at all levels, clear and correct and up-front about what we don’t know yet and where we’re making assumptions. We can’t stamp out science-phobics and conspiracy theorists, and it’s a waste of time to try stamping them out; the right answer is to counter their error with clear, crisp accuracy, absolute transparency, and in a spirit of open enquiry.

    The media and popular entertainments don’t help: scientists, like engineers, businesspeople and military officers, are normally portrayed as megalomaniacs and monsters, while lawyers, politicians and journalists (gee, people with liberal arts backgrounds like screenwriters!) are shown as heroes. Many well-intentioned people internalize these Hollywood conventions, without even knowing that they have done. But what professions actually discover, create and build our world?

  4. It’s funny how resistant people are to the idea or argument by authority, which I think is a pretty good way to judge an issue quickly when you don’t have time to become an expert yourself. It’s crazy the number of carpenters and engineers who would laugh, rightly, at the idea that my judgment in their work field is as accurate as their own, but then think they can override the overwhelming majority of biologists on evolution or climatologists on climate change.

    It’s a strange aspect of TigerhHawk’s blog that TH isn’t a denialist, but many of his commenters are. Oh well. I hope he links here more often – that’s one way to use modern technology to communicate information instead of misinformation.

  5. daddy says:

    I am extremely happy to see the rise of the internet as a means to check the validity of research. What we just witnessed in the AGW scandal shows the importance of such a mechanism of independent checks of data.

    I disagree with you if your premise was that a time existed when legitimate scientists squabbled behind doors and then honest results sprang full born upon the public. There have always been “stacked decks” in scientific inquiry, from the trials of Galileo, to Piltdown, to the denial of Plate Tectonics for 50 years, etc. The great benefit of the internet is that it unstacks the deck. Simply for interest, allow me to lay out for you from some recent reading a long winded discussion of how historically Darwinism stacked the deck in becoming the dominant scientific paradigm, in much the same way that AGW almost became the dominant paradigm.

    In my reading I came upon something of very interesting parallel to what we are seeing today with this AGW Climate movement.

    It is from Darwin’s Armada, a very interesting pro-Darwin history of the 4 voyages of the 4 men who made the Evolution Revolution; Darwin, Hooker, Huxley and Wallace.

    I don’t want to get into any specifics or back and forth arguing about Darwinism, whatever your opinion, but simply want to lay this out there as to the “mechanics” of how a small, very tight and very trustworthy coterie of 9 pro-Evolution scientists in 1860′s London, led by Hooker and Huxley, were able to move the concept of Evolution from nowhere to ascendency in 7 short years. This, excerpted from pages 355 to 359, is how they did it.

    Shortly after the publication of Origin of species, Huxley and Hooker formed a nine member dining group, called the X Clubbers. “They would meet at 6… on the first Thursday of each month…then stroll around the corner to the meeting of the Royal Society, where all but one were members.”

    …”the bond that united us was devotion to science. He meant science as a profession open to merit; science as a naturalist practice free from theological entanglement; science as a means of social, moral and national regeneration; science as a synecdoche for Darwinism.”

    “Huxley claimed the men covered enough of the key scientific fields to make an encyclopedia. Hooker…had earlier thought about forming such an organization, but nothing had come of it. Since then, however, a war over (Darwin’s 1859 book, The Origin of Species) had broken out.”

    “The immediate incentive for founding the X Club…came from Hooker’s and Huxley’s recent difficulties in trying to get Darwin awarded…the Royal Society’s highest honour…This year (1864), under the subtle leadership of Hooker (and X-clubber Busk) they’d succeeded…though the citation made no mention of “Origin of Species.”

    “Huxley was livid at the book’s exclusion, and bulldog-like, he hounded the secretary until it was included in the published proceedings. But the experience had shaken him: informal action was clearly not enough. Planned cohesion was needed if the larger war was to be won. And so the X Club was born.”

    “It’s rapid success came from being a flexible, multipurpose, tightly knit body. Historian Ray Macleod has called it…’an open conspiracy’. Huxley thought of it as ‘a scientific caucus or ring’.”

    “The X’ers made friendship a machine of war, and harnessed its energy to storm and infiltrate the fortresses of science…They were a meritocratic ‘conspiracy’. each member boasting real talents, and credentials… Collectively they were unstoppable. They nominated each other for awards, refered each other for jobs, published each other’s work, sponsored each other’s lecture tours, awarded each other grants, and circulated each other’s achievements. Their honours list tells the story. Over the next two decades, five X Clubbers received the Royal Medal of the Royal Society, three the Copley Medal, one the Rumford Medal. Six were presidents of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, three were associates of the Institute of France, and three—Hooker, Spottiswoode and Huxley—served as presidents of the Royal Society, between 1873 and 1885. With the exception of (1 X Club member), they all rotated through other influential positions in the society—secretary, foreign secretary and treasurer. Over the same period the number of clergy elected to the society fell from eight to 5 percent.”

    “The Xer’s also founded or dominated major scientific journals. Huxley made the “Reader” ‘an organ’ of the Darwinists from 1863, and in November 1869 co-founded “Nature”, which became one of the most prestigious journals in the world. Seven members of the X Club published at least one article in its opening issues of 1869-70.”

    “Five years after the difficulties over Darwin’s award of the Copley Medal, the Xer’s were easily able to secure a Royal Medal for maverick Alfred Wallace (co-founder with Darwin of the Theory of Evolution via Natural Selection). Hooker raised the issue of Wallace’s nomination, Huxley and Hooker lobbied members for support, Darwin wrote a reference praising…and Huxley made the formal nomination. On 30 Nov 1868 Wallace was awarded the equivalent of a scientific knighthood…”

    “The Xer’s also realised that in order to substantiate Darwinian evolution and turn Victorian Britain into a scientific society, they had to go beyond the institutions of scoence. They set out to gain access to every major establishment of national power—government, parliament, universities, schools, the Admiralty, the arts, the Church.”

    “The last, in particular, was critical. One of their shrewdest, and often underappreciated, achievements was to ally themselves with liberal Anglican clergymen who were engaged in their own war to purge militant Tories…from the Chirch. These allies included…all of who wined, dined and plotted with the X’ers to promote science in schools, appoint liberal clerics to universities, and resist the inquisitional attacks of Church Tories.”

    “…Huxley even contrived a respectable philosophical position for sceptically minded X’ers. It enabled him, as Lenin later quipped, ‘to hide his materialism under a figleaf’. Elected to the illustrious Metaphysical Society in 1869, where he mixed with religious dignitaries of every stamp, Huxley coined the term ‘agnostic’ for philospohical neutrals…With a sigh of relief, secular minded liberal intellectuals all over the country fitted themselves with agnostic fig leafs.”

    “The X Club members recieved a boost in their efforts to lobby parliament and government in 1870 with the election of (an X Clubber) now Sir John—as a Liberal Member of Parliament. A colleague of party leader Gladstone, he was able to exercise behind-the-scenes influence to help Hooker, Huxley and the other X’ers…After a tough campaign, in which the X Club lobbied fiercely, (a severe political enemy) was defeated in 1872 and lost his seat in Parliament. (This ensured Hooker’s autonomy in running the National Gardens).

    “At what point could the Darwinists declare the invasion over, the battle won? Social revolutions rarely have neat concluding dates…However within…Victorian Britain, the key battles for acceptance of Darwin’s theory were over in a surprisingly short time. Huxley estimated…that victory would take seven years, and his guess was surprisingly close.”

    The Origin of Species was published in 1859. The original heated debate about the Theory was held in Oxford in 1860. In 1866 “…Hooker addressed an evening meeting of the British Association” using a parable about (himself and Huxley) the Darwinians at that earlier 1860 meeting as being the equivalents of Missionaries preaching a new doctrine of Evolution. Now, “six years later, a meeting of the same group was ‘applauding the new creed’. Observers reported that Hooker’s missionary analogy was greeted with laughter and thundrous cheers…the language of battle had turned into the language of religious denominationalism. Darwinism was no longer an invasion force, it had become an established ‘creed’.”

    “Huxley’s public nicknames tell a similar story. During the 1860′s, young scientists called him ‘the Captain’, while his co-workers and students at the School of Mines dubbed him ‘the General’. During the 1870′s he became ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’, and then, more significantly, ‘Pope Huxley’. By that time he’d achieved a type of papal dominion over science. Every new lecture, article and book of his became an encyclical. His bestseller of 1870 was even titled “Lectures and Lay Sermons”. The man once excoriated as the ‘Devil’s Chaplain’ had become a priest of science.”

    So, sorry for wearing you out with that long excerpt. If you got this far I hope I didn’t waste your time and definitely don’t want to generate any arguments pro or con Darwin. But it was the “mechanic’s of how they did it that stunned me with its inescapable eerie parallels to what we’re witnessing today with AGW:

    1) A cabal of fellow traveler AGW scientists, intent on establishing their vision over all opposition world wide, and using every means possible to exalt their chosen vision and fellow visionaries, and to silence their opponents via any means within their power? Check.

    2) Completely subserviant Media’s and branches of Government willing to support and promote their agenda via all means and grants and taxes possible, and to demonize and stifle opposition to their agenda? Check.

    3) Establishment of, in essence, a New Religious enviro-creed of GAIA for purposes of indoctrinating and accomplishing that agenda? Check.

    4) Controlling the schools and universities and appointments to the same in order to accomplish that agenda? Check.

    5) High Priesthood’s of Al Gore etc with Scarifying Hollywood Movies? Check.

    6) And a final mad dash to Copenhagen to enshrine the new orthodoxy via taxes and regulations world wide?

    Apologies for the verbosity. Don’t know if this added to the discussion but i hope it did. The book, Darwin’s Armada, BTW is a very good read.

  6. Georg Felis says:

    Unfortunately I think what you are seeing is a corrupt and somewhat combative alliance between fringe researchers starved for publicity and the press franticly seeking panic stories, where legitimate scientists who discover minor correlations between events are drowned out by the “panics”. The Center for Science in the Public Interest and their ilk has a long history of this, from “Palm oil will kill you” to “Salt will kill you” to “Alar will kill you” to “Air will kill you.” Well, maybe not the last one. Each release from CSPI triggers a whole series of panic-sounding news stories, reporters wailing about the dangers of eating popcorn, making wild guesses about the number of bodies that will pile up from this “epidemic” until more reasonable people begin poking holes in the theories, and it becomes time to release a new panic report and start the cycle all over again.

    The Union of Concerned Scientists and the University of East Anglia are two that seem to have latched onto the “The world will end in fire” theme, and have managed to convince the whole of the civilized world that Man-Made Global Warming is real, and the only way to stop it is to plow billions into….well, something, we don’t know exactly what, but we own a number of fine companies who are working on the problem, give them the money and it will be used correctly. And by correctly, we mean to purchase research grants for UEA. And to help Al Gore travel the world by jet, speaking at every frozen outpost of humanity.

    Real science keeps the raw data. Real science releases the code it uses on the raw data. Real scientists have no problem with other scientists examining their hypothesis and data. There’s a wonderful article and actual informative comments in the UK Guardian. Read and enjoy.

    Cross-posted on Tigerhawk

  7. Foobarista says:

    Where things get ugly is when scientists quit being scientists and try to be politicians and policy advocates, while still claiming their “moral authority” as scientists. Once you wade into that game, you, by definition, will have no moral authority with your political opponents and will look bad if you try to assert it.

    Whatever one may think of the science of AGW, those who advocate Big Stuff to reduce CO2 were not well-served by the scientist-politicians who tried to drive the cart. Now the whole thing will have to start over, and rightfully so.

  8. The sad comments here are proof of the post: people with no expertise posit a conspiracy; they don’t want to believe something supported by politicians they dislike; they convince themselves that 97% of climatologists are “fringe researchers”; and then in the case of commenter daddy and many others, take an allegedly neutral position on evolution while tying it to a conspiracy to foist global warming theories. My suggestion to daddy is to remember that he’s posting his comment on a blog hosted by a biologist. Maybe the other climate skeptics should consider whether their science is any better than the creationists.

  9. Biotunes says:

    Actually, Brian, these comments have been very useful to me in thinking how to frame my next post on the subject, about what scientists can and should do about this problem, because we are certainly partly responsible for it – as I said, taking the attitude that “we are scientists, so we have the right answer and you should just listen to us” is not a helpful attitude, and comes off as “arrogance.” Instead, scientists need to make clear that their policy opinions are completely separate from their identities as scientists, and also continually remind the public that science is not an ideology or belief system, but a rational system in which the best answers emerge through scientific consensus that has nothing to do with politics. Some scientists have muddied the waters by conflating their positions as scientists with political advocacy, and so it is not surprising that a lot of people then come to the conclusion that scientists are merely another ideologically based special interest group. What we need scientists to do is be constantly reminding the public of what science actually is, and I will address this in detail in another post. (Thank you for your feedback too.)

  10. ruralcounsel says:

    Schmidt, all physical sciences and engineering are based on the same physics, chemistry, and math. Statistical techniques are used across the board. There is so much commonly used, that engineers and physical science are virtually indistinguishable at the university research level.

    I think you’ll also find that there was no such thing as a “climatologist” 30 years ago…it was an area of interdisciplinary research, and still is to a large extent. Michael Mann of “hockey stick” fame did his research on tree rings. He really doesn’t have special expertise in atmospheric physics.

    Don’t be too quick to relinquish your basic knowledge to the pronouncements of self-declared experts. Most of the global climate models violate the laws of thermodynamics …. they can’t close their energy balances.


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