Science for Stupid Idiots

You might be a stupid idiot, like me.  At least I must be a stupid idiot, since I'm called that quite often.  You see, I have doubts about some things.  Things like catastrophic, man-caused global warming; neo-darwinistic explanations of evolution; the safety and efficacy of at least some mandatory vaccines; etc.

I'm not always called an "idiot."  On global warming, I'm a "denier."  On evolution, I'm a "creationist."  On vaccines, I'm an "anti-vaccine nut."  But you get the idea.  I'm not rational and fact-based, like they are.

Here's my thinking on a vaccine, before injecting one of my kids with one: what are the chances of harmful effects without the vaccine, and with the vaccine?  I want two numbers.  My nutty logic is that I want to minimize the chances of harmful effects on my child.  To calculate that for a particular vaccine, I need those two numbers.  An emotionless robot or computer would need those two numbers.

Yet we are rarely given even one of those numbers, much less both.  Not from my doctor.  Not from the CDC.  Not from geniuses who write articles about how dumb I am for not simply believing their repeated assurances.  They tell me it's all about informed consent, but they don't inform me (with the two numbers I need), and they don't ask for my consent.  (Sometimes you can opt out, but try that with Hep B shots for your kid.)

Case in point: a recent press release from the National Academy of Sciences.  The NAS told us that "few health problems are caused by vaccines."  That report was then used to tell idiots like me, "For Pete's Sake, Go Get Your Kids Vaccinated Already!"

The NAS did not put a number on "few."  Even if it did, that would be only one of the two numbers needed.  In fact, the NAS explicitly said it doesn't have those two numbers.  It said this about its study committee.

It did not examine information that would have allowed it to draw conclusions about the ratio of benefits to risks.

So the NAS cannot draw conclusions about the single thing of importance to a parent.  But somehow everyone else can.  You see, "fact-based" people can draw conclusions even where the NAS can't.  And therefore, you are an idiot to not vaccinate your kid.

If you want us to be fact-based, you ought to provide us some facts.

Maybe you are thinking this is all too hard and we should just believe the experts here: doctors.

Do you know how many doctors, some literally brain surgeons, made an important statistical mistake in their studies?  Half of them.  These were studies trying to prove that some medical treatment was actually effective.

Yes, half the studies showing that some medical treatment is effective are in error.  We just found that out this week (at least for neuroscience journals).

Sander Nieuwenhuis and his associates from the Netherlands have done a study on one particular type of statistical error that apparently crops up in an inordinately large number of papers published in neuroscience journals. In their paper, published in Nature Neuroscience, they claim that up to half of all papers published in such journals contain the error.

So how much can we trust an NAS study that is a study of studies, when half of those underlying studies contain a major error?  (Also see this study of studies about video games on behavior: "most, if not all, of these studies suffer from common pitfalls in experimental design.")

And those errors were not even big enough to cause the papers to be withdrawn.  Do you know how many medical research papers were withdrawn from publication due to major errors or outright fraud in the last decade?  The answer is 788.

That is, hundreds of medical research papers have errors so egregious that the papers had to be withdrawn completely.  And half or more of the rest might have serious errors.  We should not be treated like benighted troglodytes for being skeptical of medical "science."

Take salt in your diet.  The scientific consensus on that was so strong that the mayor of New York City forced city restaurants to start reducing the salt content in their meals.  But a recent study showed that that might all be based on bad science.  I don't know which studies are correct.  Then again, I'm not writing laws that tell people how much salt they can have.

I have a tip for "scientists" and the pundits who love them, from Socrates: "Wisdom is knowing how little we know."

Unfortunately, today we are getting the polar opposite of such wisdom.  The American Physical Society, for example, says the science on man-caused global warming is incontrovertible!

Nobel Prize-winning physicist Ivar Giaever had this to say about that.

In the APS it is ok to discuss whether the mass of the proton changes over time and how a multi-universe behaves, but the evidence of global warming is incontrovertible? The claim (how can you measure the average temperature of the whole earth for a whole year?) is that the temperature has changed from ~288.0 to ~288.8 degree Kelvin in about 150 years, which (if true) means to me is that the temperature has been amazingly stable, and both human health and happiness have definitely improved in this "warming" period.

Did you grow up reading about the brontosaurus, the largest dinosaur ever?  It was the symbol of Sinclair Oil.  If you are over 40 you probably knew all about the brontosaurus from science books at the time.  But it never existed.  It was a screw-up due to a fossil mix-up (head and body didn't really match).  But scientists thought it was real -- for decades.  It took about 90 years for the real story to come out and to be accepted.

I went to a science museum only a few years ago.  It had an exhibit showing how the Bernoulli effect is what makes airplanes fly.  (Maybe you've seen the animation of little dots going over the top, and under the bottom, of a wing.)  Unfortunately, that is almost totally wrong.  NASA explains how it really works. (Blowing over a piece of paper is much easier than solving five simultaneous partial differential equations.)

About 20 years ago, astronomers noticed that stars on the outer edges of galaxies had greater speeds than the known laws of physics would indicate, based on the observed amount of mass in the galaxies.  So the scientists simply assumed there is a lot more mass, unobserved mass, in galaxies.  They gave it a name: dark matter.

Astronomers also noticed that galaxies appear to be accelerating away from each other, counter to all known forces.  So they simply assumed there is another force.  They gave it a name: dark energy.

Dark matter and dark energy are believed to make up 95% of the universe.  So far, they have been unable to find either thing that is 95% of everything.

There are many examples of things we thought we knew that turned out to be wrong.  Not just the brontosaurus, but epicycles, philostogen, contact static electricity, bathybius, among others.  General relativity and quantum theory conflict, unless you believe in string theory, which might not even be testable.  There are serious issues with the Big Bang theory.

Recently, Texas Governor Rick Perry took a lot of grief for the statement that "evolution is a theory" with "some gaps in it."  Oh my.  Let me give you a quote from the book Scientists Confront Intelligent Design and Creationism.  According to its dust jacket, it "eviscerates the new assault on evolution" with "overwhelming scientific evidence for evolution."

There will be questions that perhaps will never be answered, simply because it is unlikely that we will ever uncover enough evidence -- the great diversification of invertebrate life at the beginning of the Cambrian period, more than 500 million years ago, being one possible example.

Being never able to explain the Cambrian explosion sounds a bit like a "gap" in the theory to me.  Go ahead and research evolution yourself.  If you think there are no gaps in it, who's being dogmatic?  There are gaps in every theory scientists have.  The opposite of saying there are gaps is to say there are no gaps.  Who in their right mind would say there are "no gaps" in any theory you could name?  Rick Perry is simply in his right mind.

Maybe you heard of the book The Mismeasure of Man, by Stephen J. Gould, famed paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, historian of science, and Harvard professor.  That book is devoted to debunking the work of Samuel Morton in measuring skull sizes among races in the 19th century.  In the words of anthropologist John Hawks, "Gould used the well-documented work of a long-dead man to make an argument that unconscious bias is widespread in science."

As it turned out, the only unconscious bias in this case was Gould's.  Wired writes as follows.

In a study published June 7 in Public Library of Science Biology, researchers led by anthropologists Jason Lewis of Stanford University and the Paleoanthropology Institute's David DeGusta re-measured 308 skulls on which Morton had published data.  Their conclusion: Morton's numbers differed significantly from their own in just 7 cases, and those few mismeasurements didn't favor the narrative of Caucasian superiority that Gould ascribed to Morton's motivation.  Three of them actually overestimated the volume of Egyptian skulls.

As Wired summarized, "[a]nd Gould did provide an excellent example of how science can be skewed by prejudice. It just wasn't the example he intended."

Speaking of such prejudice, let me give a final example.  The "Standard Model" of particle physics says that there is a Higgs particle.  If experiments show that there is no such particle, then the Standard Model breaks down.  The particle zoo and its strange charms would have to be revamped or even dropped.  Scientists have been using the Hadron collider to find the Higgs particle.  They are now 95% sure it doesn't exist.  (They want to be 99+% sure, so they're still looking.)

I'd like you to look at the last paragraph of the Digital Trends story that reported on the Higgs particle results, where the reporter tries to answer "what it means."

Another, less profound, but far more obnoxious, outcome is that people who choose to dismiss science altogether simply because it doesn't have the all the answers (in this case, the answer to, "How did we come to exist in the first place?") will have new ammunition for their arguments.  So, don't be surprised when CERN's troublesome admission that Higgs boson is likely a myth is cited as a reason that global warming doesn't exist.  [My emphasis.]

The Higgs particle has nothing to do with global warming.  But see how it is all tied together in the minds of those who obsess about global warming?  Stupid idiots like me must not be allowed to doubt any part of any currently held scientific theory.  If we are allowed to doubt one, then we might doubt them all.  And then, chaos!  We won't even believe global warming!

Finally we get to why we must believe "science," meaning taking whatever "scientists" say is incontrovertible truth.  If we start having doubts about any of it, we just might start thinking for ourselves.  We will no longer simply swallow what our betters feed us.

The irony is that so many "scientists" have become the enemy they once fought.  They now sit like the elders of the Church at the time of the Guttenberg press.  Imagine the chaos that would result if people could read the Bible themselves!  Better not teach them to read.

Real science is the scientific method.  It means skepticism.  It means publishing your data (as Samuel Morton did).  It means doubt.  It means humility.

Wisdom is knowing how little we know.

It also would be OK to admit that.

Randall Hoven can be followed on Twitter.  His bio and previous writings can be found at