Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Denialism, Skepticism, and a Need to Evolve

Ok, well I decided to post this in light of a few recent conversations and a rather closely related article recently posted on National Geographic here.  Here is my entry from a little while ago that I never published concerning science denialism.  I feel that it will likely be my last post like this for a while.  I prefer to stick to the outdoor musings, but I still felt that I needed to clean this out of my "drafts" box.  And again, I welcome comments, but please be courteous and civil.

I had always said I would never talk religion, politics, or other "controversial" subjects on this journal.  The last thing I want is people arguing in the comments.  I suppose you can file this post under "scribbles". Today I found myself in an all too familiar position of talking with someone about my grad-school research, and having the discussion turn to one of climate change.  This happens quite often, and many times the person with which I'm talking is absolutely convinced that I am wasting my time...and it's all a big "cover up".  99% of the time, I just smile, laugh a bit, and agree with the person.  I've found this is the quickest way to avoid a pointless and frustrating exchange.  Today was different though.  Today it just got to me.  I found myself in a conversation with an educated person; a person whom I would otherwise consider to be open-minded, intelligent, and with a good healthy dose of positive skepticism.  These are all good things when it comes to debating, however, this person was adamantly (I might even say aggressively) trying to tell me how anthropogenic climate change is a "great hoax and lie perpetrated by our government".  The usual cliche', cherry-picked, and/or fallacious ammo was of course thrown forth, "yeah, but in the 70's scientists said it was cooling", "yeah, but CO2 lags temperature in some cases", "yeah but, it was warmer during the last interglacial", "yeah but it's the sun's fault", "yeah, but how come it's cooling now?", "yeah, but the hockey stick is broken" etc, ad nauseum.

In the end after noticing that it was actually beginning to make me a little sad at the state of science literacy in this country, I simply told them that nothing I could say was going to change their mind, as they were already apparently convinced of their position (and were probably just trying to make themselves feel smarter by "outsmarting" someone who studies science for a living.  Yes that's right, while you are headed off to your daily home of employment, I actually study this stuff ALL day.  But what do I know).  This realization got me thinking long and hard about a fundamental problem with where we are as a society...particularly here in the States.

There was a day when science was looked to as the source of answers to our natural world here in the U.S.  Scientists went to school for many years, to learn, understand, and properly question what we know about biology, chemistry, physics, etc.  Scientists dedicate their lives to this purpose, and to becoming experts in their field, and were often considered heroes of their time.  Even the early presidents recognized this, as Lincoln instituted the National Academy of Science.  The purpose of which was to have experts in various fields that would advise the president on scientific questions and problems.  Today in this hyper-digital information age, despite the continued existence of the National Academy, many people are much more prone to ignore the work of these scientists in favor of their own belief, or those of a non-expert television personality or politician...regardless of the evidence.  I receive countless science job and post-doc postings on the ice/climate email lists every day, and they are almost always for Universities in other countries; countries where science is still praised and revered; countries that are quickly surpassing the U.S. in their research; countries that still set aside ample funding for pure research.  Countries that aren't spending all their time, money, and effort voting to repeal already-passed laws for the 53rd time or shutting their own governments down.

I have seen so many times where a person will take the word of a politician, with no more science background then maybe a high-school level, over a scientist who studied climatology and physics for 12 years in college, has multiple degrees, and who has hundreds of peer-reviewed papers published in scientific journals.  Why would you believe the politician over the expert?  Would you ask the politician to fix your car, or install central air conditioning in your house?  Would you ask a plumber to operate on your heart?

What I've come to realize is that many people, for some reason, have an unexplainable need to latch on to conspiracies.  It's simply more exciting and gossip-rich to think we are all being duped somehow.  That the government, or "the man", is out to get us.  But, that you, being so clever and all, have "figured it all out!".  These people believe that most of us, at our heart, are intrinsically deceitful and conniving.  There is a very bizarre and unnatural addiction to this...and the psychology behind it is undoubtedly fascinating.  In addition, once a conspiracy takes hold, it is nearly impossible to eradicate.  No matter how much evidence is shown to the contrary on any issue, there will always be those that simply don't want to accept that evidence.  EVER.

Going back to my encounter today, I tried to explain to this person that it's GOOD to be a skeptic.  Science is about questioning things, developing hypotheses, making predictions, and testing them.  To me (and I'm sure to most scientists), there is nothing more exciting than having something be proven wrong.  It means that there's something we didn't understand about the science.  That's exciting.  Can you imagine if someone tomorrow determined that Einstein was wrong about relativity? or that what we know about gravity or the structure of an atom is wrong?  That would be incredibly exciting.  Think about when the Heliocentric model was first hypothesized.  Science isn't about proving things right...it's about building testable hypotheses and evidence/results to back those hypotheses.  In time, the mountain of evidence for various hypotheses are accepted by the scientific community as a whole, and paradigms shift.  Thousands of papers are published and millions of hours of research invested simply for the love of scientific discovery, and for understanding why things work the way they do, and why they are the way they are.

Eight years ago, I left a high-paying career in engineering to pursue graduate studies in the geosciences.  I had always loved the Earth Sciences and decided I wanted to study glaciology and paleoclimatology (specifically, polar-related research).  I came into graduate school with a very open mind and wanted to understand what it means to be a scientist.  What I've discovered so far in all these years, is that I have yet to meet a scientist that actually cares about politics as it relates to their actual science.  Most scientists study science for the pure love of it....and are simply seeking the truth in the way the world works.  There are no secret agendas.  Really. And while most of us do have to apply for NSF grants to fund our research, the integrity of that research is what is most sacred.  The NSF doesn't award grants for projects unless you can convince them that the science is sound and the hypotheses testable.  My advisor often testifies to Congress on the subject of climate change and he is constantly telling politicians that he doesn't really care about the politics.  He simply presents the facts of the science...take it or leave it.  Unfortunately, they often leave it.

So I come back again to my encounter today, and I think about this person and how completely convinced they were.  I tell them that within the scientific community, the paradigm has long since shifted and there is essentially no scientific debate on this any more.....At all.  Like evolution, gravity, plate tectonics, or the shape of the Earth, enough evidence has been presented and enough hypothesis tested, that the community has moved on. I presented this person with the statistics on the past year of climate-related scientific publications...and they scoffed at it as though it was "false" or "manufactured" data.

I asked them, "Are you positing that physics as we understand it today, is actually wrong?  We know CO2 is a greenhouse gas.  We know without greenhouse gases, Earth would have an average global temperature of about 0F (-18C). We know the 100+ppm increase (and climbing) over the past few decades comes from burning of fossil fuels based on the isotopic signatures, and we know it will trap heat.  This is physics and basic thermodynamics.  This trapping will create a feedback that adds more CO2 from the oceans...etc".  I continued, "Do you really think, that the entire National Academy of Science, nearly every climatologist and atmospheric scientist all over the entire world, and the thousands of global collaborators involved with the IPCC, are all in on a giant global conspiracy?  Literally thousands of people that are all secretly giggling under their collective breaths that they have the rest of the world somehow duped?  Do really believe that the thousands and thousands of peer-reviewed research papers are all part of said conspiracy and even more remarkable that not a SINGLE one of these people has leaked this secret?  Is it seriously more believable to think that thousands of scientists (myself included) can somehow all keep a global secret, without a single one slipping up and telling a friend, or a spouse, or girlfriend after a few too many drinks?"  To which they retorted with evidence of a small, yet building minority of scientists "going against the establishment" and publishing the "truth" and how "climategate" exposed the truth!   I went on to explain that sure, there are a few bad apples, which is why we have peer-review.  And of course it's not perfect (hence retraction), but it's difficult to get a paper published and accepted...I know.  And sure you'll always get the "experts" that oppose the establishment as well...just like those homeopathic "doctors" that say it's better to take an herbal remedy as opposed to a proven prescribed medicine from a doctor that went to medical school for 10+ years.  I've spent the last eight years studying ice cores from Antarctica and reading hundreds and hundreds of published papers about paleoclimatology with as open and scientifically skeptical a mind as I could.  The evidence and science are completely clear and undeniable, and I have earned the right to say that.  I've spent years studying it.  I know what I've researched, I know what I've read, and I know what I've presented in front of experts and defended.  I also know which studies are the soundest, and I understand them.  I politely asked this person, "How many peer-reviewed scientific papers have you read on the subject of ice-core paleoclimatology?"...to which they did not reply.  Finally, I said, suppose you're completely right and the entire world is actually in on one big massive hoax....isn't it still simply better to make our world cleaner, more livable, and more sustainable with greener energy solutions anyway? We are her stewards are we not?

He retorts with the oft-used "natural-cycle" argument.  I go on to tell him... climate doesn't just warm by some "natural cycle"; there must be a forcing. There are cyclical forcings that we understand quite well (i.e. orbital/milankovitch)...but no known forcing exists that gives us what we have seen over the last century unless we include anthropogenic influence. Thousands of scientists study internal variability such as atmospheric forcings (e.g. el nino, la nino, NAO, etc), while others still have dedicated careers to understanding solar energy balance and sunspots, volcanic inputs, ocean inputs, sea ice-ice-sheet interactions, ice sheet growth/retreat, etc. We have examined dozens of ice-core records, hundreds of sediment core records, speleothems, tree rings, peat bogs, you name it. We understand fairly well natural variability...and like I said, nothing gives us the past 100 years.  I explain the IPCC figure that compares temperature trends over the past 100 years with and without anthropogenic forcing...

Figure 9 from IPCC report showing observed temperature trends (black) compared to modeled temperature trends.  Modeled yellow curve (a) includes anthropogenic AND natural forcings, modeled blue curve (b) includes ONLY natural forcings (sun, volcanoes, etc).  [See the IPCC report or here for more details].

Is it remotely possible that there exists some bizarre natural forcing, unknown to every scientist and instrument throughout the world that has also never happened in the measurable past that's causing it? I suppose. There's always uncertainty. Is there also a chance that atoms are actually made up of tiny bits of infinitesimally small alien creatures, that gravity is actually God pushing on us, and that plate tectonics is all a lie? I guess so too. But for there to exist some unknown forcing that gives us what we've measured, we'd have to also change what we currently know and understand about the laws of physics. (There's a pretty good detailed explanation of why it is very very very unlikely to be a natural forcing over on skeptical science if you want to give it a read: http://www.skepticalscience.com/global-warming-natural-cycle.htm)

Within the ice/climate/glaciology/paleoclimate scientific community, there is essentially no scientific debate on this. You have to understand, I tell him, that thousands and thousands of scientists agree on this. There's not even a question anymore. Even the latest IPCC report now has a 95% certainty on this...and that's being super-conservative. In scientific statistical terms that is high enough of a confidence interval that it includes 2 sigma (standard deviations). We've never ever been more in agreement on this. I wasn't trying to preach politics, or opinion...I was simply telling him what I've learned and come to realize being in this community now for over 7+ years. I've probably read over 1000 scientific papers on the matter with as open and scientifically skeptical a mind as I could...and the evidence is undeniable.

This is about when I realized that I needed to just walk away.

Seriously, how do you openly deny physics with no evidence or no new testable hypothesis?  This is when I realized this strange and unnatural propensity to gravitate towards conspiracies and pseudoscience.  It's simply more tantalizing and exciting.  I think there's something gratifying about getting people to believe you as well...almost as if you've "recruited for the cause".  But in all honesty, most things really are just as simple as science, and often quite boring.  Pick up any recent copy of most scientific journals and you'll probably be bored to tears by the dryness of the published articles.  This is why I think it's important to differentiate between skepticism and denialism.  Skepticism is healthy, and a needed component to the evolution of science and our understanding of the world.  Denialism is a blatent denial of the scientific evidence presented so that a belief can be preserved.  I saw a great quote on the internet about the psychology of denialism.  It said,  "Humans have always used denial. When we are afraid, guilty, confused, or when something interferes with our self-image, or beliefs, we tend to deny it. Yet denial is a delusion."

This is very true.  People, by nature, are very stubborn and defensive.  When someone shows you empirical evidence that your long held belief about something is potentially wrong, rather than get excited about something new and possibly wonderful...you tend to deny it, or defend your own belief.  No one likes to find out that they've been wrong about something.  The power of belief is very strong.  Just look at the millennia of conflicts over religion.  Also, the mind can be so convinced of things, that logic and reason simply no longer matter.  The power of the mind can truly be daunting...just look at any case of psychosomatic illnesses.  There has even been documented instances of what has been dubbed the "backfire effect".  This effect describes the situation that occurs when a person is presented with empirical evidence contrary to their own beliefs...when not only do they not concede there positions as being wrong, but (contrary to logic) they will actually declare their existing position as even more correct....a literal negative effect of what should happen.  (There was a great study done on this phenomenon and can be read about here:  http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2011/03/denial-science-chris-mooney?page=2)

As far as latching on to conspiracies....well this has been going on for centuries.  In the last 50 years, and particularly with the recent development of the fast global connectivity of the internet, conspiracies establish themselves quickly and get deeply rooted.  Regardless of the obvious counter-evidence presented, these conspiracies hold on tightly and people stay dug in, like a tick, believing them....rather than to just laugh about it, admit their gullibility, open their beliefs to something new, and move on.  I think back to the the countless hours of network news coverage of the most ridiculous things I could imagine.  The president of the United States having to present his birth certificate to prove his citizenship.  People convinced that somehow 9/11 was an "Inside Job", despite members of terror groups openly boasting about it.  So why do we want so much to believe these things?  Why would anyone want to believe that 9/11 was a coverup of some sorts?  I just don't understand.  What feeds into this even more is that some real "conspiracies" do actually exist (e.g. Watergate),  and only further perpetuate the idea that "anything is possible" and "see!...the government has secret agendas!"

Most of the time, while these conspiracy theories hang out at the fringes and waste nothing more than perhaps some news air time, and some wacky website real-estate, some conspiracies can have a very detrimental impact on society.  And despite mountains of scientific evidence against those theories, people simply go on believing them and end up putting themselves and others at risk.  It doesn't seem matter what side of the political "aisle" people are on either.  Conspiracies abound across the entire political spectrum, even amongst the most conservative or the most progressive.  A classic example of this is the conspiracy theory related to vaccinations.  Despite every published medical journal paper citing no evidence or correlation, despite every major medical outlet confirming this, and despite nearly the entire medical community being in agreement....some people are still convinced that there is somehow a link between autism and vaccinations.  Even the one British medical journal study that had tried to make the link, has been proven to be a fraud and has since been retracted.  Yet a few celebrities that don't understand the difference between causation and correlation, can stand up and say they "know" it's true, and people unexplainably believe them.  Why? Because people love anecdotes and what feels real.  Why would anyone take the word of a celebrity over the entire medical professional community?  What's worse, is that there is now an increase in cases of measles, whooping cough, and other diseases in this country that could have been prevented by vaccines.  Why would you risk your child's health, by believing a celebrity? (Here is a great video that explains the vaccine/autism scientific study history:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o65l1YAVaYc#t=174.  Just last week, a new massive study, that cost tax-payers over 2 billion dollars was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (link) that involved 95,000 subjects.  The study found no correlation between MMR vaccines and autism spectrum disorder occurrence (even amongst high-risk children).  Maybe it's finally about time that we move on past this, wouldn't you think?  Well....you would, but recently, even as anti-vaccine folks are perhaps finally coming around to this realization that there is no proven link between the vaccines and autism after all, they have now simply altered their narratives to say vaccines and shots contain "toxins" and that their child has a strong enough immune system to handle infections "naturally".  There seems to just be this stubborn nature that exists in these folks to refuse to accept the truth....perhaps another example of the backfire effect, although I would argue this seems more like hubris.  I wonder what they would say if their child was bitten by a rabid animal (100% mortality rate without the vaccine or immediate shots)?

This happens a lot in the medical arena.  There are countless conspiracies and beliefs related to various real (and sometimes phantom) medical conditions that despite hundreds of published studies refuting or showing no evidence to support, people still want to believe.  For example, there are people that actually choose to take long-term, advanced-level, intravenous antibiotics to "cure" them of what they believe is a "chronic form" of lyme disease, despite very serious documented long-term negative side effects of taking these antibiotics (even death).  Every accredited medical journal and study that has done a double-blind placebo test on patients exhibiting symptoms of "chronic" lyme, has shown no evidence that extended antibiotic treatment is beneficial (link).  Extended antibiotic use can even be fatal (link). Certainly lyme disease is a very real and dangerous threat.  I know.  I contracted it while on the Appalachian Trail, and was treated for it.  It is a threat that appears to also be expanding across this country...but the term "chronic" Lyme disease can be really confusing and misleading, as it has been used to describe people with many different illnesses and symptoms and its presence within the public discourse is often due to the same anti-science movements that fuel the autism/vaccine and HIV/AIDS fallacies.  In addition, new studies like this one, are only corroborating further that the term may not apply to any sort of genuine medical condition despite many people's conviction and belief that it does.  And while it is encouraging and exciting that there are numerous medical doctors and schools that have been continuing to investigate Lyme further to 
hopefully better understand the full extent of infections and symptoms, as well as the numerous patients that experience more-generalized symptoms like pain, malaise, and soreness... as of today there lacks the scientific and/or medical evidence to support a genuine medical "chronic lyme" condition.  Still, people can wake up one day and absolutely convince themselves they've somehow contracted it, despite never having found a tick on them, or having any evidence of a tick bite, or living in an area prone to lyme.  They can believe it so much so, that they can even become symptomatic.  Again, the mind can be very powerful.   Some even believe that the government "created lyme disease in a lab!" even though it has been discovered in the ancient remains of several thousand-year-old skeletons.  I'm getting off the point here....my point was that in this case, exposing oneself to such high level of long-term antibiotics can be very dangerous or even fatal, just as not vaccinating your children over a false fear, can put them at great risk for contracting and/or spreading harmful diseases.  Yet somehow, people would rather believe the conspiracy, over the rigorously tested science and medicine.  Why?  

The same is happening with the new emergence of the "anti-GMO" camp.  People are convinced that Genetically Engineered foods are inherently bad for human consumption despite the fact that much of our foods have been modified to some extent for centuries and that all recent studies in peer-reviewed journals show no correlation with GMO food and detrimental health (e.g. link).  Remember...we're simply talking about genes here. People are convinced that various companies are trying to "kill us all!" simply because they patent their seeds and are trying to make a profit (both things have been happening since long before those companies existed).  If anything, these companies should spend more time working on their PR and get better at communicating with the public so that people are better-informed (although I don't think it will matter much....people will believe what they want to believe).  GMO crops have the potential to save millions of lives, and science has shown this...yet people want to believe so badly that we are being duped somehow.  Again, it makes a for a better story...."We're being duped!...But I won't be fooled darn it!" Another great related example.......in the 1960's, one Maryland doctor claimed he experienced negative side effects after eating food containing MSG.  Today, over 50 years later and because of that ONE study, people still believe that MSG (a naturally occurring salt) is still somehow bad for them (even though it's completely safe).  I wonder just how long it will take for MSG to shake itself free of that stigma?  Perhaps as long as "GMO crops"?

I could go on and on, particularly with the pseudosciences and false beliefs.  There's the 17+ million people in the U.S. that believe they are gluten sensitive (excluding true celiacs of course).  A recent scientific study (link, article), shows that most people who claim to be non-celiac gluten sensitive, are actually experiencing what's called a NOCEBO effect.  A literal negative to the Placebo effect.  (actually experiencing bad effects as opposed to good, when none actually exist).  What's more, only 16% of people who claim to be gluten-sensitive were actually diagnosed by medical doctor.  The remaining 84% were either self-diagnosed, or diagnosed by a non-medical or alternative medicine individual or organization.  People can believe in something so strongly, that they can become symptomatic...much like with the "chronic" lyme.  Again, I could go on and on with dozens of examples of people believing what they want to believe or what they read on "that one website...that uncle Mike forwarded to me" (e.g. nutritional supplements, reiki, fad diets, fluoridated water being "unsafe", "big pharma" being evil!, psychic readings, ghost hunting, bigfoot, etc, etc, etc...)

I'm not a huge fan of "Ted Talks", but there is a good one that addresses this very subject and is definitely worth the watch!:

You can look back at the countless conspiracies:  JFK, Moon Landings, Roswell, Area 51, Illuminati, etc...and it's so easy to want to latch on to some of them.  Movies are made about them, books are written, it's part of our culture.  Some disturbed guy took out the president...how boring.  A huge conspiracy, involving multiple levels of government and several gunmen, led to the president's demise....now that's more interesting!   Heck, I even wrote a song about the JFK conspiracy....but only because it was fun to think of it as a "what-if" scenario.  Not because I actually believed it.

Not sure where I've gone with this post...and at this point, it would probably be wiser to simply delete it.  I guess my point is that I don't think we can ever really evolve as a society and culture until we truly open our minds and realize that it's ok to learn new things, and change how we view the world.  Scientists aren't in on some great conspiracy...we actually just really like science.  Really.  I know...it's dorky, but true.  No one is out to dupe or trick you (except for maybe the used-car salesman), and there's nothing secret to "figure out".  I think that we do need to remain skeptical, it's important...and continually test our scientific hypotheses.  When the hypotheses have been rigorously tested though, we need to learn to accept the results.  We need to be open with our knowledge too, and study it for the pure sake of that knowledge, and not be so quick to deny or latch on to unfounded conspiracies no matter how enticing they might seem. 

....And to my fellow scientists out there, I implore you, we need to get better with outreach and at communicating our science in general.  Much of the disbelief and misunderstandings that exist, are simply because of ignorance...which means our science is not being communicated, taught, or understood well enough by the public.  We need to convey to others how to pose and test valid hypotheses, how to reason, and how logically we've arrived at our conclusions and answers.....not just what those conclusions and answers are.

hike on friends,


Oh...and somehow this entire post made me think of Tim Minchin's beat-poem. It seems apropos....

"...Isn't this enough? Just....this....world?  Just this, beautiful, complex, wonderfully unfathomable, natural world?...."