Defending Science on HuffPo

By Phil Plait | April 28, 2010 2:39 pm

I used to write for the Huffington Post, before it became overrun with antiscience alt-med antivax garbage so thick I could smell it through my monitor.

Case in point would be a somewhat targetless essay by Dr. Larry Dossey, who seems to be trying to say that because science is portrayed as an individual effort, but is actually usually a team effort, students get confused and marginalized. Or something. His point is difficult to determine. But in any case, he’s quite wrong; the idea of science being done by groups of people collaboratively is everywhere, from astronomy to zoology.

I need not go into details, because, happily, Steve Newton from the NCSE has posted a rebuttal on HuffPo that tears Dossey to shreds. My favorite part was when Dossey says Nobel Prizes are only given to individuals, and my first thought was "Wow, I wonder if the IPCC knows about this?"… in his essay, Newton says almost exactly the same thing. Great minds, yadda yadda.

Anyway, I suggest you read Dossey’s screed, and then read Newton’s slamdunking of it. It’s a wonderful exercise in muddied and clear thinking, in that order. With people like Newton writing for HuffPo, it makes me feel a bit better that I don’t need to as much.

Tip o’ the white lab coat Robert Luhn of the NCSE.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Antiscience, Debunking, Science

Comments (28)

  1. The Nobel Prize is a terrible example to follow for deciding if individuals or groups make discoveries. The original will of Nobel said it should only be given to an individual in each catagory. Only recently has the committee started to give the prize to full organizations (as far as I know).

  2. Steve Newton: “Hunter-gatherers relied on deep knowledge about the natural world; in order to hunt, they had to recognize, from careful study and experience, the tracks of certain animals, and to judge how much time had passed since those tracks were made.”

    Excellent. This is a point I have made endlessly in discussions of so-called ‘primitive’ people. The entire enterprise of a hunter/gatherer existence relies on the scientific method, or it would not work. It’s all about pattern recognition, generating hypotheses and testing them. 100 percent science.

  3. da swede

    The Peace prize doesn’t count, should never be used as an example and we (the Swedes) really prefer if no one ever mention it. Because, frankly, it’s an embarresment. When the Nobel Prize was thought up, we were in a union with the norwegians so they got one award to hand out themselfs. Well, I say union they say occupation, and I think the Norwegians really uses the Peace Prize as a punishment for that little mistake…

    Every year they hand out the prize we all sit around the tv/pc and watch in horror because we know they will hand it out to totally wrong person and the whole world will blame the swedes…

  4. Marcus

    On the Nobel Prize: I’ll also note that the IPCC received the Peace Prize (not a science prize), and in general I feel like the Peace Prize is historically the only prize that has been given to organizations. So I’m not sure that is the point you should be attacking in the essay.

    It is a little weird though – I would have thought that singling out individuals gives science a more human feel, rather than less – eg, Rutherford’s early experiments resonate more with me than “the Cavendish team’s early experiment’s”.

  5. Astro_Nuke

    According to the tag line, Dossey is the author of a book ‘The Power of Premonitions.” It sounds like he is sore that the scientific community hasn’t embraced his drivel. It’s sad that an M.D. is so ignorant about science.

  6. The post and its arguments and counterarguments quickly became a plate of spaghetti for me, and my 10-cent brain quickly lost track and started thinking about baseball. However, I did notice this link at the top of the page:

    … and really would like to see Phil give his perspective.

  7. Noel

    I find Newton’s statement:

    “Dossey posits that one reason “many young people see themselves as foreigners in the world of science” is the “separateness, distance, and aloofness required to do science.” What in the world is he talking about?”

    a little ignorant. I’ve encountered this problem before. A significant percentage of the people I know, when talked to about science, bring up Einstein or Christopher Lloyd’s character from Back to the Future. They see scientists as people who talk about things that are too complicated to understand, and just shut out the idea of science altogether, and go on thinking things like gravity being a force of repulsion.

    All I see in Newton’s article is a stream of insults with some arguments being no more in depth than “So what?” and “What in the world is he talking about.” I find I cannot take his article seriously.

  8. I think the basic issue is that its a poorly written and organized essay. I think that he was ineptly trying to espouse the cause of better public relations and outreach for science. But his examples were worthless and ruined his point. (if that was his point) His theme was lost in morass of half thoughts. Its clear that he didn’t spend much time organizing or researching the piece.

  9. Russell Kramer

    Mr Plait are you aware that google is putting adds on your website which link to , a website promoting Reiki as an alternative to vaccines for “drug free kids”. I know you don’t control the adds on your site, but I find this somewhat disturbing.

  10. Godis10-7

    I think you miss Newton’s point on that topic. He never says that no one holds those beliefs, but those are stereotypes perpetuated by Hollywood. It’s tough to take someone’s opinion seriously if they base anything on television shows and movies. I will say that I think it is a problem with our society that everyone (including the young that are the key point in the article and all those of any age) that believe anything and everything that happens on TV is how it works in reality. I don’t know how many people think that crime scene investigation works like CSI. The problem, however, is not the scientific method, the problem is people’s need to be entertained by beautiful people and words they don’t understand over an appreciation for true understanding.

  11. Off topic: Could the AF maybe be taking over the space shuttle mission?

    Would love to hear your thoughts on this.

  12. For once, PZ makes a comment that is way more thoughtful than Phil’s. The confusion of the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the IPCC with science (a mistake also made by Steven Newton) is particularly embarrassing.

    Speaking of Newton, it would be nice for once to hear less shouting and more insight about the underlying issue here…the scientific method is of course the best way to learn the world as it objectively is. What about what is subjective then? Is it bound to be ignored simply because impossible to investigate with the scientific method?

    There are many things that happen in one’s life that can’t be repeated in a controlled environment, or in any way objectively investigated. What shall one make of those? Do they actually exist?

    And yes, I am asking questions.

  13. MadScientist

    [OT]: When will you get Colbert’s attention? He’s even got the Blag Hag now …

    @Maurizio: what is subjective can also be quantified and analyzed. What’s your favorite color M&M? What can I do to get more people to buy a Wendy burger than a Big Mac? How do I market something so that more people’s subjective evaluation will lead them to my product? One very clever guy made a fortune from his ability to work out such questions – and the quantitative answers may be very unexpected (but demonstrably correct).

  14. Jamie Mueller
  15. from astronomy to zoology

    Wouldn’t “from astrology to Zoroastrianism” be an even wider A-Z range? :-)

  16. mike burkhart

    Yes science is done by the indvidal but part of reserch is to study the theorys and findings of other scientists .I’m sure Phill has spnt time in the libary studing findings of other astronomers, I bought and read his book to study. I don’t know about students being confused about it .

  17. Oh my…Steven Novella too, he finds it necessary to get out the big guns to shoot to level his adversary…sad isn’t it? A blogging “shock and awe” that strikes as a lot of noise hiding the arguments away

    @MadScientist: what about the stuff that can’t be quantified? What of the experiences that happen only once?

    My preferred color is deep blue. Is that scientific knowledge? Yes? No? If it is not, is that still part of reality? Or maybe not? Shall we define “reality” as the subset of phenomena that can be experienced by one or more observer using the scientific method?

  18. sad isn’t it?

    No. Why would debate be sad?

    A blogging “shock and awe” that strikes as a lot of noise hiding the arguments away

    Arguments aren’t being hidden away just because you want to talk about a different subject entirely.

  19. David D.

    HuffPo–an example of the “war on science” from the Left.

    Does Chris Mooney know about this?

  20. Michael Swanson

    I couldn’t get through the second paragraph. This will be the first time I’ve used the term vitriolic ignorance, but it’s the best I think of describe that utter fool’s article. Any publisher should be embarrassed to allow such complete nonsense on their pages! Teaching children science is equivalent to the oppression of Native American children?! I think I’m going to scream!

    When are people going to realize that the scientific method is the same method (and the only method) that plumbers use to find leaks in your pipes, that mechanics use to determine whether your transmission or clutch is the problem, or that any child uses to determine factually, by counting oranges or circles, that, yes, two plus two does indeed equal four!

  21. @ Noel:

    A significant percentage of the people I know, when talked to about science, bring up Einstein or Christopher Lloyd’s character from Back to the Future. They see scientists as people who talk about things that are too complicated to understand….


    And most mainstream reporters are the same. I recently chided a local newspaper for its coverage of a huge science fair held here. The reporter made the stereotypical comment about kids using big words that nobody could understand but them. He then proceeded to give the example, “the second law of thermodynamics.”

    Seriously. Since when is basic high school science something “nobody could understand”?

  22. JP

    I think there’s a huge misunderstanding of the original article. The problem with teaching scientific method to children is that at their level, they don’t need it! Kids are natural scientists. They’re constantly playing with, and thus learning about the world around them. Every time a block is stacked, every time a toy car is rolled down the track, they’re doing science.

    The point is that the way we teach science to children, much like everything else in the educational system is a complete mindf**k. No attention is payed to the kids natural talent and curiosity; instead everyone is put in a desk and told the world works a certain way. It’s not worth trying to learn anything on your own, kids. You’ll probably be wrong anyways.

    You look back at the great scientists, and you see they all shared one common thread: great intuition and great curiosity about the world. How can we expect to train great scientists if we spend so much effort on crushing and marginalizing the most important talents of the scientist?

  23. Interesting commentary. I’m a long time HuffP0 poster (screen name Bitsko), and have always found it next to impossible to post a critical comment (no matter how innocuous) on their new age pseudoscience threads. Even mentioning the sacred Chopra gets deleted on other threads.

  24. @Naked Bunny with a Whip

    Just a sample of Steven Novella’s vocabulary: “the most prominent anti-scientific venue on the web”, “a horrid straw man”, “hogwash”, “only someone largely naive”, “devoid of any true experience or insight about science”.

    When it would suffice to say that somebody is wrong, what is the point of stating that somebody is “horridly, naively, devoidedly” 😎 wrong?

    And so we are supposed to identify the actual arguments, hidden behind a barrage of superlatives and exaggerations…presumably that’s where one can glimpse at how much blogs could gain in the hands of proper editors!

  25. 2552

    Apparently medicine that works doesn’t actually work.

    *over 9000 facepalms*

  26. Zetetic

    Speaking of defending science…. What the hell happened to the “Known Universe” series on that episode about time?!?

    I know that it’s just a TV show meant for the general public, but Ancient Astronauts and that Dogon hoax? The series didn’t take very long to descend into woo-ville. I kept watching it, hoping for some reasonable counter balance, but they didn’t even try to provide any sort of scientific explanation/balance.

    Please don’t misunderstand….I’m not pointing any fingers at Phil Plait, he sure didn’t say anything like the tabloid-like stuff they were just uncritically shoveling to the public. I also have to wonder if some of the quotes from the scientists were being made out of context, to make it look like they were endorsing something that they actually didn’t. It wouldn’t be the first time a TV show pulled something like that.

    I’m just disappointed in the change of direction for a cheap ratings grab at the expense of science and reason.

  27. Zetetic

    BTW… I’m referring to the episode “Decoding the Skies”. Just to be clear.


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