Crackpot Science

By Keith Kloor | November 16, 2011 11:38 pm

There’s no question about it: science reigns supreme today. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that we collectively take empirical evidence more seriously than we used to. What it means is that science has become increasingly debased, just another partisan tool that an increasing number of people take no more seriously than advertising claims about who has the best pizza. Scientists have their version of science and everyone else has theirs. And that version is decidedly not the same as the “elitist” version practiced by the guys in white lab coats.

Kevin Drum, from a post titled, “The debasement of science.”

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  • Nullius in Verba

    Scientists in white lab coats increasingly use the partisan version, too. That’s part of the problem.

  • Jack Hughes

    @Keith – it’s been a whole week since you ran one of these “right-wingers-anti-science” stories. You OK?

  • Jarmo

    Science is a validation tool nowadays:

    This morning I was listening to my car radio, taking the kids to daycare. Some study claimed that putting under 3-year-olds into daycare leads to developmental problems later in life.

    The more sensational the claim, the more publicity …. as everybody familiar with climate science knows.

  • Jeff Norris

     Is it really the Scientists being so partisan or is it the University press office looking for headlines, publicity and therefore funding?

  • Matt B

    The majority of scientific activity is proceeding along just fine. The fundamental “hypothesis, experiment & analyze” method works, The dissemination of results through publications, seminars, education etc works (albeit much, much slower than most scientists & non-scientists would like). Overall things are pretty good in science!

    The problem comes when science intersects with public policy/theology/political philosophies etc. The partisans with a view to push can always find a scientist to trumpet their worldview, & the media has a hard time dissecting the arguments to get the conversation past the “taste great-less filling” level of discussion. As a result, science in public policy is increasingly worthless, not because it has to be but because of the hack science pushed by the  self-selected participants.

    How can you identify a hack scientist? Here’s one hint, they attach derogatory labels to people who disagree with them.

  • Eli Rabett

    It;’s the churnalists and their classmates in the public deception track

  • Tom Scharf

    Y2K, avian flu, population bomb, GMO…

    What has been oversold is expert prediction. 

    Scientists have been good, and remain very good at explaining why things have happened in the past tense by examining the record and reproducing events in the laboratory. 

    Science remains poor at predicting the future in many areas, particularly complex diverse systems.  Some of this is due to the media over-hyping the state of the science, case in point is any science that depicts something to fear.

    Scientists are guilty of remaining silent when over hype occurs, as public airing of dirty laundry in anathema in academic circles.

    Never trust expert prediction that does not have a successful track record, and even then be skeptical.

    However the real progress of science continues unabated.  I see no cause for alarm on how it is carried out.


  • Tom Scharf

    Where I live in Pinellas County, FL (population ~1M) they recently voted to stop fluoridating the water.   The left leaning St. Pete Times ran several articles on this being a shiny example of Tea Party anti-science insanity, highlighting some rather strange statements by kooks.

    The reality is this is about budget cuts and governing.  Is the $200K cost worth it in light of other projects and the necessary belt tightening?

    I think it is, but it is politically portrayed as people just not believing fluoridation has any scientific benefits.  Cost benefits analysis is not a very sexy media story.

    Governing is about allocating scarce resources for the best overall public good, not simply deciding whether a resource has merit.  

  • harrywr2

    It;’s the churnalists and their classmates
    Come on Eli.
    You should know that a competent lawyer can find a Phd in virtually any field that will say almost anything on a witness stand for a small gratuity.
    Just because someone has a Phd doesn’t mean they have any more ethics then a used car salesman.
    Is there even a procedure to revoke someone’s Phd for ‘ethical lapses’?

  • Jarmo

    This week BBC:s Richard Black provided some insight on the role of science in the IPCC process. He obtained a draft of the report on extreme weather:

    There is “low confidence” that tropical cyclones have become more frequent, “limited-to-medium evidence available” to assess whether climatic factors have changed the frequency of floods, and “low confidence” on a global scale even on whether the frequency has risen or fallen.

    And for the future, the draft gives even less succour to those seeking here a new mandate for urgent action on greenhouse gas emissions, declaring: “Uncertainty in the sign of projected changes in climate extremes over the coming two to three decades is relatively large because climate change signals are expected to be relatively small compared to natural climate variability”.

    It’s also explicit in laying out that the rise in impacts we’ve seen from extreme weather events cannot be laid at the door of greenhouse gas emissions: “Increasing exposure of people and economic assets is the major cause of the long-term changes in economic disaster losses (high confidence). 

    Black notes that this will not go down well with vulnerable developing countries who want to have a clear link between global warming and disasters:

    Governments of vulnerable countries argue that as developed nations caused the climate change problem, they must compensate those that suffer its impacts with money above and beyond aid.
    Developing countries like the fact that under the UN climate process, the rich are committed to funding adaptation for the poor. 

    Black thought it  “very likely” that the draft will be amended to “add urgency” and if we are to believe the Guardian, this will happen:

    Climate change is likely to cause more storms, floods, droughts, heatwaves and other extreme weather events, according to the most authoritative review yet of the effects of global warming.

    This truly a revelation!

  • Steven Sullivan

    Tom Sharf@#7:
    “Y2K, avian flu, population bomb, GMO”¦ oversold by expert prediction”

    Y2K was ‘sold’ by IT folks.
    Avian flu is real and deadly.  We got lucky that it didn’t spread.
    Population bomb, still ticking.
    GMO, scientist are the ones saying they’re OK.  Hell, they invented them.

    Got any more?

  • EdG

    #10 Jarmo

    Poor Black at the BBC. As a remarkably dedicated AGW propagandist, it must have been hard for him to write that.

    In other BBC news:

  • EdG

    “Scientists have their version of science and everyone else has theirs. And that version is decidedly not the same as the “elitist” version practiced by the guys in white lab coats.”

    Dense and profoundly simplistic. This falsely implies that all “scientists” have the same uniform views, as if they were some other species. In reality, all scientists are just humans trained to varying degrees in some field of science, and like ALL humans they are political and economic individual animals.

    Similarly, all sciences do not have the same rigour or standards. They guys in the white coats doing controlled lab experiments are in a completely different league than climastrologists tweaking data and models on their computer screens.

    That said, I can see why somebody would want to create this simplistic black-white cartoon view of the world for propaganda purposes.

  • Steven Sullivan

    Biologists use computer models too, EdG.  And raw data often needs to be ‘tweaked’ (typically to separate signal from noise).  Does that make them ‘biostrolgers’?


  • huxley

    Well, if we’re going to rake over the debasement of science again, from the viewpoint (of course) that the Right is the villain, let’s revisit one of my favorites from this very blog:

    But I can hardly read a paragraph from Curry about an actual scientific question without finding gobsmackingly sophomoric mistakes.

    ““ Dr. Michael Tobis

    Dr. Tobis is a climate orthodox scientist who feels free, perhaps even required for political correctness, to libel another climate scientist in the harshest possible terms when it comes to science.

    Dr. Tobis didn’t support his claim at the time and in spite of numerous requests since (not just by myself) he has not supported his claim since.

    He has not apologized or retracted, which wouldn’t have been a big deal. We all can get carried away with bad mouth in the blog medium, your humble narrator included. But Dr. Tobis stands pat.

    I say this is a debasement of science. Tell me different.

  • charlie
  • jeffn

    Steven Sullivan:
    “Y2K was “˜sold’ by IT folks.
    Avian flu is real and deadly.  We got lucky that it didn’t spread.
    Population bomb, still ticking.
    GMO, scientist are the ones saying they’re OK.  Hell, they invented them.”
    – Y2K, the topic was “expert prediction.’ IT folks were the experts on IT. Expert prediction failed.
    – Avian Flu, the hype-induced panic occupied all the media and gullible and hurt the cause of flu preparedness: how many people who freaked about it are going to be willing to listen to any prediction next time? This is the very nut of the uncertainty issue.
    – Population Bomb is not “still ticking.” There were specific, allegedly science-based, predictions that were dead flat totally completely bone-headedly disastrously wrong. And the fact that this utter failure earned the predictor lifetime respectability and tenure in academia along with the enduring love of the political left is… instructive when evaluating expert predictions. Especially those from academia and the “expert” darlings of the political left.
    – GMO- so you’re saying the scientists who worked on the science are not to be trusted about the reliability of their science? And this differs from the concerns about climate science…. how?
    “Got any more?”
    Peak Oil, which is always already here but will be felt tomorrow.
    The incredible “danger” of nuclear power that even the left is starting to admit was all a bundle of nonsensical urban myths and deliberate isinformation.
    Stress causes ulcers.
    Nuclear winter
    Windmills and solar are “ready” to power industrialized “easily and cheaply”… if you raise taxes, and energy prices, and cut back on energy use, and back it up 100% with natural gas, and if you don’t get all sentimental about unnecessary luxuries like air conditioning, heat, or having electricity all day at your factory.


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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.


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