Thursday, March 12, 2015

On the Fear of Being Wrong

Recently, the anti-vaccine crowd got a taste of reality with a series of necessarily preventable outbreaks that prove that they are a harmful crowd that stupidly denies science with the end result of causing death and disease.  In the microcosm of a single topic, these people are every bit as anti-science and anti-fact as evolution-denying religious cretins*, or anti-GMO nutters.  To be clear, I am not saying that these groups are equal when you generalize across the entire spectrum of science denial, as there are certain groups that reject more scientific principles than others do.  Rather, I'm saying that when you look at the characteristics of abject ignorance of the pertaining subjects, the outright rejection of the evidence, the intransigence with respect to their opponents (vividly illustrated by their preference to hurl accusations rather than actually form a cogent argument), and the apparent belief that their lies are more likely to be true if they're more extreme and terrifying... All of that is basically the same for every science denial movement.

In arguing against these sorts of reality-hating troglodytes, we're most likely to fight back with the real facts on the subject often times because those are the things that we as critical thinkers and rationalists would value most of all.  It is easy to forget, though, that a large part of the reason we do value such things is because we are critical thinkers to begin with, and for those who are not, it just doesn't have any major impact.  A science denier isn't denying it because he or she thinks the facts are really in question, but because he doesn't think something is a fact unless he agrees with it.  The science denier belongs to social groups that hold certain ideas to be beyond reproach, and so anything that dares to challenge that is automatically false 
because it doesn't fit what they already convinced themselves is known to be true.  The truth is a hard pill to swallow, and the most bitter truth of them all is the one that says you're wrong.

Let's take first of all, the most pervasive of all the wellsprings of science denial : religion!  We all are aware that religion is one thing people are more or less brought up to believe as a result of their upbringing.  At the face of it, this sets the stage for people to effectively grow up with a mindset of not knowing any better.  Clearly, if that was all there was to it, a solid education (provided such a thing is even available) would be all that it takes to stamp out religion. So far, it's still pretty much the most powerful weapon we have, and the biggest impediment to its success is the fact that there are a host of groups dedicated to preventing its continued existence.  But then, that doesn't really work when we consider that there is still a small, but not insignificant, percentage of elite scientists - around 9% - who still buy into religion while still being exceptional scientists otherwise. Why wouldn't this number actually be zero, or at least, insignificantly small?  Moreover, when we look at capable scientists in general, the percentages are larger still.  Clearly, there is still a grip that religious beliefs hold on people besides just being an explanation for that which one cannot understand.  There is, of course, the comfort angle of how it brushes away mortality as a transition in state of being.  There is also the social aspect of religion, which can be especially meaningful for people who are culturally tied to a minority religious group.  We also can't escape the fact that indoctrination, especially by means of impressing fearsome consequences, is often a difficult prison from which to break free.  Religious groups form a social structure in which those who dare to cast an eye of skepticism are met with severe, often escalating -- and without exception, out of proportion -- modes of disapproval.

All of that really speaks to why people cling to their false beliefs, not so much why they deny science.  Certainly, accepting the facts that your social group denies puts one at the very personal risk of being ostracized, but that by itself can only force people to keep their mouths shut and keep themselves strung up by the puppeteer named social conformity.  Actively denying, however, often comes down to the need to keep convincing themselves they're right. For a committed believer, the worst possible realization is the one that they're committed to an unworthy and untenable collection of ideas.  When you're in a position that puts you against all that we know about reality, you run the risk of being labeled an idiot, insane, delusional, duped, gullible or some combination of all of those things.  Not one of those is a pleasant thing to have to know about oneself, and so exposing the flaws in someone's belief system often just results in them digging their heels in further. The implications about being wrong are just too tremendous to allow. Moreover, with religion, if the believer is right to believe, then it's the non-believers who face the massive existential cost... Hence, Pascal's Wager.  When the believer is wrong, though, it ends up meaning not simply that they got something wrong, but that they dedicated their lives, time, money, and enormous emotional bandwidth to humankind's single greatest con job.

Evolution doesn't really disprove a god per se, but it does make the supernatural unnecessary to explain the diversity of life, and likewise, how we ended up as the intelligent upright apes we are...  That last bit is the real problem because it presents a serious challenge to a lot of baseline assumptions -- e.g. That we are mystically exalted among all life forms gifted with a spark of the divine in the form of our immortal souls etc. -- of religious beliefs, and that's not acceptable.  It simply does not matter to the believer that the preponderance of facts are not in their favor.  It is easier for these people to construct a plurality of contrivances by which all the facts are wrong, or there exists some alternate plane of existence to which their faith makes them privy, or even shadowy all-pervading conspiracies dedicated to the undermining of their beliefs are creeping their tendrils into all of society.  Any or even all of those things no matter how ludicrous is more acceptable than being wrong.

Going back to the anti-vaccine movement, we find a lot of half-truths and deliberately misleading language in their rhetoric.  Sure, it's true that there is a lot of money in vaccines, but it is a tiny percentage of the overall pharmaceutical industry.  It makes perfect sense that it should be, considering how many vaccine shots people get in a lifetime compared to the Claiming that vaccines contain "aborted fetuses", for instance, is intensely disingenuous.  The reality is that one particular group of fetuses (actually the same group used for the past few decades) are used as culture substrates for certain viral strains... It's funny how you can be blatantly dishonest and make something around so much more terrifying than the truth.  Did you know that bread is over 50% by volume made up of the farts of a fungus?  When the original claim was disproved, just like the religious nutcase, they dig deeper into the pit of science denial. It's all about toxins now.  Once thimerosal was shown to be a red herring, they mention formaldehyde, never talking into account that the amount in all of a child's vaccines combined is less than they'd get from eating a tomato.  Never will there be a day that an anti-vaxxer acknowledges the fundamental rule that it is the dose that makes the poison. There is no possibility whatsoever for an anti-vaxxer to accept that there are no supposed dangerous substances in the vaccines, or that any of the associations made between one form of a substance and another in order to suggest toxicity are anything other than non sequitur. To do so would indicate both that they are wrong, and that they are painfully ignorant of even the basics of how vaccines work.

There are plenty of people who avoid getting a seasonal flu vaccine simply because they're terrified of needles.  Irrational though it may be, this is a touch better than actually standing firmly against the science and willfully misinterpreting incomplete information and betraying a deeply entrenched revulsion of medicine.  For an anti-vaccine parent, though, the implication is far more serious.  It wouldn't just imply that they're stupidly anti-science, it would imply that they are bad parents -- Parents who actively take part in raising the risk of illness and death by preventable disease of their children and endangers the lives of others.  This is, in fact, what they are in reality, but that's not something people will accept sitting down...  and more often than not, they won't at all.  The more you try to expose the flaws in their thinking, the more hyperbolic the counterarguments get, the more disingenuous the language, and the more they will trend away from half-truths that demonstrate their ignorance towards outright falsehoods and casting aspersions on you as an evil or delusional maniac.  Anything is better than knowing that they are entirely and unequivocally complicit in the spread of diseases that were effectively nonexistent if not for the efforts of them and their ilk.  Demonstrate to these people that they are directly the cause of almost 7000 dead children who would be alive if not for their stupidity, and you'll just get screams of being an evil shill for Big Pharma.

To some extent, vaccines have become a victim of their own success in that all the diseases they prevent had been relegated to such a minuscule morbidity rate that it makes it hard to even see that the vaccine is actually ensuring that.  As a result, people start to believe that they're ineffectual at best and harmful at worst, and having an entire community built around this makes for some dangerous consequences because it's the sort of thing that you miss when it's gone.

I don't want to let on that these people don't mean well.  They seriously believe this crap, and so they sincerely feel they're doing what's best.  But being sincerely committed to something that is false and dangerous is in a certain sense, worse than being a malicious person who knows what he/she is doing is harmful.  The latter group can be outed and caught in their deception, as Wakefield was when his fraudulent and unethical research was exposed.  But the ones who are sincerely committed to bullshit are the ones who can't be convinced even with an infinite volume of evidence against them.  They will go on doing their harm, and go on bringing back diseases that were lost to history, and the more people who die because of it, the more they'll just claim that it proves them right.  And if you dare to expose the stupidity or even take a strong stance against the anti-vaccine movement, all you'll get are loud screams in language that trends more and more to the absolute terminologies, and counterarguments that shift more and more towards flat out character assassination.  Recently, Mark Zuckerberg made a statement in a book review in which he made clear that he accepts the importance and validity of vaccination...  the response by the anti-vaxxers?  Fears that he'd enact a zero-tolerance policy and oust anti-vaxxers and their pages from Facebook with some sort of dictatorial impunity.  Claims that Zuckerberg would throttle the internet access of vaccine deniers...  which I'm not even sure how he could do that considering that Facebook is not an ISP.  All of a sudden, "Zuck" is part of the Big Pharma conspiracy to make all kids autistic.  Yeah...  that makes sense.

But if you really want to see language in absolutes and character assassination, just try talking to the anti-GMO activists.  These people proclaim themselves skeptical, and prove conclusively that they have no clue whatsoever as to what the word "skeptic" actually means.  When your proclamations about the dangers of GMOs state that all GMOs have been proven to cause cancer -- and yes, this isn't even a slightly rare argument -- you are pretty well guaranteed to be on the wrong side of the argument.  Proving a causal link between any two things, especially when you're dealing with something as nebulous as cancer, is not something that is easy to identify.  Even showing the link between tobacco smoke and lung cancer was an exhaustive process that required massive amounts of supporting data.  There is no such data for GMO crops, and none of the information to suggest that actually comes from any actual scientific studies, but from advocate websites.  That which appears to be all but invariably can be shown to be a gross misinterpretation or misrepresentation of the studies they reference simply by actually going to the source.

I am often amazed by the absurdity of the fear-mongering in the anti-GMO crowd.  In some infographics, I've seen fears around "contains GMO glucose"...  glucose doesn't have genes...  glucose is always nothing more than C6H12O6, and no amount of modified genes in the plant that created it could ever present in there.  Within this sort of scream, you see the shade of vitalism as if something that is "unnatural" will have its "unnaturalness" leech out into everything that springs forth whereas anything done by more traditional means carries this tinge of a "natural aura" to it.  This is, of course, an egregiously preposterous notion at all levels.  The claims that GMOs cause all sorts of diseases and conditions are universally put out as articles of faith.  In all these claims, you will not find a single effort in which the science deniers will actually describe what agents in the GMO crops actually have these effects.  Furthermore, there is nothing short of a massive distortion over what GMO crops are actually used for in the first place.  People talk about pesticide usage and mixing in animal genes into plants and in extreme cases, even mind control chemicals...  because those are things that actually exist.  The thing they seem never to realize is that none of those things are true of any food crop.

I once used the example of the black tomato which was a genetically engineered variety created by injecting exactly 2 anthocyanin genes from a snapdragon into tomato seeds resulting in a strain that has high levels of a known anti-cancer nutrient that fills all of its flesh resulting in a product of higher antioxidant content and longer shelf life.  Other varieties like the Indigo Rose tomato were created through old-fashioned selective breeding and hybridization, and has its increased antioxidant content only skin-deep and has an unknown number of new genes introduced.  Can you tell me how the former is more dangerous than the latter?  What makes the latter product with its arbitrary and unknown introduction of genes safe, but the former one is dangerous?  When I brought this one up in a discussion, I got only one counter-argument -- that I'm a paid shill spreading lies for Monsanto.  Really?  I'm a paid shill now?  Nobody told me.  Hey, Monsanto!  Where's my check?  If trying to cast a shadow of moral and ethical doubt on your opponent by hurling conspiratorial accusations at them is your first step...  it pretty well shows that the emperor is naked.

The only argument that seems as if it could hold some water is the "not enough testing" argument.  Of course, they say this because they don't bother to actually read any of the reports about the testing that is done.  Saying that there are GMO crops that enter the code supply with no testing at all is not merely untrue, but is the most wrong statement that could be made on the subject.  Exhaustive and extensive testing is actually part of the process.  It's possible that the testing during R&D was considered adequate when FDA approval time comes, but that is what the deniers would call "no testing at all.". But even if I am to accept that there is insufficient testing, nobody who makes this argument actually puts forth any standard for what they would consider sufficient.  They don't have such a thing because they start from the position that they're right and nobody can ever prove them wrong.

Bill Nye's recent book, Undeniable, he included a little excerpt in which he was skeptical about the level of testing on the environmental impact of GMOs.  But Bill Nye is most certainly not anti-GMO, because he still maintains that GMOs are not at all dangerous to consume (any more than their conventional counterparts are).  Well, he actually took the trouble of studying the real science on the matter and not an echo chamber for deniers, and has since changed his position and intends to publish a new edition of Undeniable reflecting those changes.  That's what makes him a skeptic.  He demands a certain standard of evidence, rejects that which fails to meet his standard and changes his mind when something does meet that standard.  Therein lies all the difference; A logically minded person has no problem admitting when he/she is wrong.

Very often, when I ask people who deny science or believe in pseudo-scientific woo-woo what they'd have to say to all the factual data that refutes their ideas...  the response I get somehow includes a phrase along the lines of "I'm not crazy" or "I'm not stupid" or "I know what I'm talking about..."  They seem to think that being wrong is tantamount to being a laughingstock.  Well, it doesn't help that such beliefs are met by those who know better with scorn and ridicule.  I'm no exception, of course.  But that's not to say that ridicule is something we shouldn't do.  What it really means is that we should not just laugh at the absurdity, but point it out, explain it, and force the deluded to actually examine that for themselves.  I typically try as often as I can not to just stop at "this is idiotic," but to elaborate why it's idiotic.  Even that, it sometimes pays off to try -- like I did above with the black tomato example -- posing your challenge as a question.  That forces the adversary to think about what you just said.  The end goal is that at some point, they should be laughing with you and not simply be laughed at by you.  If they don't think about what you said and leap to defensive posture, it makes it clear that they have nothing to offer.  It makes it clear that thinking is not part of the process for them.  It's all about riding in the wagon that keeps the delusion alive, and the wagon rides on wheels of being right all the time.

Rule of thumb : If you have some sort of difficulty dealing with the prospect that you're wrong, chances are good that you are.

* it may amuse some of you to know that "cretin" actually does originate from the word "Christian"

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