Surviving the Misinformation Age

This post is the final of a four-part series on polarised discussions in science and how to deal with misinformation. You can find Part 1 introducing the topic here, Part 2 on climate change here,  and Part 3 on evolutionary biology here.

In the preceding two sections we have given a very brief survey of two areas that are the subject of intense public debate, and that see a lot of distortion or denial of factual knowledge to fit preconceived ideas. But the problem is not limited to these areas and we currently find ourselves amidst a storm of misinformation, fake news and alternative facts. In this final section, we draw attention to a number of recent books that will help readers think more clearly, logically and rationally, and give them the tools to see through spin and hyperbole.

Several prominent sceptics have written accessible books on a wide range of pseudoscientific ideas, such as Skeptic: Viewing the World with a Rational Eye (Shermer, 2016), Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk (Pigliucci, 2010), or Bad Science (Goldacre, 2008). In recent years, however, there seems to have been an increasing abandonment of reason.

Creating Scientific ControversiesPart of the problem is that, as alluded to in the post on anthropogenic climate change, a lot of scientific research is funded by groups with particular interests, which can lead to flawed results when they already have in mind what they want the science to show. This is discussed at length in Tainted: How Philosophy of Science Can Expose Bad Science (Shrader-Frechette, 2016). Even worse is when such groups purposefully create the appearance of controversy to confuse and mislead the public and protect industry interests, such as the decade-long campaign by the tobacco industry to create the impression there was no scientific consensus on the Not a Scientistharmful effects of smoking. David Harker has written the first book-length analysis of this in Creating Scientific Controversies: Uncertainty and Bias in Science and Society (2015), which should help readers to understand and evaluate such cases, and how to respond to them. Politicians are no less guilty of this, as Dave Levitan asserts in Not a Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science (2017).

The Death of ExpertiseAccording to books such as The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters (Nichols, 2017), and Respecting Truth: Willful Ignorance in the Internet Age (McIntyre, 2015), another part of the problem is the internet. In the opinion of these authors, easy access to information and egalitarian platforms in the form of weblogs where everyone can have their own say, are some of the factors that have bred a generation of opinionated, poorly informed people, who Respecting Truththink they know enough on a topic after a quick scour of Wikipedia. This is accompanied by an underbelly feeling that expertise is synonymous with elitism, leading to distrust of any form of authority. In his pithy book Are We All Scientific Experts Now? (2014) Harry Collins provocatively puts forth the notion that not everyone’s opinion counts equally. Or, as Robert Dorit wrote in 1997 in American Scientist when reviewing Darwin’s Black Box, ‘[…] opinions should not be mistaken for expertise’.

As Julian Baggini explains in The Edge of Reason: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World (2016) this is not about stifling dissenters, or stamping out opposition. Science thrives on scepticism and reasonable debate. But the key word here is reasonable. The current wave of anti-expertise sentiment is not just attacking scientific knowledge, it is attacking the very framework that generates these findings. As Michael Specter said in The Edge of Reasonhis 2010 Ted Talk The Danger of Science Denial, ‘you are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts’. And, as Prothero argues in Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future (2013), this matters to society at large. Whether we are talking about addressing climate change, or the return of nearly eradicated diseases because more and more people refuse to vaccinate their children, the ill-informed opinions of some can affect us all, especially once they enter voting booths.

Making Sense of ScienceWe believe that this means that we have a responsibility, as academics, as educators, as librarians, to speak out and communicate why what we do matters, to teach critical thinking. This makes recent books such as Critical Thinking: Tools for Evaluating Research (Nardi, 2017), Making Sense of Science: Separating Substance from Spin (Dean, 2017) and A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age: Scientific Habits of Mind (Helfand, 2016)  so important. This will require us to become excellent communicators: the media likes to simplify things and deal in snappy sound bites, whereas scientists have to communicate complicated ideas that have great degrees of uncertainty. And, as many of the interviewees in Olson’s documentary Flock of Dodos agreed in its conclusion, with some notable exceptions, scientists at large are poor communicators.A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age Am I Making Myself Clear?: A Scientist’s Guide to Talking to the Public (Dean, 2009) could well be considered an essential part of the academic toolkit. But, as Jo Fidgen concludes around the 38-minute mark in the BBC Radio 4 podcast we referred to in our opening paragraph, ‘cold facts are not enough, they are much more convincing when they are part of a story’. So add Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story (Olson, 2015) to your toolkit.

To end on a sober note, we must not forget that science is a human endeavour, and as such prone to all the failures and follies of man. In our search for a deeper understanding of the world around us we stumble, we falter, and we fail (on a side-note, this is not all bad, but a necessary part of scientific progress, as Stuart Firestein lays out in Failure: Why Science is So Successful (2015)). Worrying, also, is the 2015 Science paper reporting that a lot of published research findings cannot be replicated (though see this follow-up critique, and a rebuttal of that critique). And although this paper specifically talked about psychology research, a commentary in New Scientist highlighted how other disciplines also suffer from this problem, something which is explored more in-depth in Stepping in the Same River Twice: Replication in Biological Research (Shavit & Ellison, 2017). But this is no reason to discard the scientific process. Science may have its failings, but science can fix it.

The Evolution–Intelligent Design Circus

This post is the third of a four-part series on polarised discussions in science and how to deal with misinformation. You can find Part 1 introducing the topic here, Part 2 on climate change here,  and Part 4 on dealing with misinformation here.

Ever since Darwin published On the Origin of Species (1859; 150th Anniversary Edition, Darwin & Endersby, 2009), his ideas have been much debated. There have been many scholars over the years who disagreed with some or all of his ideas, and the history of this is charted in books such as Defining Darwin: Essays on the History and Philosophy of Evolutionary Biology (Ruse, 2010), Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (Dennett, 1995), The Non-Darwinian Revolution: Reinterpreting a Historical Myth (Bowler, 1988), and The Eclipse of Darwinism: Anti-Darwinian Evolution Theories in the Decades Around 1900 (Bowler, 1983). These academic discussions and disagreements have Evolution: The First Four Billion Yearsbeen absolutely vital to further the development of evolutionary theory and push the discipline as a whole forwards. Books such as Evolution: The Modern Synthesis (Huxley, 2010), Evolution: The Extended Synthesis (Pigliucci & Müller, 2010), Evolution: The History of an Idea (Bowler, 2009), and Evolution: The First Four Billion Years (Ruse & Travis, 2009) give a tremendous overview of the historical development of the field over the last century.

From the outset, however, there has also been an intense clash between evolutionary theory and religion, especially in America, both in general (see for example The Book That Changed America: How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation (Fuller, 2017)), but especially with the fundamentalist Christian school of thought of Creationism. The Oxford dictionary defines this as ‘The belief that the universe and living organisms originate from specific acts of divine creation, as in the biblical account, rather than by natural processes such as evolution’. It was Darwin himself who, in an 1856 letter to Joseph Dalton Hooker, dubbed its proponents, who objected to the emerging science of evolution on religious grounds, Creationists.

A particularly notable and influential episode that had enormous consequences was the 1925 Scopes trial, in which American high school teacher John T. Scopes was accused of violating Tennessee’s Butler Act, which had made it unlawful to teach human evolution in state-funded schools (see The Scopes Monkey Trial (Moore & McComas, 2016), and The Scopes Trial: A Brief History with Documents, though for an alternative interpretation offering, in the words of the publisher ‘an apologetic for divine creation’, see Monkey Business: True Story of the Scopes Trial (Olasky & Perry, 2005)). He was found guilty, though not convicted, and the trial escalated the conflict between strict creationists and scientists regarding the extent to which evolution would be taught as a science subject in schools. Trying Biology: The Scopes Trial, Textbooks, and the Antievolution Movement in American Schools (Shapiro, 2013) provides a wider historical context to The Creationiststhe trial. The matter of teaching evolution remains contested to this day. After the US Supreme Court in 1987 forbade teaching creationism in public schools on the grounds it violated the separation of church and state, Creationists rebranded their ideas to Intelligent Design, or ID for short (see Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design (Forrest & Gross, 2007)). These efforts have been fronted by, yet again, a conservative think tank, here the Discovery Institute. There are several books charting the controversies since the Scopes trial, for example Intelligently Designed: How Creationists Built the Campaign Against Evolution (Caudill, 2013), American Genesis: The Evolution Controversies from Scopes to Creation Science (Moran, 2012), Darwinism and its Discontents (Ruse, 2006), and the exhaustive The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design (Number, 2006). Also noteworthy is Randy Olson’s even-handed 2006 documentary Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus.

As the US Supreme Court forbade the teaching of Creationism on the grounds of it being a religion, ID proponents argue theirs is an evidence-based scientific theory. In their view, certain complex features of the universe and living beings are irreducibly complex, and thus proof for the existence of a divine creator. These ideas are elaborated in books such as Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed (Axe, 2016), Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis (Denton, 2016), Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design (Meyer, 2013; Stephen Meyer is the head of the Discovery Institute), Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (Meyer, 2010), and Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (Behe, 1995; considered by many the foundational text for the ID movement).

Many biologists have widely criticised ID, and it is generally considered as a pseudoscience. See amongst others Inside the Human Genome: A Case for Non-Intelligent Design (Avise, 2010), Why Evolution is True (Coyne, 2009), The GThe Greatest Show on Earthreatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution (Dawkins, 2009), Why Evolution Works (and Creationism Fails) (Young & Strode, 2009), The Panda’s Black Box: Opening Up the Intelligent Design Controversy (Comfort, 2007), Scientists Confront Creationism: Intelligent Design and Beyond (Petto & Godfrey, 2007), Doubting Darwin?: Creationist Designs on Evolution (Sarkar, 2007), Intelligent Thought: Science Versus the Intelligent Design Movement (Brockman, 2006), Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design (Shermer, 2006), The Counter-Creationism Handbook (Isaak, 2005), God, the Devil, and Darwin: A Critique of Intelligent Design Theory (Shank, 2004), or Why Intelligent Design Fails: A Scientific Critique of the New Creationism (Young & Edis, 2004). Even earth scientists have felt the need to speak out (For the Rock Record: Geologists on Intelligent Design (Schneiderman & Allmon, 2009)). Several books deal specifically with claims that fossil evidence of transitional forms is lacking (Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters (Prothero, 2007; second edition, 2017)), or the idea that evolution Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Mattersreveals a grander design (Darwin and Design: Does Evolution Have a Purpose? (Ruse, 2003), and The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design (Dawkins, 1976; 40th Anniversary Edition, 2016)). For contributions hypothesising how complexity might have emerged naturally, see for example The Arrival of the Fittest: Solving Evolution’s Greatest Puzzle (Wagner, 2014), or The Tinkerer’s Accomplice: How Design Emerges from Life Itself (Turner, 2007).

Many hard-line scientists, Richard Dawkins included, argue that there is no debate to be had in the first place. There is no point arguing facts with a believer. Engaging these beliefs, and, as the Discovery Institute would have it, ‘teaching the controversy’, merely provides legitimacy to a non-existent controversy (though see Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation (Laats & Siegel, 2016) for a proposition on how to break the Science and Religiondeadlock between science and religion). This touches on the age-old question of what dialogue there can be between science and religion. Dawkins, known for his militant atheism, is outspoken on the matter in his polemical The God Delusion (2006; 10th Anniversary Edition, 2016), while other authors have branded this as a futile effort (see for example Science and Religion: An Impossible Dialogue (Gingras, 2017) and Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible (Coyne, 2015)).

Amidst this fierce debate between two extremes, it is easy to overlook there are more moderate ideas. Many religious people do not support a literal reading of holy texts, and supporters of theistic evolution hold that religion and evolution need not contradict each other. The argument that geneticist Francis Collins puts forth in The Language of God (2006) boils down to “evolution is real, but it is the hand of God”. And he is not alone, Monkey Trials and Gorilla Sermons: Evolution and Christianity from Monkey Trials and Gorilla SermonsDarwin to Intelligent Design (Bowler, 2007) traces the long history of how churches have sought to reconcile Christian beliefs and evolution, and see ‘reflections of the divine in scientific explanations for the origin of life’. Whether you agree with this or not (religious fundamentalists see it as a capitulation, while Dawkins in The Blind Watchmaker has called it a superfluous attempt to ‘smuggle God in by the back door’), this rapidly leaves the realm of scientific enquiry and becomes one of personal beliefs.

Click here for the final part, which looks at books on how to deal with misinformation (coming soon).

Anthropogenic Climate Change: Arguments for and against

This post is the second of a four-part series on polarised discussions in science and how to deal with misinformation. You can find Part 1 introducing the topic here, Part 3 on evolutionary biology here, and Part 4 on dealing with misinformation here.

There is a broad scientific consensus about the reality of climate change and its causes. Readers starting off on this topic have plenty to choose from to get them started, for example Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know (Romm, 2015), Climate Change: A Very Short Introduction (Maslin, 2014), or the rather whimsical Ladybird Expert book Climate Change (Juniper & Shuckburgh, 2017). Al Gore thrust the topic into the limelight with An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do about It (2006). For those who want the full picture, there is Climate Change 2014 (IPCC, 2015), the fifth series of reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC operates under the auspices of the United Nations, and was set up at the request of member The Discovery of Global Warminggovernments in 1988. Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast (Archer, 2011) is an excellent starting point to help readers understand the science behind the assessment reports. Another valuable contribution is The Discovery of Global Warming (2008), written by science historian Spencer R. Weart, one of the few books charting the historical development of climate science.

But the science is only one facet of climate change; this spills over into politics and policy. Despite decades of research by scientists and an expanding body of evidence, the world at large, both its leaders and everyday individuals, seem unable to make much headway in addressing the issue, and unable to agree what the best way forward is. A good starting point analysing this from many sides is The Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society (Dryzek et al. 2011). William Nordhaus is one of several economists to have written about policies implemented so far (and their ineffectiveness) in The Climate Casino: Risk, Uncertainty, and Economics for a Warming World (2013). Other books have been written offering explanations as to why we seem unable to act, tapping into psychological and sociological aspects, for example Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life (Norgaard, 2011), Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change (Hamilton, 2010), and Why We Disagree about Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity (Hulme, 2009). And plenty of authors have issued calls to action, ranging in tone from polemic (This Why We Disagree About Climate ChangeChanges Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (Klein, 2014)), to ominous (Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity (Hansen, 2009)) to seemingly fatalistic (Too Late: How We Lost the Battle with Climate Change (Maslen, 2017), Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene (Hamilton, 2017), or Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed, and What It Means for Our Future (Jamieson, 2014)).

Part of the reason there is still no clear progress is that there is still plenty of scepticism. Broadly speaking, the sceptics belong to one of two groups.

On the one hand there are the ‘reasonable’ sceptics who bring valuable contributions to the debate. These authors do not deny that climate change is happening, but are critical of model predictions (though see A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming (Edward, 2010) for a good rebuttal of that argument), and the efficacy of proposed policies to address the issue. Good starting points are An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming (Lawson, 2008), or The Climate Fix: What Scientists and Politicians Won’t Tell You About Global Warming (Pielke, 2010). The latter has also published a short book that is sceptical of the oft-heard claim that climate change will increase natural disasters. His analysis, presented in The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change (Pielke, 2014), concludes that these claims are not borne out by the evidence. The Lomborg DeceptionIn short, there are simply more people and more property in harm’s way, giving the impression that natural disasters have become worse. Even Bjørn Lomborg in The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World (2001) does not deny the reality of climate change (but see The Lomborg Deception: Setting the Record Straight About Global Warming (Friel, 2010), for a wide-ranging rebuttal of his environmental claims).

In the second group there is a vocal minority of climate sceptics and denialists who claim climate change is being exaggerated (Lukewarming: The New Climate Science that Changes Everything (Michaels & Knappenberger, 2016)), is not borne out by the evidence (Heaven and Earth: Global Warming, the Missing Science (Plimer, 2009), Global Warming – Alarmists, Skeptics and Deniers: Unstoppable Global WarmingA Geoscientist Looks at the Science of Climate Change (Robinson & Robinson, 2012)), or can be attributed to other natural causes such as long-term natural cycles (Unstoppable Global Warming: Every 1,500 Years (Singer, 2006)) or solar activity (The Neglected Sun: Why the Sun Precludes Climate Catastrophe (Vahrenholt & Lüning, 2015)). Climate Change: The Facts (Moran, 2015) bundles essays touching on these and other objections.

In their 2013 paper, Dunlap & Jacques noted that many climate change denial books (including the ones above) are published by conservative think tanks such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Heartland Institute, the CATO Institute, or the Marshall Institute. Many of these think tanks receive funding from fossil fuel or other corporations, making their neutrality questionable. Though denialist books are now increasingly self-published via so-called vanity presses, Dunlap & Jacques highlight that such books are rarely peer reviewed, allowing authors to make scientifically inaccurate and discredited claims that they can keep recycling, no matter how often climate scientists have already patiently refuted these, or shown them to be logically untenable.

This leads to books on climate scepticism campaigns, as documented in the light-hearted The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy (Mann, 2016), Climatology versus Pseudoscience: Exposing the Failed Predictions of Global Warming Skeptics (Nuccitelli, 2015), The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines (Mann, 2012), The Inquisition of Climate Science (Powell, 2011), Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand (Washington & Cook, 2011), Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (Oreskes & Conway, 2010), and Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming (Hoggan & Littlemore, 2009).

Within the welter of claims and counter-claims, Michael Mann has, and continues to be, a key protagonist, starting with his famous paper in Geophysical Research Letters that contained a figure showing global temperature change over the past 1,000 years, the “hockey stick graph”. The graph rapidly became an icon in the efforts to undermine the credibility of climate science and the researchers involved (see for example “A Disgrace to the Profession” (Steyn, 2015), or The Hockey Stick Illusion: Climategate and the Corruption of Science (Montford, 2010)). When in November 2009 thousands of emails from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia were released during a server hack – an episode that became known as “Climategate” – Mann once again found himself the centre of attention. Snippets from these emails, some of which included correspondence with Mann, were rapidly taken up by popular media, with sceptics arguing they showed global warming was a scientific conspiracy and scientists were manipulating climate data. No fewer than eight committees, both in the US and the UK, investigated these allegations and found no evidence of fraud or misconduct. Mann covers this in his books, but also see The Climate Files: The Battle for the Truth about Global Warming (Pearce, 2006).

One final point worth mentioning on this topic, as often pointed out by climate scientists, is that even if things do not pan out as bad as we feared, given the potentially devastating impact, we should heed the precautionary principle, as laid out in Philosophy and the Precautionary Principle: Science, Evidence, and Environmental Policy (Steel, 2014).

Click here for Part 3, which looks at the discussion surrounding evolutionary biology.

On Truth and Post-Truth in Science

This post is the first of a four-part series on polarised discussions in science and how to deal with misinformation. You can find Part 2 on climate change here, Part 3 on evolutionary biology here, and Part 4 on dealing with misinformation here.

Oxford Dictionaries
proclaimed ‘post-truth’ as the international ‘word of the year’ in 2016, on the back of Michael Gove’s ‘Britain has had enough of experts – a defining moment of last year’s BREXIT referendum – and the incessant flow of claims and counter-claims during the US presidential election. It’s kept the commentariat busy, giving rise to at least one superb analysis (listen in to Jo Fidgen on the BBC Radio 4’s Nothing But the Truth) and some dark humour (the spoof ‘Mordor National Park’ twitter account set up in January, ‘We’d like to repeat again that yes, open campfires are allowed in Mordor National Park. Everything here is on fire.’).

But in the world of books on evolution, ecology, conservation, and climate change, ‘post-truth’ is not new. It’s 16 years since the publication of the first English edition of Bjørn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World (2001), which (publisher’s blurb) ‘challenges widely held beliefs that the environmental situation is getting worse’; 36 years since Julian Simon wrote The Ultimate Resource (1998), arguing that humanity is not running out of natural resources; and 158 years since Charles Darwin unveiled his theory of evolution in On the Origin of Species (1859; 150th Anniversary Edition, Darwin & Endersby, 2009), triggering intense debate, disagreement, vitriol and accusations of lying that make today’s disputes look positively placid by comparison.

Our view on these issues is at once simple and complicated. As a company we are staunch believers in evolutionary theory, and the truth of findings from climate science that show how dangerous global warming is a consequence of humanity’s burning of fossil fuels, and of the loss and degradation of forests and other terrestrial ecosystems. But our staff and our customers will have their own views; as is right and proper.

Our purpose in this four-part series is to highlight recent publications that help readers think more critically, recognise pseudoscience, and deal with the large amount of spin, misinformation, and created controversies that pollute these discussions. In the process, we will give a brief overview of two areas that are the subject of intense and polarised public debate: climate science and evolution. As we wish to inform rather than rant, our selection of books includes views from various sides of the debates. Lest there be any doubt in the mind of the reader, this does not mean that we endorse all these views, or are planning to catalogue a wider range of books to give a platform to them. But, for the purpose of this piece, we feel we would do the reader no service by ignoring their existence.

Click here for Part 2, which looks at the discussion surrounding climate change.