A rant about science (alternately: All Hail Nuance and Skepticism)

Warning: this post falls squarely into the category of “cantankerous rant about thing I should probably stop getting so worked up over.” You’ve been warned.

I’ve noticed a troubling tendency in some scientific communities (maybe I should put “scientific” in quotes…I’m lookin’ at you, Facebook) to treat science as some kind of Truth, where certain issues can no longer be questioned or examined because “science” has already had the final word. And this all while maintaining a smug, condescending, high-horse attitude towards anyone who doesn’t act the same way and believe the same things. And it’s pervasive, and often by people I love and respect, which has made me question whether it’s just me being sensitive, and it’s not actually a problem. But it’s infuriating, and I DO think it’s a problem.

Here’s the thing. Scientists (and especially “scientists”) are not immune to groupthink. They are humans like any other human, and although one hopes they’d have stronger critical thinking skills and fewer bandwagon-hopping inclinations than their non-sciency counterparts, they can easily be as closed-minded and defensive, if not more so. I’ve noticed this is especially true surrounding hot-button issues like vaccines and GMOs.

More often than not, I personally do not have a stance on issues like these. I might have an opinion, but not an actual stance that I would share publicly. I tend to be skeptical of everything, and also firmly believe that there are two sides to every story, and that no issue worth debating over is ever black and white. So the insinuation that to be skeptical of vaccines, for example, is to be skeptical of science as a whole, bugs the crap out of me.

First of all, science is not Truth. It’s a method of inquiry, a way of attempting (emphasis on ATTEMPTING) to understand the world around us. I love science, because I think the things it’s allowed us to discover about life and the universe and our bodies are amazing and fascinating and absolutely mind-blowing. But science doesn’t have all the answers, it’s very possible that it will never give us all the answers, and half the time, scientists have no f$*#ing idea what they’re doing. It’s messy, it’s complicated, and in a lot of ways it’s extremely dysfunctional, but it’s the best we’ve got, and a lot of times it’s also pretty doggone good.

SECOND of all, it’s not “science” that I’m skeptical of. It’s the person confidently proclaiming that “this is what science says and you’re a dirty redneck hillbilly hippie if you argue otherwise.” I don’t care if it’s a doctor, an internet stranger, a famous blogger, or a government agency – unless I already trust you based on evaluating your past work, or I have thoroughly investigated the issue myself, I don’t trust you. I’m not going to believe you just because you claim that science/modern medicine/[insert politically correct, pathologically revered construct here] is on your side.

Wanna know why? Because we’ve been wrong before! My favorite example is dietary cholesterol, not because it’s now trendy in the “alternative nutrition” world to lambaste the government for being wrong about the diet-heart connection all this time, but because I investigated the issue myself and discovered that holy cow, the government actually was irrefutably, embarrassingly wrong about cholesterol. To the point where the studies they cited in their own Dietary Guidelines didn’t even support their conclusion that dietary cholesterol is bad for you. Whoops!

When a committee convened specifically to evaluate the scientific literature on a matter, come to a consensus, and turn that into a policy, can be so wrong about an issue for so many years, I see no reason to trust anyone about anything.

This is where you start getting people who overcompensate by placing their trust in the opposite of the “establishment.” They’ve been burned by mainstream medicine or the government or some other “science”-associated entity, so they start believing the exact opposite on every issue. All vaccines, all drugs, all mainstream dietary advice, all new food technology, all GMOs – everything gets lumped into the “unnatural and wrong” category, while anything “natural” or “alternative” is usually accepted and trusted pretty easily, often without question.

This is not a better situation. We find ourselves divided more or less into two opposing camps; both believing “science” is on their side, and neither honoring the principles of skepticism, open-mindedness, thoroughness, and nuanced thought that are vital to the very scientific method so venerated.

And can we stop with the belittling, condescending attitude towards people (say, anti-vaxxers) who you disagree with? This attitude is not helpful to anyone, in any situation, unless it’s just to make yourself feel better and add fuel to the raging, festering hate-fire of the internet. If someone already agrees with you, you’re just preaching to the choir. If they don’t agree with you, they’ll just feel insulted and will not likely want to listen to anything you have to say. And all those people who may have been on the fence? They’ll probably feel attacked and alienated, too. Literally nobody in the history of the world has ever been convinced of something by an angry yelling person who is calling them stupid. And that’s a Fact.

I completely get and sympathize with the fact that these are important issues, and you have strong feelings about them. Heck, I’m here right now ranting about something on the internet because it’s important to me. But I’m doing it without hurling insults, because logically, the aggressively insulting approach to communicating doesn’t make good sense. And if anyone should be able to set aside strong feelings for the sake of a calm, logical, reasonable discussion, it’s scientists. Right?

And although it’s not nearly as satisfying, I truly believe that it’s possible to communicate the direness of a situation without resorting to angry expletives and name-calling. If you need a way to get out your rage, I’d recommend finding a like-minded friend that can match your level of frenzied anger and just ranting away. This strategy tends to be pretty effective, and with a much smaller likelihood of offending complete strangers.

To be honest, I have opinions about very few things these days. I have lots of thoughts, and lots of questions, but a stance? I don’t understand how so many people have enough time on their hands to have such a firm stance on so many complicated issues. How can one person possibly understand the economy, foreign relations, the human body, world religion, and inner city crime well enough to have a strong opinion about the proper running and fixing of all of them? A strong enough opinion, mind you, to get into heated arguments with complete strangers on the internet about?

Bear in mind that there are people who dedicate their entire lives attempting to understand one tiny fragment of any ONE of those aforementioned topics. Just look at the titles of any PhD dissertation ever. You won’t find one explaining the role of nutrition in cancer, or the most successful economic framework for a small developing country. Because issues like that are way too complicated, way too nuanced, and there’s way too much ground to cover for a tiny 4-6 year research project.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that life is complicated. Humans are complicated. We’ve been wrong a lot in the past about a whole lot of things, and it seems highly unlikely that the being-wrong-ness is going to stop anytime soon. We still need to come to conclusions and make judgments, and people will always strongly disagree about things, but I think everyone would be a whole lot happier (and smarter) if they stayed open-minded, thought in gray more often than black or white, and – when in doubt – tried to remember that the person on the other side of the computer screen is a human too.

4 Thoughts on “A rant about science (alternately: All Hail Nuance and Skepticism)

  1. Dave Kinard on December 12, 2018 at 11:42 pm said:

    The “alternative/mainstream” debate is prone to the same mind killing tribalist psychology of anything else that becomes part of a person’s identity.

    I have a term for the types of folks you are talking about- “vulgar” skeptics.

    If you’re not familiar, learn about x-rationality and see specifically on this subject “Politics is the mind Killer” on Less Wrong (and the many wonderful related pieces on Slate Star Codex)

  2. Dave Kinard on December 12, 2018 at 11:46 pm said:

    Alyssa, this is my first time seeing your blog. Are you HLAB27 positive?

    I am, and I have ankylosing spondylitis.

    • Hey Dave! Believe it or not, I’ve actually never done any genetic testing, so I’m not sure. I’ve been tempted, but I also worry that I’d get a little neurotic about being predisposed to certain things. Do you feel like the information you’ve gotten has been helpful?

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