The (Not) Scientific Method
Like I mentioned a couple of posts ago when I was trashing Kirby, I’m not a scientist (then again, neither is Kirby…okay, enough about Kirby). In fact, the extent of my science education amounts to an undergraduate degree in psychology and philosophy. Neither of those are exactly “sciency”, except for maybe psychology (though if I had a nickel for ever time a Chemistry or Physics major told me that psychology was not a “real” science). I do have some funny letters after my name, but none of them involve any sort of ‘D’ for doctor.
I don’t read, write, and think about science because I know a good deal about it. I do all those things because I love science. Science is hawt. Or, if you prefer, science p0wns me. Maybe I should be a bit more clear. It isn’t that I like the idea of science, or that I think that every scientist rocks because real science is often boring and there are at least a few current scientists that I suspect as being talentless hacks. Rather, I like how science works…or at least how it is supposed to work. You know, the whole “Hypothesis, Testing, Observation, Data” thing. Not that I think that sliced bread is all that wonderful, but I do think that the scientific method is the greatest thing since…well, you get the picture. After all, it wasn’t exactly millenia ago that we revered holy men for their ability to discern truths about the world. If you ask me, that tendency carries on into today with the whole “nonoverlapping Magisteria” that Gould coined. I digress.
I do not think that I will ever forget something that I read my freshman year of college. This quote comes from my experimental psychology textbook, and I swear it is worth it’s weight in Gould…I mean gold:
Once a hypothesis is accepted, anything can be interpreted to support it’s conclusion.
Truer words have rarely been written. I do not think that those of us who are involved (or would like to be involved) with the skeptical movement need much of an illustration for how apt that is.
I wrote about this sort of thing once before, on my old and now deceased blog. That was quite some time ago, and since then I have gotten into many discussions / debates / flamewars with all sorts of sordid characters like homeopathic practitioners, members of the mercury militia, UFO enthusiasts, “psychics”, astologers, 9/11 “truthers”, and neo-conservatives (because, really, they are just as bat-shit nutty as the rest).
That’s perhaps not entirely fair. It’s not that they are bat-shit nutty, but rather it is that they accepted a hypothesis before all the data were in and could, consequently, interpret anything to support that hypothesis. As far as I understand the way hypothesis testing works, you don’t accept the experimental hypothesis but rather you either reject or fail to reject the null hypothesis. That’s part of how the scientific process goes, right? Not so for certain folks.
Take the mercury militia for example. Your average rank-and-file soldier believes the claim that mercury causes autism, and this is so even despite the abundance of evidence that has failed to find any sort of link between the two. So what is the counter? Conspiracies, cover-ups, accusations of data manipulation, and all sorts of tin-foil-hattery are required to protect the belief in the hypothesis that mercury causes autism. I mean, to them, the hypothesis that mercury causes autism is true. If that’s your starting premise, then the retorts make sense in a strange sort of way.
The problem comes in the form of the confirmation bias. You will then start to look for evidence that supports the hypothesis (now your belief) while discounting all other evidence to the contrary. At that point, you stop caring about truth. Your primary concern is figuring out how to make the argument work, since you already know that you are right.
This isn’t just restricted to rank-and-file soldiers on random message boards or blogs, either. No, sir (or ma’am). I read an article in the most recent issue of Skeptical Inquirer about the Meeting of the Minds (a psy event), wherein the general attitude seemed to be that there was an acknowledgement that the data that they had supporting psy could not be replicated, but they still wanted it taken seriously by mainstream science! This is coming from the leading researchers in the psy movement. Apparently, one of the properties of “psy” is that it is difficult to replicate even though psy is a legitimate phenomenon. A judicious application of Occam’s razor to that situation would reveal that psy is difficult to replicate because psy is a fiction.
That line of reasoning can also be seen in other areas of woo, as well. It is well known, for example, that homeopathic remedies perform terribly in randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blinded clinical trials. In fact, the more rigorous the trial, the worse that homeopathy performs. So what then, is the counter? That homeopathy is a treatment modality that cannot be studied under such conditions…but it’s still real! Again, if you apply the razor here, you’ll see the reason why homeopathy doesn’t perform any better than placebo is because homeopathy is placebo.
It is not that I think skeptics are immune to such fallacies in thinking – we are most certainly not. One thing that I have learned about us human beings is that we are incredibly gullible critters who are prone to making mistakes in thinking.
What balances it out is the scientific method, or rather knowledge of and respect for the scientific method. Any one of us can completely run off the rails as far as thinking is concerned, but I think the scientific method gives us sort of a collective where the sum total of research can balance out individual errors in thinking and essentially reduce it to background noise.
That is, of course, assuming that such research is done in a fashion that illustrates a knowledge of and a respect for the scientific method. I shudder to say it, but that’s starting to seem like more and more of an assumption these days.