from the world's big
Are there limits to the truths science can discover?
Dr. Alex Berezow talks about the importance of communicating science in a clear and accurate way and why he turns to religion for the answers to some questions.
Dr. Alex Berezow is the author of Little Black Book of Junk Science, an easy to read pocket guide to debunking the most widespread anti-science myths out there, from the threat of artificial sweeteners to autism-causing vaccines. In his second book, Science Left Behind, Berezow argues that anti-science sentiment is not preserved exclusively for conservatives, but is also widespread amongst progressives who hold positions like aversion to clean energy programs (nuclear) or the unhealthiness of the “unnatural” (GMOs).
With a Ph.D. in microbiology and a passion for communicating science in a clear and accurate way, one of the first things Berezow tells me when I meet him at BrainBar is that journalists who do not have a background in science should not be writing about science. Period. I smile guiltily and proceed with my questions.
What are you fighting for?
My cause is science advocacy. In a world with so much fake news and so much bad science journalism, there needs to be a reasonable voice in science that says what is good and what’s garbage. I talk about popular myths, such as that the world is overpopulated or that we are all going to die from an epidemic.
What is the cause of bad science journalism?
What makes for bad science journalism is our need to get eyeballs onto websites. People would write the most outrageous headlines that don’t even closely reflect what the scientific research says because the truth is never nearly as exciting as the fantasy world. Most people don’t read beyond the headline, yet they still share the misguided story on social media.
The second reason is that you have journalists who don’t have any training in science, which is a huge problem. I think that journalists who have no background in science should not write about science. Period. And I think there are enough scientists who want to be writers so that this shouldn’t be a problem.
What is the purpose of science and who sets its agenda?
In my opinion, the purpose of science is to discover truth, but scientists are often restricted in what they can research because of how funding is set, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Science operates inherently conservatively because the money is limited. The problem is that really groundbreaking ideas have a hard time getting funded because there is no precedent. That is going to require some kind of government policy response. For example, one that I have heard of is to give unlimited funding to geniuses, to scientists who have an amazing track record.
How can we implement truly evidence-based public policy?
It’s tricky, because policy isn’t just evidence-based, it is also philosophy-based; it should answer the question what the proper role of government is. In the U.S. we have a long libertarian tradition and people have a very inherent repulsive attitude to the government getting involved. But that attitude is different in Europe, where there is more of a collectivist mindset. So, it is not a partisan issue but a philosophical issue.
But we need to rely on scientists and be sure not to turn scientific advice into a partisan advice. It drives me crazy when conservatives say that global warming is all fake or the left says that GMOs are dangerous. They have taken scientific advice and turned it into partisan politics. We need to reverse that. The politicization of science is a symptom of a bigger problem in society.
According to you, the ultimate goal of science is truth, but do you think that science has limitations when it comes to discovering all truth?
Yes. Absolutely. Science has nothing to say about ethics. If we were to follow science exactly as prescribed, we do things like eugenics. Science has nothing really to say about how we should treat other people. I am a religious person. I am a Christian. Science is the best secular source of knowledge that we have. If I want to know how humans evolved, I don’t go to the Bible, I go to science. But if I want to know why we are here and what we are supposed to do, then I go to religious texts, then I go to my priests. I think there are two non-overlapping magisteria—science, which is secular, and religion, which talks about the bigger questions: the whys, the questions kids ask, which are the hardest ones to answer.
Do you know where to draw the line?
It’s hard. Because some areas are clearly both. Bioethics is both. You cannot make a decision whether or not to terminate a pregnancy based solely on science. What does science say about intellectual property or growing babies out of stem cells? Nothing. There are intersections where we have to interact with each other. Which is why when people say that philosophy is dead or that it has done nothing for us, that is such garbage. Because scientists and social scientists and philosophers, we have to be talking to each other.
Dr. Alex Berezow is Senior Fellow of Biomedical Science at the American Council on Science and Health. He is the founding editor of RealClearScience where scientists, not journalists, write about science.
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From "if-by-whiskey" to the McNamara fallacy, being able to spot logical missteps is an invaluable skill.
- A fallacy is the use of invalid or faulty reasoning in an argument.
- There are two broad types of logical fallacies: formal and informal.
- A formal fallacy describes a flaw in the construction of a deductive argument, while an informal fallacy describes an error in reasoning.
Appeal to privacy<p>When someone behaves in a way that negatively affects (or could affect) others, but then gets upset when others criticize their behavior, they're likely engaging in the appeal to privacy — or "mind your own business" — fallacy. Examples:<br></p><ul><li>Someone who speeds excessively on the highway, considering his driving to be his own business.</li><li>Someone who doesn't see a reason to bathe or wear deodorant, but then boards a packed 10-hour flight.</li></ul><p>Language to watch out for: "You're not the boss of me." "Worry about yourself."</p>
Sunk cost fallacy<p>When someone argues for continuing a course of action despite evidence showing it's a mistake, it's often a sunk cost fallacy. The flawed logic here is something like: "We've already invested so much in this plan, we can't give up now." Examples:<br></p><ul><li>Someone who intentionally overeats at an all-you-can-eat buffet just to get their "money's worth"</li><li>A scientist who won't admit his theory is incorrect because it would be too painful or costly</li></ul><p>Language to watch out for: "We must stay the course." "I've already invested so much...." "We've always done it this way, so we'll keep doing it this way."</p>
If-by-whiskey<p>This fallacy is named after a speech given in 1952 by <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noah_S._Sweat" target="_blank">Noah S. "Soggy" Sweat, Jr.</a>, a state representative for <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mississippi" target="_blank">Mississippi</a>, on the subject of whether the state should legalize alcohol. Sweat's argument on prohibition was (to paraphrase):<br></p><p><em>If, by whiskey, you mean the devil's brew that causes so many problems in society, then I'm against it. But if whiskey means the oil of conversation, the philosopher's wine, "</em><em>the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman's step on a frosty, crispy morning;" then I am certainly for it.</em></p>
Slippery slope<p>This fallacy involves arguing against a position because you think choosing it would start a chain reaction of bad things, even though there's little evidence to support your claim. Example:<br></p><ul><li>"We can't allow abortion because then society will lose its general respect for life, and it'll become harder to punish people for committing violent acts like murder."</li><li>"We can't legalize gay marriage. If we do, what's next? Allowing people to marry cats and dogs?" (Some people actually made this <a href="https://www.daytondailynews.com/news/national/cats-marrying-dogs-and-five-other-things-same-sex-marriage-won-mean/dLV9jKqkJOWUFZrSBETWkK/" target="_blank">argument</a> before same-sex marriage was legalized in the U.S.)</li></ul><p>Of course, sometimes decisions <em>do </em>start a chain reaction, which could be bad. The slippery slope device only becomes a fallacy when there's no evidence to suggest that chain reaction would actually occur.</p><p>Language to watch out for: "If we do that, then what's next?"</p>
"There is no alternative"<p><span style="background-color: initial;">A modification of the </span><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_dilemma" target="_blank" style="background-color: initial;">false dilemma</a><span style="background-color: initial;">, this fallacy (often abbreviated to TINA) argues for a specific position because there are no realistic alternatives. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher used this exact line as a slogan to defend capitalism, and it's still used today to that same end: Sure, capitalism has its problems, but we've seen the horrors that occur when we try anything else, so there is no alternative.</span><br></p><p>Language to watch out for: "If I had a magic wand…" "What <em>else</em> are we going to do?!"</p>
Ad hoc arguments<p>An ad hoc argument isn't really a logical fallacy, but it is a fallacious rhetorical strategy that's common and often hard to spot. It occurs when someone's claim is threatened with counterevidence, so they come up with a rationale to dismiss the counterevidence, hoping to protect their original claim. Ad hoc claims aren't designed to be generalizable. Instead, they're typically invented in the moment. <a href="https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Ad_hoc" target="_blank">RationalWiki</a> provides an example:<br></p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">Alice: "It is clearly said in the Bible that the Ark was 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">Bob: "A purely wooden vessel of that size could not be constructed; the largest real wooden vessels were Chinese treasure ships which required iron hoops to build their keels. Even the <em>Wyoming</em> which was built in 1909 and had iron braces had problems with her hull flexing and opening up and needed constant mechanical pumping to stop her hold flooding."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">Alice: "It's possible that God intervened and allowed the Ark to float, and since we don't know what gopher wood is, it is possible that it is a much stronger form of wood than any that comes from a modern tree."</p>
Snow job<p><span style="background-color: initial;">This fallacy occurs when someone doesn't really have a strong argument, so they just throw a bunch of irrelevant facts, numbers, anecdotes and other information at the audience to confuse the issue, making it harder to refute the original claim. Example:</span><br></p><ul><li>A tobacco company spokesperson who is confronted about the health risks of smoking, but then proceeds to show graph after graph depicting many of the other ways people develop cancer, and how cancer metastasizes in the body, etc.</li></ul><p>Watch out for long-winded, data-heavy arguments that seem confusing by design.</p>
McNamara fallacy<p>Named after <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_McNamara" target="_blank">Robert McNamara</a>, the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Secretary_of_Defense" target="_blank">U.S. secretary of defense</a> from 1961 to 1968, this fallacy occurs when decisions are made based solely on <em>quantitative metrics or observations,</em> ignoring other factors. It stems from the Vietnam War, in which McNamara sought to develop a formula to measure progress in the war. He decided on bodycount. But this "objective" formula didn't account for other important factors, such as the possibility that the Vietnamese people would never surrender.<br></p><p>You could also imagine this fallacy playing out in a medical situation. Imagine a terminal cancer patient has a tumor, and a certain procedure helps to reduce the size of the tumor, but also causes a lot of pain. Ignoring quality of life would be an example of the McNamara fallacy.</p><p>Language to watch out for: "You can't measure that, so it's not important."</p>
A new study looks at what would happen to human language on a long journey to other star systems.
- A new study proposes that language could change dramatically on long space voyages.
- Spacefaring people might lose the ability to understand the people of Earth.
- This scenario is of particular concern for potential "generation ships".
Generation Ships<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a1e6445c7168d293a6da3f9600f534a2"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/H2f0Wd3zNj0?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Many of the most popular apps are about self-improvement.
Emotions are the newest hot commodity, and we can't get enough.