HIV/AIDS Skepticism

Pointing to evidence that HIV is not the necessary and sufficient cause of AIDS

Science journalism ignorant of science

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2011/01/17

When Michael Specter’s book Denialism was launched to a dazzle of ballyhoo, I agreed to review it for the Journal of Scientific Exploration. That turned out to be an onerous task, far from enjoyable because the book is so dreadfully bad: a staggering degree of ignorance about science is everywhere on display, deplorable in the extreme since Specter is an award-winning science journalist.
Not long after Specter’s book appeared, the New Scientist carried a series of essays as a “Special Report: Denial” (15 May 2010). Those essays are on the whole as ignorance-based as is Specter’s book. For a thorough debunking of both book and Special Report, see my essay-review just published in the Journal of Scientific Exploration.
The principal flaw in these writings is the underlying belief that on any given issue the prevailing scientific consensus, the Establishment view, is unquestionably correct. Such a belief illustrates ignorance of the history of science, which is a continuing record of Establishment views proven wrong and being replaced by what then becomes the new Establishment view.
Misplaced faith in science as the source of absolute, permanent truth stems from the ideology of scientism, which holds that science and only science can offer true answers. Few people admit to that unsupportable belief when challenged, but by their actions and unguarded words a great number of people show themselves to hold that belief.
Specter is far from the only science journalist or science writer tainted by scientism; Natalie Angier is another. In her review of Specter’s book in the American Scholar (“Science Doubters”, 79 #1, Winter 2010, pp. 102-5) she perpetrates fallacy upon fallacy and indulges in semantic sleight-of-phrase in the attempt to mask her dogmatism. For example, she mimics Specter to the effect that the “overwhelming weight of evidence” favors vaccination, it’s “remarkably safe”, adverse reactions are “rare” — which attempts rhetorically to lull the reader into rejecting the well-based qualms that critics have expressed about the use in vaccines of organic-mercury-based additives and toxic adjuvants like squalene.
Angier approves Specter’s assertion that denialists “replace the rigorous and open-minded skepticism of science with the inflexible certainty of ideological commitment”. But no science writer should remark “the rigorous and open-minded skepticism of science” without mentioning that this is an unachieved ideal and that scientists frequently display “inflexible certainty” about their own views. Angier’s ignorance goes so far that she actually credits Specter with coining the term “denialism”! She deplores that the Internet favors “popularity over p-value”, when it is actually the use of p-values that is responsible for the misguided acceptance as significant of many apparent correlations that are not significant *. Angier follows Specter in dismissing chiropractic as quackery even as mainstream studies have shown that it has a better record of treating lower-back pain by manipulation than does mainstream medicine with drugs and surgery.
Angier differs from Specter in denying that there’s been a loss of faith in science, citing a Harris poll in which 60% of respondents rate the prestige of doctors and scientists as high or very high. That’s what the problem really is; most people have too much faith in what the public spokespeople for science and medicine assert nowadays.

* Matthews, R. A. J. 1998. “Facts versus Factions: The use and abuse of subjectivity in scientific research”, European Science and Environment Forum Working Paper; reprinted (pp. 247–282) in J. Morris (ed.), Rethinking Risk and the Precautionary Principle, Butterworth, 2000.

7 Responses to “Science journalism ignorant of science”

  1. Gene said


    I’m looking forward to reading your review but have a few preliminary comments.

    Firstly, your response to the “p-value” comment of Angier (by citing Matthews) is an excellent way of demonstrating how “these people” don’t know what they’re talking about.

    It’s like when I read Kalichman on purification of viruses; an absolute shocker that he was not only taken seriously by Springer Verlag, but actually published.

    Of course, as you know, an antidote for all this nonsense is the late great Paul Feyerabend, clearly someone who writes over the head of Angier and Specter.

    Here’s an excerpt on Ernst Mach who indeed criticized “science as a whole” (and set the stage for Einstein and Bohr); from “Problems of Empiricism” by P.K Feyerabend, pg 80:

    “Ernst Mach was a scientist. He was an expert in physics, psychology, physiology, the history of science and the general history of ideas. Ernst Mach was also an educated man. He was familiar with the arts and the literature of his time and he was interested in politics. Even when already paralyzed, he had himself wheeled into a session of parliament to cast his vote in connection with workers’ legislation.

    “Ernst Mach was not satisfied with the science of his time. As he saw it, science had become partially petrified. It used entities such as space and time and objective existence but without examining them. Moreover philosophers had tried to show, and scientists had started believing, that these entities could not be examined by science because they were ‘presupposed’ by it. This Mach was not prepared to accept. For him every part of science, ‘presuppositions’ included, was a possible topic of research and subject to correction.

    “On the other hand it was clear that the correction could not always be carried out by means of the customary procedures, which contained some ideas in a way that protected them from difficulties. It was therefore necessary to introduce a new type of research based on a new cosmology. Mach gave a rough outline of what it would assume and how it would proceed.”

    “Mach’s conception of science has two features that distinguish it from that of today’s philosophers of science.

    “First. Mach was critical towards science as a whole.(1) Modern philosophers occasionally make a big show of their independence and their expert knowledge by criticizing scientific theories and suggesting minor changes. But they would never dare to criticize science as a whole. They are its most obedient servants.

    “Secondly, Mach criticized scientific ideas not by comparing them with external standards (criteria of meaning or demarcation) but by showing how scientific research itself suggested a change. For example, methodological principles were examined not by conducting an abstract and independent theory of rationality but by showing how they aided or hindered scientists in the solution of concrete problems. (Later on Einstein and Bohr developed this procedure into a fine art.)

    “A third interesting feature of Mach’s ‘philosophy’(2) was its disregard for distinctions between areas of research. Any method, any type of knowledge could enter the discussion of a particular problem. In building up his new science Mach appealed to mythology, physiology, psychology, history of ideas, history of science as well as to the physical sciences.”

    “1. See his debate with Planck, reprinted in Physical Reality, ed. S Toulmin (New York, 1968)

    “2. I put the word in quotation marks because Mach always refused to be regarded as the proponent of a new ‘philosophy’”

    • Henry Bauer said

      One of the contemporary deficiencies is that there are no more Machs then there used to be, and their work is swamped by all the time-servers and mediocrities who are the “peer” reviewers.

      • Gene said

        Sad, but true.

        One of my clients in the old days used to say (in frustration over poor servicing of his account):

        “Sustained mediocrity wins out in the end”.

  2. Gene said


    Today I’m not so cynical, as I’m proposing Stuart Kaufmann to be Mach’s heir.

    Let’s suppose that what he refers to as “reductionism” is a rough equivalent to Feyerabend/Mach’s “science-as-a-whole” and enjoy Kaufmann’s approach to science free of all constipating corporate chokeholds.

    Beyond Reductionism (Excerpts)
    “We begin with the growing doubt among many physicists themselves that reductionism itself suffices. Nobel Laureate Philip Anderson wrote a famous article, “More is Different”, some decades ago, arguing that reductionism is wonderful, but not enough. A computer computing a complex algorithm can be made of transistors or water buckets — it is able to run on multiple physical platforms. Hence reducing the computer to any particular physical basis is insufficient to explain the computer. The drift away from reductionism among physicists is most pronounced among solid state physicists, who deal with such things as metals, glasses, spin glasses, and systems with many “broken symmetries”. Robert Laughlin, solid state physicist and Nobel laureate, argues strenuously against the full efficacy of reductionism in A Different Universe. The physicists who hold out for a firm reductionism are, like Weinberg himself, largely high energy particle physicists, seeking that final theory — say string theory.”
    “Such a single string theory would be the answer to Weinberg’s dream of a final theory. But at present, it appears that there are as many as 10 to the 500th power string theories. Hope for a single theory is fast fading and a number of high energy physicists are abandoning reductionism in the sense of finding such a single theory.”
    “In short, many, but not all physicists, are giving up on the adequacy of reductionism alone as a scientific principle to explain the properties of the world. In its stead a new scientific world view is just starting to come into view: Emergence.”
    “Roughly speaking emergence breaks into two sub-views, epistemological and ontological emergence. The former says that complex systems are too complex to be explained by reductionistic practices, but that ontologically, reductionism holds. The ontological view is that new entities with their own properties and causal powers arise and are part of the furniture of the universe. I hold strongly to this view and will present a number of cases that appear to support it.”
    “1) The origin of life and its non-reducibility to physics. “

    2) Agency: “It becomes interesting to ask what the minimal physical system is that can act as an agent.

    ”In Investigations, I sought to answer this, by proposing that a minimal molecular agent is a system which can reproduce itself and carry out at least one work cycle in the thermodynamic sense. I will not go into the ramifications of this, which are puzzling and I hope important. On this account, a bacterium, swimming up a glucose gradient, and performing work cycles, is an agent, and glucose has value and meaning for the bacterium, without assuming consciousness.”

    “3) We are, in fact, conscious. That is, we have experiences of the world. The philosophers call these “qualia”. For years, philosophers of mind have tried to argue that such experiences are ‘ghosts in the machine’. This is just false.”

    “The third view of mind and consciousness, which I tentatively favor, is that it is related to quantum behavior. The standard physicist’s answer is that quantum effects cannot occur at body temperature. Indeed, Schrodinger says this, then says of consciousness, “I am become God”. However, recent theorems in quantum computing, and facts about cells cast doubt on this conclusion. The theorems show that, if measurements are made and work is done on a quantum computer, its qubits can remain “quantum coherent” when they should “decohere” towards classical behavior. Thus, if work is done on a system, parts of it may remain quantum coherent at body temperature in principle.
    “But cells do thermodynamic work and might be able to carry out such measurements and work to maintain some variables quantum coherent. Second, cells are crowded by proteins and other molecules, and the water between these molecules is largely ordered, not like an ordinary liquid. This may permit quantum coherence physically in cells. No one knows. It seems worth investigation in its own right. Meanwhile, my approximate theory is that mind is acausal, quantum mechanics is acausal on the familiar Born interpretation of the Schrodinger equation, (to the grief of Einstein), that consciousness is due to a special state where a system is persistently poised between quantum and classical behavior, that the emergence of classical behavior in the mind-brain system, perhaps by decoherence, is the “mind making something actual” happen in the physical world, and — big jump — that consciousness itself consists in this quantum coherent state as lived by the organism. This is a long jump, but not impossible. I don’t even think it is stupider than other theories of consciousness, and may be true. Whatever the case, consciousness is ontologically emergent in this universe.
    “The Biosphere and Human Culture are Ceaselessly Creative in Ways that Cannot be Foretold.”

    • Henry Bauer said

      For me, Michael Polanyi disproved reductionism when he pointed out that the behavior of machines could not be predicted from the physical and chemical properties of the materials of which they are made.

      • Gene said

        See also Robert Laughlin’s “Universe From the Bottom Down” book for confirmation of Kaufmann/Polanyi.

        This book might be a useful gift also to those who are confused by quantum non-locality.

        It’s not a macroscopic property and shouldn’t be misconstrued as the key to understanding consciousness IMO.

        The reductionist idea that the universe is a mathematical object (and the “multiverse” derived from the equations) is just a belief, not something proven by science.

      • Henry Bauer said

        David Wick, The Infamous Boundary: Seven Decades of Controversy in Quantum Physics (Birkhäuser 1995) is very good about interpretations of quantum mechanics, in particular that there is not now and never was any agreement among all the experts.
        I agree with you completely that attempts to apply to macroscopic situations what works in equations for sub-microscopic reactions is not valid. Yet grown men believe that every time something happens, a new universe is created in which alternate possibilities happen.

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