Thursday, January 6, 2011

Science changes its mind again! oh noes!

This week we have another example of science being self-correcting. Andrew Wakefield's "data" blaming vaccination for autism turns out to have been fraudulent. The motive? He was paid by a legal team that planned use the data in lawsuits. How many thousands of children were denied a much-needed vaccine because their parents believed this study?

Of course there was controversy before and after this study. It wasn't "the last word" but it was cited by the anti-vaccination pseudo-science camp, because they needed some "reliable" data to back up their claims. Most responsible doctors and scientists didn't pay much attention to it because there was so much evidence on the other side. But the "believers" loved the bad news. Even if other scientists came up with different results, they had their guy and their study to point to. Most of the sheeple in the anti-vaccination movement won't look for contrary data, but even if they did, the leaders of this "religion" had a fall-back position of "If the experts disagree, then wouldn't it be better to err on the safe side?" It's a medical version of Pascal's wager.

Authority is the main issue dividing believers from skeptics/non-believers, in my opinion. Believers don't just trust their authority figures. They trust that authority itself means "unchanging," and so they won't admit contrary information even if it comes from "trustworthy" sources. This is true of religious people, New Agers, and conspiracy theorists alike. And they will cling to their authority figure even if dozens of authority figures argue contrary positions and back them up with good data.

Fortunately for the world's children, epidemiologists and pediatricians are scientists. They trust the process rather than authority. They know that "information" can change, and the good ones will keep up with the latest research in order to make the best decisions. We everyday non-scientists have put our trust in them though, so they become authority figures for us.

And we don't like change. We want what we learned in middle school science to stay the same. Absorbing new information is exhausting. There's so much of it, and even if we could find it and understand it, how do we know what is "right" when "even the experts disagree?" Medical "journalists" love reporting on the shifting sands of research. They are just as guilty as Wakefield, perhaps more.

We have to trust the judgment experts. And think of how many we trust! We may need a doctor, lawyer, auto mechanic, dentist, veterinarian, exterminator, elevator inspector, 747 pilot, etc. We can't possibly learn what we might need to know about all those fields. Heck, they can't know it all either. Good ones have a network of colleagues to confer with, and there are researchers behind all the people we meet who have been putting together the data to arrive at the conclusions that they pass along in their services.

The scientists behind our technological culture are supposed to be following a code of ethics, but even if they aren't, science will correct the lies because that's what science does. The stance of researchers could be summed up as "Trust but verify." They know that results can be ambiguous, accidental, erroneous or fabricated. The first scientist puts out the preliminary results and accompanying theory, then others set about testing whether the results were valid. So what happened this week is exactly what's supposed to happen: after repeated testing without replication of results, the original study is discredited. The motives of the original researcher really don't matter. Wrong is wrong. Science moves on.

Religion is the opposite. God is the ultimate authority, not data. The people who become the "authorities" on God have hallucinations (like Moses) or suffered a psychotic break (like Paul), or have simply read enough and thought enough about the subject to be smarter than the average person. Priests, pastors, rabbis, imams... they are the auto mechanics of the soul. They study the manual and work things out so you don't have to.

Christians are in a funny bind that way. They accept the authority of Moses, but not of Muhammed. They trust their pastor/minister/priest to discern the truth of the Bible but not an outsider. They even cling to the King James Bible because it has that ring of authority that only outdated grammar can achieve.

New evidence from archaeology, astronomy, biology, and psychology falls on deaf ears amongst a huge segment of Christians (and some other religionists too). They cling to discredited "facts" because to question any of them would be to question their authority figures, right up the chain to God. They also don't want to modify their beliefs because they never put much thought into them in the first place. If they question one tenet that they had blindly accepted as children, then how many others could be up for debate? Religion was taught to them in stories and songs, not in academic journals. They just had to learn the basic points and memorize some words, and they were all set. And deep down they worry that they are living in a house of cards.

Andrew Wakefield's license has been revoked, but I predict his believers won't be deterred. Just like Christians, Jews, Christian Scientists, New Agers, and all the rest, they will continue to point to his "research" as "proof" in shoddy books and websites, and ignore the overwhelming research that contradicts it.

ahhh I can already hear the voice of the Christian internet troll "But you atheists have made up your minds and you won't be convinced no matter what proof is offered!"

  • Reminder #1: Most of us were brought up as believers, just as you were
  • Reminder #2: Most of us would accept definitive proof of the supernatural. It just doesn't exist.
  • Reminder #3: Most of the "proof" offered by Christians has either been debunked thoroughly or is of a nebulous nature in a difficult to research area, such as neurobiology.
  • Reminder #4: The ad hominem is the last resort of the losing debater. The "tu quoque" (Oh yeah? You too!) is the weakest of the ad homs.

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