Science denial

There's an article over at TIME magazine's website about the dangers of the anti-vaccine movement. The last few years have seen disturbing rises in treatable diseases like meningitis, whooping cough, and even the measles. The victims are usually kids.

Now that the research which showed a link between autism and the measles vaccine has been discredited and its author stripped of his medical license on charges of fraud, you'd think that people would be saying, "Oh... I guess we were wrong." I mean, that's what reasonable people do, right? They look at the evidence. But when followers of the anti-vaccine movement are faced with mountains of evidence that discredit their claims, they do the opposite: the become even more entrenched in the ideology. They shift the goalpost: originally, they wanted thermosol removed from vaccines, and it was. After autism rates continued rising at the same rate, they charged that it's due to a diversity of toxins in vaccines. The cycle of denial continues unabated, even as children begin dying of treatable diseases. Just read the comments section in the TIME article, and try to hold on to your faith in humanity.

Similarity to faith-based belief

This isn't too far removed from religious thinking at all. In my previous post, Tim Minchin sings a song in which he sarcastically thanks someone named "Sam" for showing him the light, after this person claimed that Jesus healed his mom's cataracts. These lyrics, in particular, struck me as poignant:
Fuck me Sam, what are the odds that of history’s endless parade of gods that the God you just happened to be taught to believe in is the actual one and he digs on healing, but not the AIDS-ridden African nations, the victims of the plague or the flood-addled Asians, but healthy, privately-insured Australians with common and curable corneal degeneration?

This story of Sam’s has but a single explanation: a surgical God who digs on magic operations. It couldn’t be mistaken attribution of causation, born of a coincidental temporal correlation, exacerbated by a general lack of education vis-a-vis physics in Sam’s parish congregation. And it couldn’t be that all these pious people are liars. It couldn’t be an artifact of confirmation bias, a product of groupthink, a mass delusion, an Emperor’s New Clothes-style fear of exclusion.

No, it’s more likely to be an all-powerful magician than the misdiagnosis of the initial condition, or one of many cases of spontaneous remission, or a record-keeping glitch by the local physician.

No, the only explanation for Sam’s mum’s seeing: they prayed to an all-knowing superbeing, to the omnipresent master of the universe, and he liked the sound of their muttered verse.
Not too many comedians rhyme about confirmation bias and misattribution of causation, but Sam isn't unique in the power he attributes to prayer. I've personally known many people who believe God has cured them of all kinds of ailments small and large. And of course, these errors need not be confined to miraculous healing – people make all kinds of claims about God answering their prayers, from getting promotions to meeting their spouses to having well-behaved kids.

However, there's not a shred of statistical evidence that people who pray are more likely to be cured than people who don't. No believer can point to a single case of answered prayer which could not be attributed to misattribution of causation, confirmation bias, dishonesty, or a simple correlation. (I've talked more in depth about the prayer here and here.) No faith healer in history has been able to produce a single independently verified case of miraculous recovery, while some of them have been exposed as frauds. And when studies show no effect for intercessory prayer [1, 2], what do the faithful do? Why, they shift the goalpost of course.

Natural sciences

I've been on a bit of an evolution kick lately. I think it's fascinating. But it's been so long since I've let myself get sucked into a debate with a creationist that sometimes I forget just how passionate and misinformed the denial of evolution really is, as a post today at Larry Moran's blog highlighted. The other day I was visiting the Christian blog Wide As The Waters, and found this gem of stupidity:
I don’t think it is even a good scientific theory – yet. It wreaks of the global warming-type excuses, where “global warming causes global cooling”. If it floods, it’s global warming. If there is a drought, it’s global warming. If brains shrink, it’s evolution. If they get bigger, it’s evolution, and on and on. A “scientific” theory that cannot be falsified and that can be adapted ad hoc to every instance of observation is utterly worhtless – according to their own standards – and yet they embrace evolution anyway.
Of course, evolution does indeed make falsifiable predictions about what we should observe today (nor does evolution function teleologically, as the commenter assumes). That's how all sciences of past events work: it's not enough to simply infer a conclusion from the data; it must be shown that the theory accurate predicts future discoveries. The Big Bang, for example, is scientific not because it just seems to make sense to some eggheads, but because the cosmic microwave background radiation was predicted to exist by the theory decades before it was observed. This is precisely why Intelligent Design and Young-Earth Creationism are not scientific: they make no such falsifiable predictions. The result is that evolution has not only been robustly supported by the evidence, but has given us all kinds of advances in medicine, agriculture, and even climate science; meanwhile, we're still waiting for creationists to produce some sort of measurable result from their competing "theories".

And of course, creationists love to shift goalposts. The most famous example of evolutionary goalpost-shifting is when creationist claim that there are no "transitional forms" in the fossil record. That's dumb: all species ever are "transitional forms". The very claim stems from an elementary ignorance of how evolution actually works. But whenever species are found which bridge the gap between two distant evolutionary relatives (such as feathered dinosaurs), the creationist will simply suggest that we're now missing two more transitional forms.

Addressing the problem

I could go on: there's much religious resistance to scientific research on moral behavior and theoretical cosmology, for example. In most cases, there's a mistrust of science in general – what would the alternative medicine movement be, for example, without a distrust of "big pharma"? What would faith-based science denial be without the belief that science is fundamentally unable to answer questions that only religion can? As I've learned firsthand, the faithful are unlikely to be swayed by research on the efficacy of prayer – just as vaccination opponents are unconvinced by research that soundly debunks their claim. Something deeper is at work here; these views are not derived from a dispassionate examination of the evidence, but a deep-seated and emotionally rooted belief system. The strongest "evidence" against vaccines comes from anecdotal stories of distressed mothers who attribute their child's ills to vaccines, just as the strongest "evidence" for prayer comes from anecdotal experiences like Sam's. Similarly, the religiously-fueled denials of evolution, cosmology or sociobiology are powered by belief systems which hold great emotional sway over their followers – it should be no surprise, for example, that organizations such as the Discovery Institute and the Institute for Creation Research hold that an acceptance of evolution inevitably leads to moral nihilism [1,2].

It's therefor my view that resolving these issues will not come from direct counter-argument alone, but from addressing the core belief system that shapes these biases. I've talked about the network theory of deconversion with regard to theology, but I think it holds true for proponents of pseudoscience as well. Belief systems function like computer networks, with multiple "nodes" that independently shape the mindset of the believer. Direct responses to claims often only address one of the nodes, and the believer can subsequently shift the goalposts easily enough. We have to dig a little deeper to understand why people hold so steadfastly to these biases in the first place, and with any luck inspire a little self-reflective critical thinking.


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