Knowledge Overconfidence: “Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?”

Yves here. Some recent paper attempt to show that those who don’t buy into the scientific consensus on many topics suffer from Dunning Kruger effect, as in overestimating their knowledge and yet having great certainty. But the conundrum is that many pushing “the science” are practicing scientism.

By KLG, who has held research and academic positions in three US medical schools since 1995 and is currently Professor of Biochemistry and Associate Dean. He has performed and directed research on protein structure, function, and evolution; cell adhesion and motility; the mechanism of viral fusion proteins; and assembly of the vertebrate heart. He has served on national review panels of both public and private funding agencies, and his research and that of his students has been funded by the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, and National Institutes of Health

I have always cast a fairly wide net when reading the scientific literature, which has at times driven my colleagues and graduate students to distraction.  And during the past few years I have gone even further afield.  Much as I am enthralled by molecular evolution and the coevolution of components in the protein assemblies that do the work of making us functional organisms, sometimes other things take precedence.

For a while, at least.  COVID-19 has been one of those times, obviously, and an article in the primary literature entitled “Knowledge overconfidence is associated with anti-consensus views on controversial scientific issues[1] jumped out at me when I found it late this summer: Knowledge overconfidence….anti-consensus viewscontroversial scientific issues.  Hmm, I thought.  This is right up my alley and might have legs, especially now.  And it does, even if I’m not entirely sure how far those legs advance the argument, as put forth in the Abstract:

Public attitudes that are in opposition to scientific consensus can be disastrous and include rejection of vaccines and opposition to climate change mitigation policies. Five studies examine the interrelationships between opposition to expert consensus on controversial scientific issues, how much people actually know about these issues, and how much they think they know. Across seven critical issues that enjoy substantial scientific consensus, as well as attitudes toward COVID-19 vaccines and mitigation measures like mask wearing and social distancing, results indicate that those with the highest levels of opposition have the lowest levels of objective knowledge but the highest levels of subjective knowledge. Implications for scientists, policymakers, and science communicators are discussed.

Again and always, there is a lot to unpack here.

Scientific consensus: Whose science and what consensus?

Expert consensus: Who are the experts and what are their motivations?

Objective knowledge: How was it produced and for whom?

Subjective knowledge: I’m still not sure that isn’t a category mistake, although I understand the distinction the authors make between subjective and objective knowledge.

Scientists, policymakers, scientific communicators: We are beginning to appreciate who the true scientists are, especially during COVID-19 (which is not over, and the work done by these authors should help us get through the inevitable next pandemic); policymakers who are the victims of regulatory capture might not be particularly helpful; and scientific communicators, well, the market is tough for them.

As this paper begins, “uncertainty is inherent to science.”  Yes, it is.  All scientific knowledge is provisional.  While the overall view of the authors of scientific progress seems to be somewhat traditionally Whiggish[2], as most history of science describes inevitable progress to a more complete answer, it is generally true that science does progress toward a more complete description of the natural world[3].  Nevertheless, that there are “sizeable gaps in agreement between scientists and laypeople” cannot be seriously denied.  The seven subjects, plus COVID-19, covered here include: climate change, GM foods, nuclear power, vaccination, homeopathic medicine, the Big Bang, and evolution (Table).

As noted by the authors, the “consequences of these anti-consensus views are dire, including property destruction, malnutrition, disease, financial hardship, and death.”  If these consequences are so serious, why are anti-consensus views so widespread?

The traditional answer of the professional managerial class (PMC) is, pardon my directness, that the rubes/great unwashed/working class are simply stupid and will not listen to reason.  Or, to put it more professionally, as in the text of this paper, “opposition to the scientific consensus has often been attributed to nonexperts’ lack of knowledge, an idea referred to as the ‘deficit model,’” and that if the people only knew the facts they would “arrive at beliefs more consistent with the science.”  It turns out that “education” seems not to work very well, so the deficit model probably is not the answer.

I would add here that the expression “beliefs more consistent with the science” illustrates a fundamental but not insurmountable difficulty in research such as this.  Science, properly understood, is not a matter of “belief.”

And more to the point, “the science” does not exist at all.  Rather, “the science” is a matter of scientism instead of science properly practiced and understood.  This is a subject for another time, especially as it applies to COVID-19, and one that I hope to address later, but it is beyond the scope of the current argument.[4]

Other models that may account for anti-consensus views include “cultural cognition,” which holds that beliefs are shaped (biased) by cultural values and affiliations.  Or in other words, people believe what they are conditioned to believe. Still other studies have shown that scientific knowledge and ideology are arrived at separately.

And then we come to the recent work that helped form the framework for the current study: People “with extreme anti-consensus views may be least likely to apprehend the gaps in their knowledge” and overconfident about how much they know of the relevant science.

There is undoubtedly some truth to this, but it is not something restricted to the uncredentialed who do not know what they are talking about.  This is especially true of scientists who are more than a bit sure of themselves when they step out of the narrower confines of their professional interests.  I digress, but we know who they are.

So, what has been done in the studies described here?

  1. Test the generality of the relationship between the extremity of anti-consensus beliefs (views) and scientific knowledge overconfidence (the difference between subjective and objective knowledge).
  2. Provide evidence that subjective knowledge of science is associated with behavior; i.e., these subjects are actually willing to bet on their ability to perform on a test of their knowledge of the relevant subject.
  3. Test why the relationship holds for some issues and not others, which could be due to political polarization surrounding the issue.
  4. Test whether these relationships explain the psychology of those opposed to “expert recommendations and policies aimed at reducing the (COVID-19) infection rate.”

Studies 1 and 2 (N = 3249) show that anti-consensus views across the seven non-COVID are associated with lower levels of scientific knowledge (Fig. 1): As objective knowledge decreases among the subjects, opposition to the scientific consensus (as described by the authors) increases.  So far, so good, but how is objective knowledge measured?  By using a scale of 34 true-false science questions containing subscales for each of the seven scientific issues.  Because the focus was on anti-consensus opposition, these studies were restricted to subjects who do not report complete agreement with the consensus.  Subjects were evaluated on their “beliefs” on the issues by Opposition Questions, such as:

GM Food

Genetically modified foods are foods created through the manipulation of a plant’s or animal’s genetic structure using biotechnology.  This is done to create foods with certain attributes such as faster growth, resistance to pathogens, or enhanced nutritional value.  Please indicate your level of opposition to genetically modified foods.

(1-7, anchored by “Not opposed at all = 1” and “Extremely opposed = 7”)

Vaccination

Vaccination is the act of introducing a vaccine into the body to produce immunity to a specific disease.

Please indicate your level of opposition to vaccination.

(1-7, anchored by “Not opposed at all = 1” and “Extremely opposed = 7”)

Evolution

Evolution is the scientific theory that describes changes in inherited traits of populations though successive generations.

Please indicate your level of belief in Evolution.

(1-7, anchored by “Completely do not believe = 1” and “Completely believe = 7”)

Here is a representative selection of questions for the different topics, answered using a 7-point Likert scale: Definitely false, Probably false, Maybe false, Not sure, Maybe true, Probably true, Definitely true.

Evolution

All mutations to a human’s or animal’s genes are unhealthy. (F)

Humans share a majority of their genes with chimpanzees. (T)

Gravity is the theory that serves as the foundation for modern biology. (F)

The earliest human beings lived at the same time as the dinosaurs. (F)

“Survival of the fittest”[5] is a phrase used to describe how natural selection works. (T)

Vaccination and Homeopathy

Antibodies are proteins produced by the immune system. (T)

Pathology is the study of the human body. (F)

The skin is the largest organ in the human body. (T)

Ligaments connect human muscles to bones. (F)

Antibiotics kills viruses as well as bacteria. (F)

GM Foods

It is the father’s genes that decide whether the baby is a boy or a girl. (T)

Ordinary tomatoes do not have genes, whereas genetically modified tomatoes do. (F)

All mutations to a human’s or animal’s genes are unhealthy. (F)

All plants and animals have DNA. (T)

Men and women normally have the same number of chromosomes. (T)

These questions and those directed at the other issues are well chosen.  They are neither too simple nor too difficult for a layman, and they are relevant.  The general relationship held for all issues except climate change: Objective knowledge decreased with opposition to scientific consensus, while subjective knowledge increased with opposition.[6]

An ingenious part of this research is Study 3, in which the subjects were asked to put their money where their mouth is.  That is, subjects were given the opportunity to earn a bonus by betting on their ability to score above average on their assigned objective knowledge questions or take a smaller guaranteed payout.  The underlying hypothesis is that betting is an indicator of greater knowledge confidence.  As expected, Study 3 paralleled the Studies 1 and 2: As opposition to the consensus increased, subjects bet more but were less likely to score above average, and the more extreme opponents of the consensus earned less.  Yes, people can be sure of themselves.

Perhaps the most topical and interesting part of this research involved COVID-19, but in my view not exactly for the reasons identified by the authors.

When Study 4 (Attitudes toward a potential COVID-19 vaccine) was completed in the summer of 2020, COVID-19 vaccines were still in the future.  It seems a stretch to expect anyone to know one way or another whether they will be willing to get vaccinated in the absence of any information on the vaccine, how it works (not very well as it turns out), and what can be expected after vaccination.  But as anticipated, lower enthusiasm for a potential COVID-19 vaccine did track with “lower objective knowledge about science and COVID-19 but higher levels of subjective knowledge about how the vaccine would work.

To which one can only respond, “Huh?”  Operation Warp Speed and the development of the mRNA vaccines made sense at the time, even if these vaccines are experimental and the “science” had already established that durable immunity to coronaviruses was problematic, but subjective knowledge about how the vaccine would work makes little sense.  To me.

Nevertheless, Study 5 continued by addressing Attitudes toward COVID-19 mitigation policies and preventive behaviors, as the study examined support for COVID-19 mitigation policies and compliance with preventive measures recommended by health experts (September-November 2020).  One need only remember that throughout 2020, guidance from NIH and CDC on the pandemic was inconsistent at best: Masks are not necessary, except for healthcare workers and we don’t want them to run low on personal protective equipment; handwashing is a key to preventing spread of the virus, because fomites; the virus spreads by aerosols, or droplets; masks are necessary to prevent transmission.  Nothing about airborne spread and the importance of ventilation.  Very little acknowledgment that masks in other countries did seem to work.

So, where do we go from here?  I will not repeat the discussion in detail here, but the problems/recommended noted, with my brief response in parentheses, are:

  1. If people don’t agree with the scientific consensus, education is unlikely to work (that depends on what is meant by education).
  2. Helping people focus on their own lack of knowledge might help (I have no idea how this could work and not be utterly insulting and condescending).
  3. Perhaps we can “bring opponents in line” by ignoring their knowledge deficit and focus on experts or perceived experts, gaining allyship of agents of change (experts generally get us into these jackpots in the first place, and Bill Clinton spoke of himself as a “change agent” building a bridge to the 21st century).
  4. Policymakers and science communicators can convince influential political, religious, and cultural thought leaders with whom the unbelievers identify to alter their followers’ views, and as these novel ideas are adopted momentum will propel toward necessary change (Regarding policymakers, see #3; thought leaders…as Jim Croce wrote “we got all that we can use”).

After a lifetime of working in “science,” I have learned that consensus lies in the eye(s) of the beholder and is very often not nearly as clearcut has the authors of this study seem to believe.  Where consensus is fraught politics is often at play.

As noted, climate change does not fit their original and largely correct hypothesis, and this may well be due to political polarization and obfuscation, so well described by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in Merchants of Doubt.  For example, Bradford Hill and Richard Doll showed unequivocally 70 years ago, with a statistical argument no less, that (most) lung cancer is caused by smoking, but the merchants of doubt held sway in accordance with their “free market fundamentalism” for long after.

GM food is another similar issue and a topic of discussion here.  I attended one of the first international conferences on plant molecular biology and biotechnology nearly 40 years ago.  Golden Rice had just appeared on the horizon, and it would solve the serious problem of vitamin A deficiency in many areas.  Not so much, as it turns out, although it has (finally) been approved for human consumption in the Philippines.  In any case, the exceedingly low-tech distribution of “two-cent” doses of vitamin A has been remarkably successful.  Nor is it clear that Roundup-ready commodity crops yield more than non-GMO cotton, soybeans, alfalfa, etc.  The overuse of glyphosate does select for herbicide-resistant weeds, however.

So, while it may be true that consumption of GMO foods and commodity crops is no riskier than plants developed through traditional plant breeding, they are still largely a technical fix for a problem that should not exist, despite the screeching of powers that be in industrial agriculture (which is legitimate category mistake, by the way).

Further question: Is it really the consensus that nuclear power is necessary to mitigate climate change?  As for homeopathic medicine, much as I appreciate Chelsea Green Publishing as my bookshelves demonstrate, no, homeopathy is not real.  And while the Big Bang is the current explanation of the origin of the universe, it might not be the last (ducks and covers as cosmologists respond to a steady-state view of the universe).

The solution to the problem is simple.  The one and only way to deal with militant anti-consensus views is for scientists to tell the disinterested but provisional truth of their research, every time and all the time.  And to avoid pushing a consensus when there is none.  Controversy associated with the polio vaccine was virtually nil, even after a mistake in manufacture of the Salk vaccine caused an outbreak of smallpox.  The scientists involved were transparent before and after the vaccine was approved.

After a long and rewarding professional life in the research laboratory and classroom, conference hall and review panel, library and marine institute, I have no idea how we can get there while the market of late neoliberal capitalism remains the measure of all things.  But get there we must.  Common anti-consensus views originate in the corruption of science by a scientistic outlook that has nothing to do with real science, and the upcoming responses to a pandemic that is not over but has enriched Big Pharma are likely to be fierce.  The PMC is not necessarily wrong to notice the hostility of “the other” to their consensus, but they could do better at understanding where anti-consensus views originate.

However, this is not to say that anti-consensus views are not also essential to the advancement of science as our method of understanding the natural world.  The authors of this study end with Plato and Galileo, who were anti-consensus to the core.  While as a biologist I would prefer Aristotle and Darwin, this is a good conclusion and a good place to end, for both their paper and my closing sermon.

A note on statistical analysis of the data: The linear relationships shown in the figures of this paper seem to be almost too good, to me.  While I do not doubt the utility or validity of their conventional, frequentist statistical analysis, they should show the data points.  In my recent work using similar datasets, I can fit the data to straight lines with similar 95% confidence bands, but with a marginal correlation coefficient (r) and a completely nonpredictive coefficient of determination (r-square).

Final Note: Update to Serotonin and the Unsubstantiated Chemical Imbalance Theory of Mental Disorders from 3 August 2022.  The Guardian published a story about low serotonin levels and depression last week entitled Study finds first direct evidence of a link between low serotonin and depression:  “The study, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, involved seventeen patients with major depressive disorder or depression linked to Parkinson’s disease and 20 healthy volunteers. The participants were given a PET scan that uses a radioactive tracer to reveal how much serotonin was binding to certain receptors in the brain. They were then given a dose of amphetamine, which stimulates serotonin release, and scanned again. A reduced serotonin response was seen in the depressed patients, the researchers found.”  Several points: Seventeen (17) is a small number.  Parkinson’s disease is certainly a comorbidity not present in most patients who take SSRIs.  Then there is the amphetamine dose, which is also probably not something most depressed people use?  I have not had time to read this paper in detail, but there it is.

____

[1]In the era of open-access publication, which has among other things led to 305,464 COVID entries in PubMed over the past three years as of 6 November 2022, the source matters now more than ever.  While no one publisher or journal is perfect, Science Advances (established in 2015) is an open-access journal published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which is the publisher of Science (1880).  Scienceand Nature (1869) are rightly considered the two leading general scientific journals.  This paper was submitted on 6 January 2022, accepted on 6 June 2022, and published on 20 July 2022, indicating that peer review was not pro forma, as it can be in too many open-access journals.

[2] Taken from The Whig Interpretation of History by Herbert Butterfield, which was required by my teacher of Early Modern Europe and the Renaissance; recent commentary is here.

[3] Histories of modern biology that are not Whiggish but describe scientific progress and its problems include The Eighth Day of Creation and The Life Organic.

[4] The great Mary Midgley addressed the scientistic approach to knowledge in her later work, all if it still in print.  The life and work of Mary Midgley and three friends and modern moral philosophers (Elizabeth Anscombe, Phillipa Foot, and Iris Murdoch) who were at Oxford together 80 years ago is recounted delightfully here and here.

[5] “Survival of the fittest” is an expression attributed to Herbert Spencer, who was not a scientist, but it is a common trope used to describe evolution through natural selection.

[6] A brief comment on their statistics at the end.

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69 comments

  1. Watt4Bob

    IMHO, the answer is not simple in any case where there are $ involved.

    In many instances there are powerful players aligned against the publics full understanding of the issue at hand because profits are at stake.

    One has only to remember the huge amounts of money spent over many decades by the tobacco giants to obscure the health-destroying affects of smoking.

    There is a larger consensus looming above any individual consensus discussed here, that being the consensus that “The business of America is business”.

    If the organized business interests feel the scientific consensus threatens their bottom lines, they will do everything possible to sow doubt, in that consensus, a tactic made much easier considering they own our government.

    In every case mentioned above, there is either an obvious conflict between business interests and the public good, or an opportunity to leverage conflict for political gain.

    And you can fool some of the people, all of the time.

    Reply
    1. digi_owl

      > One has only to remember the huge amounts of money spent over many decades by the tobacco giants to obscure the health-destroying affects of smoking.

      Bit of a tangent, but i think the smoking issue kicked into high gear once secondary smoke got attention. Until then it was seen as a vice similar to drinking, not workplace health and safety issue.

      Reply
      1. hk

        Anti smoking crusade has also produced some strange and unfortunate consequences. Some people have gotten so hung up on smoking as not just a major source of respiratory ailments, but as the nearly ONLY source so that they became blind to other problems that lead to, say, lung cancer.

        Reply
      2. rob

        on that tangent,
        I remember it was back , early in the clinton years, a tobacco executive had claimed it was a “shakedown”. clinton,et al… told the tobacco heads… the gov’t wants more revenue…/bigger cut.. the tobacco heads said “no”… after that is was all… how bad this tobacco is.. the gov’t is at war with tobacco…
        despite people like George Seldes being right, and writing against the health effects of tobacco back in the forties.. which got the advertising budgets attacked at various magazines he was associated with. The facts/clues have been around for a long time, but money does decide where we get to look. and what we get to see.

        Reply
    2. GordonK

      This just in from the world of psychiatry. It’s hard to have a viewpoint that isn’t being manipulated or outright disinformed, so the ones who are skeptical have a good reason to be so. Here’s a good example.

      https://www.counterpunch.org/2022/11/09/no-evidence-for-psychiatrys-depression-claims-report-three-2022-research-reviews/

      They even conclude that this news will have little to no impact on the profession or on the public, so those who “know” only get a bit of knowledge to work with. If I walked into a doc’s office and told him what this report says, he’d probably think I’m nuts and they work in the field.

      Reply
      1. Jams O'Donnell

        I believe I read somewhere, years ago, that there is a much greater possibility of being diagnosed as mentally in in the US, compared with, say, Europe. I imagine that some of that is because psychiatry is a larger and essentially privatised industry in the US.

        Reply
        1. digi_owl

          I guess it may be easier to shop around for some “professional” that will sign a paper that opens doors, so to speak.

          Similar to how doctors are lenient toward prescribing antibiotics even when they know it will not help, because otherwise they will lose the customers.

          Reply
    3. eg

      Excellent observation. The loud and persistent insistence, for instance, that inflation harms the poor most of all — an assurance, mind, that is always mouthed by those who have never been poor, and reliably and vociferously by the mouthpieces of TPTB — comes to mind.

      Sure enough, I discover in Walter Scheidel’s The Great Leveller that the inflations associated with WWI and II wiped out bond holders and landlords — do these sound like “the poor” to you? Of course not. The poor already have nothing, and rely upon government assistance, regardless of changing price levels. For them, inflation is literally meaningless.

      You only have to look at the mad scramble by Western central banks (aristocratic institutions inimical to labour by design) hiking rates to squash inflation as quickly as possible — regardless of the unemployment they hope to impose in order to crush demand, and heedless of the damage to the global south, where the poorest all reside. When have they ever cared about the poor?

      No — the whole thing is just another lie told by and on behalf of propertarian interests, just like the ones you describe, Watt4Bob. And I for one am tired of being lied to.

      Reply
        1. digi_owl

          I think it is more complicated than that.

          The main thing is that debt usually do not get inflation adjusted. So as long as income keep pace with inflation, existing debt will become easier to pay down. But in this day and age, that is a very big IF.

          Reply
  2. Samuel Conner

    Does the study explore why people hold anti-consensus views?

    One might not be too alarmed by the individual health consequences of consumption of GM foods but one could still be extremely opposed to GMOs due to their implications for the sustainability and resilience of the food production systems of the world.

    Perhaps the “huh?” result of study 4 could reflect better-informed (about the vaccines in development) people being reluctant to accept an experimental non-sterilizing vaccine. IIRC, It was known already in mid-2020 that the vaccines would probably not stimulate sterilizing immunity, that frequent boosters might be needed, and that the clinical end-point of the efficacy studies (reduction of disease severity) might be achievable through alternate means, such as NPIs that reduce or avoid viral exposure. All of these would tend to shift the ‘risk/reward’ calculus in the direction of delaying one’s vaccination with these new agents.

    Reply
    1. David in Santa Cruz

      Hugely important point here. Read Charles Mann’s description of the Great Potato Famine for an example of how GMO crops can affect the sustainability and resilience of the food chain. My personal opposition to GMO crops has nothing to do with health effects of consuming them.

      These discussions are quite germane. My G.P. recently put me on a statin even though I have perfect cholesterol numbers, because I “might” have an enlarged aorta. A few months in I experienced excruciating pain in my hips and thighs. After two weeks of enduring this I learned in a Google search that it’s a known side-effect. She had put me on four times the dosage recommended by the Mayo Clinic! Then I learned that the statin was also significantly increasing my risk of developing Type II diabetes and liver damage. I took a WebMD-endorsed “statin vacation” and the symptoms disappeared in two weeks.

      Then I read KLG’s piece about “evidence” versus “science” in the prescription of statin medications. I’m now looking forward to the six-week-out appointment to “discuss” why I was put through a month of agony without at least a consult with a cardiologist; I have a feeling that I’m going to be classified as a “science denier” and “fired” by the G.P. doc…

      Reply
      1. digi_owl

        I could have sworn there are already examples of GMO companies suing smaller farmers for patent violation simply because said famers planted some seeds they kept between seasons rather than buy anew.

        Reply
  3. Steve H.

    > anti-consensus views and objective knowledge

    two know what ain’t so” and Folie à deux

    First, a foundational paper: Why Most Published Research Findings Are False: John P. A. Ioannidis

    Most recently: Bug in fMRI software calls 15 years of research into question [from the October 4 Water Cooler]

    In the early 2000’s there was a quiet kerfuffle when researchers noticed a lack of consistency across DNA assays; the results depended on the brand. Within the last couple of years, it was claimed that the ‘Orchid Hypothesis‘ had been disproved via a massive genetic database.

    There is a further degradation of knowledge in the secondary effects of these failures. Before Gerald Pollack discovered the structure of H3O2, he was warned that going into water research could kill his career, due to the taint of past indignities.

    That errors are found out should indicate that the scientific method is robust. That thousands of papers can be piggybacked on faulty foundations is an epistemological mystery without epiphany.

    Reply
      1. Steve H.

        Exactly to the point of this post.

        > Expert consensus: Who are the experts and what are their motivations?

        Are the gatekeepers experts? Over two years of pandemic and the failure to distinguish science from marketing bs is still endemic.

        As Pollack says, if you want to ingest structured water, eat a vegetable. It’s in every cell.

        Reply
      2. semper loquitur

        Wiki pseudoscience gatekeepers have problems of their own. I know nothing about Pollack’s claims but Mitch Horowitz on Medium has noted that some soi dissant skeptics have a propensity for suppressing information that doesn’t jive with their desired views on reality:

        The Enduring Legacy of Parapsychologist J.B. Rhine

        Skeptics deem Rhine’s famous ESP trials a bust. The record says otherwise.

        “How does this occur on the world’s go-to reference source? Radin, chief scientist at IONS, described to me the problem of an ad hoc group calling itself “Guerrilla Skeptics” policing Wiki entries on parapsychology: “While there are lots of anonymous trolls that have worked hard to trash any Wikipedia pages related to psi, including bios of parapsychologists, this group of extreme skeptics is proudly open that they are rewriting history…any attempt to edit those pages, even fixing individual words, is blocked or reverted almost instantly.”[15]”

        https://mitch-horowitz-nyc.medium.com/the-enduring-legacy-of-parapsychologist-j-b-rhine-e9ee9f20e3cf

        These aren’t “skeptics”, they are debunkers, who ignore any evidence that runs counter to their preferred narratives. They are fanatics and more to the point, they are fearful of a world of uncertainty. They cling to scientism as a child clings to a “Woobie-blanket”, trembling in a night full of things that “Bump!”

        Here is Horowitz again, on the crisis in skepticism:

        Anomalous Experiences and the Crisis of Skepticism
        Why we need better skeptics

        ““I wish there were a voice emergent from with the skeptics’ community that was really prepared to engage these questions for real. I have to believe that would make us better, that would help us refine our search. I find that the ‘greatest hits’ of skepticism have grown really old. The hits, some of which I’ve touched upon, usually involve retreading experiments and either suppressing or cooking data if things don’t go in the desired direction; they involve using Twitteresque phrases like ‘confirmation bias,’ which is really just a social sciences term for prejudice — we all experience it — the person who uses the term ‘confirmation bias’ never seems to apply back at him or herself, which I guess is confirmation that there’s a good point there…”

        https://mitch-horowitz-nyc.medium.com/anomalous-experiences-and-the-crisis-of-skepticism-5ee6607c9974

        As a student and practitioner of the esoteric arts, I love skeptical inquiry. There is a lot of none sense and a lot of charlatans and deluded minds running around in this world. I like to see the wheat separated from the chaff. But “gatekeepers” we don’t need. Inquiry, analysis, and discussion we do.

        Reply
        1. Jams O'Donnell

          Anyone interested in more on the above, see: ‘Psi Wars: TED, Wikipedia and the battle for the Internet’ by Craig Weiler, and ‘The New Inquisition’ -Robert Anton Wilson.

          Reply
  4. CanCyn

    Thanks for this KLG, I am really enjoying your posts. We used to call students Information Technology Confident rather than Information Technology Competent when planning research and information literacy curriculum. But the funny thing is if you actually tested them in a question format they proved competent (ie knowledgeable). They just didn’t seem to put that knowledge into practice. Not being a psychology major or having any psychologists as colleagues, I could never figure out a way to tease out the ‘why?’ of this phenomenon. Did students just not care enough to apply the more rigorous methodologies for search and critical thinking that we expected? We’re they willfully flouting them to be cool or to rebel against us librarian and faculty ‘old farts’? I would suggest that questionnaires will never really get to the bottom of human nature because people answer questions in ways that belie their true beliefs and even knowledge for all kinds of reasons. And as Watt4Bob suggests above, when business and profit motives enter the picture the truth becomes ever less evident or even attainable.

    Reply
    1. Ultrapope

      But the funny thing is if you actually tested them in a question format they proved competent (ie knowledgeable). They just didn’t seem to put that knowledge into practice. Not being a psychology major or having any psychologists as colleagues, I could never figure out a way to tease out the ‘why?’ of this phenomenon.

      It sounds like what you observed is a form of Context-Dependent Memory. In short, if a memory is encoded within the context of a certain environment, then that same environment will facilitate the retrieval of that memory. A lot of research in this area was kicked off by the observation that students are a lot better at recalling information in the same classroom where they were taught. But the language used to teach a concept can also be seen as an “environment”. For instance, imagine a student is repeatedly taught that “X is an important part of the process Y”, with that exact wording. If the student sees the question “What is an important part of the process Y?” they are much more likely to answer X than if they see a question like “The success of process Y is dependent on what?”

      Reply
      1. CanCyn

        Thanks Ultrapope. Maybe not exactly to your point but in a similar vein – there is also research that finds that students remember images and charts as they saw them on a page when reading. I see your point and indeed I always found the most difficult part of teaching to be assisting students in the transference of theory and info to practice. College and university students are conditioned (thank you Hollywood) to believe that post secondary education (humanities and social sciences) consists of sitting and listening to lectures. Attempts to get them into a more participatory mode, except for answering the odd question, were met with a surprising amount of reluctance. My best classes were always held in a computer lab in the library when students got background info to read ahead of time and then arrived at the library with an assignment to work on with guidance from me. Help using the databases, books close by when needed is what worked.

        Reply
  5. Don Midwest

    The polymath Bruno Latour worked on this topic for 40 years.

    I think that I am banned from NC so I won’t bother to put in a link.

    Just looking at Bruno’s article on this controversy in Plato

    Reply
          1. larry

            The intro is misleading. The Dunning-Kruger Effect asserts that there exist stupid people who are so stupid, they do not know how stupid they actually are.

            Reply
  6. YankeeFrank

    It didn’t take someone under the Dunning-Kruger, or any other “effect” to see that the recent history of big pharma’s corruption, along with its decades long failure to produce a working mRNA product (and the many billions sunk in this effort) might lead to this experimental and rushed “vaccine” being a high risk proposition. I waited at the beginning to see how things were rolling out and didn’t like what I saw and avoided the shots (luckily I didn’t have the govt or an employer forcing me to choose whether to eat or get the shot — another sign things weren’t quite as they seemed). It was a slow and cautious analysis of the entire gestalt of the neoliberalized system, combined with my own years of direct experience with our over-monetized, corrupted medical system.

    My assessment might have been wrong, and if at some point I had been shown reasonable data and analysis to that effect I might have gotten the shot. Instead we got insane propaganda against any and all early treatment while being strongly shamed and even coerced (I still don’t think many people realize how deeply offensive and morally wrong this is), and I for one will never forget how my country treated me at a time of stress.

    I don’t look down on those who were hoodwinked or coerced and took the shot. I pray that they are safe and unharmed, as most thankfully seem to be. There but for the grace of God… Who I blame are our corrupt “public health” officials and the medical establishment for putting fear and greed ahead of science and true concern for the public. People like Fauci need to be arrested and criminally prosecuted for causing direct and knowable harm, and profiting from it.

    Reply
    1. YankeeFrank

      And I’ll add that many with less experience of our medical system, and perhaps less eloquence in describing their reasoning, got it right as well. Sure, some did so in a knee-jerk way due to being in an oppositional political camp, but many have not been well-served by this system and know to be cautious when it starts pushing hard on us. Again, not due to the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which is really just another over-hyped and somewhat silly product of our medical edifice. I’ll stick with instinct and intuition over some smarmy “thought product” that has a surface “smart” appeal but is ultimately useless.

      Reply
  7. LY

    There’s science, but there’s also risk management. Readers of this blog are probably most familiar with Taleb, and problems with pricing risk.

    The question of whether something “is safe” vs. “is not safe” requires two different approaches and mindsets. For example, take the Challenger accident, where the answer to both “safe to launch” and “not safe to launch” was both no, and a decision maker was asked to change from his “engineering hat” to “management hat”.

    Reply
  8. Paleobotanist

    I believe that a mistake in producing the salk polio vaccine led to an outbreak of polio, not smallpox. A minor typo.

    Reply
    1. Lee

      Sabin’s oral polio vaccine, unlike Salk’s injectable, while inducing immunity in the vaccinated, can for a time and in rare cases allow the vaccinated to transmit the disease to unvaccinated persons.

      As for asymptomatic infection, there are some virologists that maintain that it is fairly widespread but that being vaccinated is rendering such exposures harmless, and therefore we don’t typically test for its presence in the population.

      Reply
  9. voislav

    The problem with presenting scientific issues to general public is that they are often made to be binary, black and white, rather than complicated shades of grey they are in reality. So public is presented with a false view that scientific “facts” are either true or false, where in reality most scientific information falls on the spectrum between those two extremes.

    Another problem is that scientists themselves are often unscrupulous, petty and irrational, so pretty much your normal cross-section of humanity. To give an example from personal experience, I am currently in the process of publishing a review paper in chemistry. About 20 years ago some of the my work that is discussed in this paper was disputed by another research group in a very disingenuous manner, including falsifying our previously published data by altering data points. This was all documented through a couple of back-and-forth research papers, where they disputed our data and we defended it and pointed out to their shenanigans. We believed it to be a settled matter and moved on, but here we are 20 years later, where the reviewer on our review paper is rejecting it because he believes that we were wrong 20 years ago and does not accept that the issue was settled.

    Reply
  10. Micah

    I think that part of the rejection of these consensus scientific views has to do with the implications of believing these views to be true.

    Believing in Evolution and the Big Bang is viewed by many as undercutting the authority of the Bible and / or a belief in God. It is easier to just say I don’t believe in those things and maintain my faith in the inerrancy of the Bible and of God. This is especially important in the context of Christianity because faith is required to get into Heaven.

    Believing in Global Warming may mean that I have to give up my lifestyle and allow much more government regulation of my life and/or my business for my children and for society to survive. It is easier to say that I don’t believe and then there is no conflict between my lifestyle and my children’s future.

    These are two examples but I believe that there are probably other examples that could be found on this subject.

    By the way, when I say my, I am just speaking in the voice of the disbeliever. I actually believe in a lot of the scientific consensus views.

    Reply
    1. lyman alpha blob

      Actually the Big Bang theory bolsters the creation myth in the Bible, which is why many mid-20th century physicists preferred the steady state theory. The term was coined by Steady State apologist Fred Hoyle as an insult, because he felt it did bring god into science which was anathema to him. In a nutshell, Big Bang claims there was nothing, then a gargantuan kaboom, then suddenly there was “stuff”. All very much like the “let there be light” in the Bible at a basic level. Also, the first person to realize that the implications of Einstein’s equations led to this theory was Jesuit priest Georges Lemaitre, although he personally downplayed any implications that god was involved. Even so, the theory originally made the cosmologists of the day very nervous.

      Not a huge fan of the Big Bang theory myself since as currently construed, it implies that one day we could look up in the sky and see only blackness due to the increasing expansion of the universe. It may be right, but I do enjoy looking at the stars. Of course, according to current theories about stellar evolution, which IMO are more robust, the earth will be swallowed by the sun going into a red giant phase and incinerated long before the stars disappear. So a moot point anyway for earthlings!

      Reply
  11. DGL

    Hebert Spencer quote “Survival of the Fittest” was quite popular. He visited the USA and greeted as a hero by Andrew Carnegie. Spencer applied Darwin’s theory to create Social Evolution. Basically, the Robber Barons were rich because they were the fittest.

    Cabot explained the rich were chosen by god.

    Our richest today are justified by banal corruption. Perhaps this is part of the reason for ‘heathen rage.’

    Reply
  12. David

    One obvious weakness of this sort of study is that it ignores actual personal knowledge and experience, and indeed any information not put out by consensus scientific organisations and entities. Perhaps that’s what is meant by “subjective” knowledge. Obviously, few of us have personal knowledge of all the issues – the Big Bang is by definition impossible to know about, it’s simply the most powerful scientific hypothesis. But when I was young the Steady State hypothesis of Fred Hoyle was almost as popular. And for that matter, there have been a number of recent books arguing against the inherent existence of time itself, which obviously complicates the issues.

    But take homeopathy as an example, where people are supposed to “know” that “there is no good evidence” that it works. I think we can fairly gloss that statement as

    “scientists are inherently sceptical of homeopathy because they can’t see how it could work. For that reason, few scientific studies have been done, and those that have been done have been done according to the rules for testing drug treatments, and haven’t produced worthwhile results.”

    That is entirely consistent with the widespread “knowledge” of ordinary people that homeopathic preparations, correctly prescribed and taken, can relieve or dispel various complaints. To take two I “know” of: homeopathic Arnica (a remedy for shock) is very good at alleviating jet-lag. I have taken it dozens of times for that purpose. I was told about it by someone who used it successfully for that purpose, and I have passed it on to others who have also used it successfully. Stramonium, at the right dose, is “known”to be effective against nightmares and bad dreams. I’m really not very interested in having a scientists tell me that I am imagining things, because they believe something they read in a book.

    In fact, the “consensus” on the subject is notes clear as is implied. In France, all pharmacists are trained in homeopathic prescriptions, and if you go to a Pharmacy with a general complaint, say insomnia, you are quite likely to be given a homeopathic treatment, or one with melatonin and herbs in. The pharmacist prescribes this because they have had good reports of its use by other customers. This is a type of “knowledge” based on experience rather than a priori reasoning, and actually corresponds to the philosopher’s epistemological definition of knowledge as “justified true belief.” In fact, this whole question would benefit from a bit of epistemological rigour

    Reply
    1. PlutoniumKun

      Another angle on this is what used to be called ‘The Homer Simpson’ problem. Put simply – scientists and engineers assume that nuclear plants are safe because they assume that all reasonable safety procedures will be followed. The general public assume that at some stage Homer Simpson will be in charge of safety – and we all know some Homer Simpsons.

      This isn’t a minor issue – I’ve been in many, many meetings where technical safety issues were dismissed out of hand on the basis that ‘the guidelines/standards are being followed’. Its literally a mantra which had no bearing on the reality of the particulars of the design or situation. I’ve known situations where individually the engineers/scientists in question will agree in private that the particular guidelines are useless, but collectively, they still fall back on them. It is, in effect, a type of appeal to authority, and we know the PMC classes (and most engineers) love this.

      Reply
      1. Watt4Bob

        Taxi driver story;

        I once gave a ride to to an engineer who worked on nuclear power plants.

        The conversation got to the issue of safety and he explained how the technology was so safe and the people who built and ran the plants were qualified and ethical.

        I explained my unease concerned the point where something goes wrong and the qualified and ethical engineering staff call the home office to explain the necessity of evacuation, and management delays action because of the negative impact on the ‘business‘ side of things.

        He said;

        “Oh yeah, I worry about that too.”

        Reply
    2. cfraenkel

      You’re conflating two different things. Arnica in particular, and ‘substances’ in general aren’t homeopathy – they’re better described as folk remedies. Science can’t say they either ‘work’ or don’t ‘work’ because there is no evidence one way or another. Most of the time, no one has even looked. Or to be less charitable, there isn’t any money in looking.

      Homeopathy is a different thing. It’s the claim that the lack of a substance is enough to ‘work’. Homeopathic products have been diluted to where there isn’t a single molecule of the ‘active’ ingredient in the product. There’s some hand waving about the product ‘remembering’ the ingredient used to be there.

      Put me down with the ‘obvious snake oil’ camp on this one.

      Reply
      1. David

        No, I’m not, he said, checking the tube. For jet-lag, I take homeopathic Arnica 30x. It works, for me and a number of other people I’ve met.

        Reply
          1. David

            Not to be rude either, but you perfectly illustrate my point about a priori reasoning as opposed to pragmatic judgements based on evidence. It can’t work because it shouldn’t work. I always refer people to the discussion between Galileo and one of the Cardinals in Brecht’s play, where the Cardinal refuses to look through the telescope because the moons of Jupiter can’t exist, therefore the telescope must be faulty. There’s a simple epistemological issue here between different types of knowledge: knowledge from books (ie knowledge from established authority, which is subjective) vs knowledge from experience, which is objective. “I’m not going to take my umbrella because the forecast says it won’t rain. Those drops that look like water must be just an illusion.”

            Reply
  13. ddt

    Homeopathy might not be real but it sure cured me of my asthma in my 20s. So, hooray placebo effect? Or maybe I am delusional and still have asthma? (Though it’s been years and years since I used an inhaler bestowed upon me and my health by evidence-based western medicine)…

    Reply
    1. ddt

      I was editing the above to add, a question: how does personal experience weigh in on the whole “knowledge overconfidence” and imagination of vain things?

      It was mentioned that there was consensus mRNA vaccines had failed up till operation warp speed. Suddenly we were all supposed to accept that the vaccines were “safe and effective” or else we were anti-science. My employer at the time, Kaiser Permanente pulled all the stops to reiterate this. I remained a sceptic and was in the minority (father passed from myocarditis and I read the incidence reports out of Israel where vax rates were really high).

      Reply
  14. Rolf

    Thank you, KLG, for this piece (and for the Whig link), and to Yves for posting.

    … the upcoming responses to a pandemic that is not over but has enriched Big Pharma are likely to be fierce.

    That is certainly my hope.

    2. Helping people focus on their own lack of knowledge might help (I have no idea how this could work and not be utterly insulting and condescending).

    I think this is a critical point in public education. Some steps that would help are for public-facing scientists to be far more forthcoming about what they do not fully understand, about how links in their chain of observation and understanding are subject to revision or complete disposal, to start the ball rolling — I say this as a practicing scientist. Many of my professional colleagues — particularly the ones I was lucky enough to train under, were quite humble in this respect, but more recently it seems the ones who covet the limelight the most are also the ones that see no harm in overselling their understanding, regardless of the audience.

    Reply
  15. Mikel

    “Vaccination is the act of introducing a vaccine into the body to produce immunity to a specific disease.”

    I agree.
    But does the current “consensus”?

    Reply
  16. Boomheist

    Great paper. Couple things: 1) re vaccines and COVID. I am a healthy 76 year old male, with, as far as I know, no co-morbidities except age, so I thought I should survive COVID if I got it, but might very well infect friends and relatives who were vulnerable, and didn’t want to do that. The new Warp Speed vaccines made me nervous, as they were based on a new structure, and I resisted getting the shot, but then Johnson and Johnson came out with another type, based on earlier structures, and my wife and I took this one. I took it knowing I was more likely to get COVID than the other two BUT it seemed the chances of real sickness were far less. In other words, this was something I chose to take so I would not die. As far as infecting others, our view was (and is) it is our responsibility to wear masks around others in close spaces, plus avoid being around little children – grandchildren – as there was then a risk they might fall ill. But we knew, when we took the shot, we might get COVID, and if we did we might be infectious, but our chances of less severe illness was much greater. And we have taken boosters since under the same view. COVID was obviously airborne (to us) and we have been careful and so far, as far as we know (symptomless COVID) have not caught it. The long COVID data is very scary, and we have avoided airplanes, in other words we continue to live a restricted life compared to earlier because this thing is not over yet. Maybe we are being stupid, blind, ignorant, or entitled, but our sense is that these vaccines carry some risk but generally help defer the worst risks. On a more general scale, life is risky, lots of things can go wrong, and every day we are making risk assessments and taking actions (or not). Somehow it seems as if great blocs of people thought the vaccine would eliminate ALL risk, ALL danger, and maybe they were told this by their peers or government talking heads, but it seemed to us that taking the vaccines, even if new and not that effective, was better than not taking them, and still is. Our judgement.

    2. As regards scientific consensus and theory, it seems there is also a thread whereby scientific theory arises from, or is used to support, political and government and cultural policy. It is not coincidental that Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” emerged during the time of European colonial expansion and resource extraction as the Industrial Age exploded. The science justified the actions taken. It may be that in the future an argument will emerge that the current hysteria over climate change will be seen to neatly coincide with the development of a new world order controlling all things resource-related.

    Reply
    1. Mikel

      “It may be that in the future an argument will emerge that the current hysteria over climate change will be seen to neatly coincide with the development of a new world order controlling all things resource-related.”

      May not have to wait that long.

      Reply
    2. Tom Doak

      On a more general scale, life is risky, lots of things can go wrong, and every day we are making risk assessments and taking actions (or not). Somehow it seems as if great blocs of people thought the vaccine would eliminate ALL risk, ALL danger, and maybe they were told this by their peers or government talking heads, but it seemed to us that taking the vaccines, even if new and not that effective, was better than not taking them, and still is.

      Most of the people I know who hand-waved away Zero Covid did not believe the vaccine would eliminate risk. They just decided, “Life is risky, we only have so many days left, gotta accept the risk, hopefully mitigated by the vaccine [or not]”. They are not willing to give up life as they knew it, for something they have no control over.

      Reply
      1. Yves Smith Post author

        I gather you concur that this is just wishful thinking. Life as they knew it is never coming back. They will get sicker and have shorter and less functional lives, since they are assuring they will get Covid over and over and over again. The US will be burdened with health care demands that will break the system. Life expectancy in the US has already fallen by 2 years since the start Covid, while it is still rising in China.

        The US’s life expectancy continued its decline from 2020 to 2021, dropping sharply to 76.1 years.

        With the latest decline, US life expectancy is now at its lowest since 1996, according to new data (pdf) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) National Center for Health Statistics. It also means that the gap in longevity at birth between people in the US and China has now widened to a full year.

        The biggest driver in the drop in US life expectancy is covid, accounting for 50% of the decline, according to the CDC. Government figures show that as of Aug. 31, over 1.04 million deaths in the US have been attributed to covid.

        https://qz.com/china-life-expectancy-exceeds-us-1849483265

        Reply
        1. Basil Pesto

          Yes, the “life is risky” line, as far as it is used to rationalise the most laissez-faire approach to Covid as possible (I’m not saying this is what Boomheist was doing), is a ridiculous cop out when you subject it to but a moment’s scrutiny. As much of an inane truism as “life goes on”. True but trivial (relative risk burdens related to public health are presumably one reason that people born in the developed world have historically chosen to live and work for the most part in the developed world and not, say, sub-Saharan Africa), and our policies will have consequences that will haunt us for generations to come (one salient example is this brand new reinfection study released today by Ziyad Al-Aly et al). The 30,000 ft overview quite simple, really, and has been since 2020:

          1. humans, generally, will die younger
          2. they will, generally, live less healthful lives than has been the standard in the developed world for the last hundred years or so. we don’t quite know how bad this could get yet, but signs from what we know about the disease so far are pretty bad.

          As Yves says, because “Zero Covid” (a silly moniker, really, to make something that should have been utterly uncontroversial seem exceptional; we didn’t bitch about Zero SARS1 20 years ago, in fact we didn’t have to think about it at all because we just got on with doing it) was so cruelly tossed aside, there will be no return to life as we knew it. The pragmatic reality of the situation (on an every-man-for-himself basis, assuming public health remains in its now-destroyed state for some time to come) is now very simple, in general terms (there will of course be exceptions): if we don’t adapt to the miserable new reality we have made for ourselves (masks, ventilation, any other infection prevention strategies that emerge), then we will be made to suffer.

          Mr Doak’s friends’ dismissal of ZC refects a grave misapprehension. Two actually: 1. we do have the ability, collectively, to bring the problem under control, and always will; and 2. it was always the strategy most maximally in favour of preserving life as we know it, of preserving the developed world’s freedom from a disproportionate burden of dangerous infectious diseases. I think we are going to miss it terribly (probably when all the early onset dementia kicks in). And all because we failed a sort-of civilisational equivalent of the marshmallow test.

          Reply
  17. Steven

    I was expecting the post would be about the over-use of the ‘noble lie’ by the PMC. But the author gets much closer to the core of the problem. People crave certainty. When they are continually promised a science-based answer that turns out to be little more that self-promotion by one branch or another of the PMC, answers that are tentative at best, they stop believing pretty much everything the PMC has to say. Harnessing ‘science’ by the CDC and the country’s political leadership to the preservation of the status quo and business as usual in the midst of a pandemic is a good example. So is trying to game the response to global warming instead of facing up to the urgency of the need for immediate action.

    Then there are the practitioners of geopolitics. To call geopolitics a science is stretching it but to call practitioners willing to consign the world to climate hell ‘mad men and women’, while they continue playing great games is not.

    Reply
  18. semper loquitur

    Thanks for the excellent write up, KLG, it’s bookmarked. This line jumped out at me:

    “uncertainty is inherent to science.”

    Good science understands this, I dare say. Good science follows the Middle Path.

    Reply
  19. PlutoniumKun

    Many years ago this was precisely the subject of a thesis I wrote (specifically on the topic of interpreting scientific uncertainty into public policy). It wasn’t a particularly good thesis, but I did learn a lot from the literature.

    Developing scientific consensus on important topics of public interest is vital, but it is fraught with problems, not least that many scientists are woefully ill-equipped to understand the broader implications of their research. On a fundamental level, many brilliant scientists fall badly into Dunning Kruger land when they stray outside of their areas of expertise. Even on the ‘micro’ level this can be a problem – many of the well known replication problems in many areas of science can often be traced back to the writers and peer reviewers of papers not truly understanding the statistical methods they are using. E.O Wilson wrote a long time about the problem of biologists and other scientists having to be ‘part time’ statisticians leading to brilliant field scientists who struggled with the maths falling out of science and lots and lots of bad papers. He maintained that almost every science paper should be co-written by a proper statistician. There can be little doubt that if his advice was followed there would be far fewer bad papers published.

    And of course ‘scientists’ are not a unified whole. In the literature on scientific failure you get many examples of self selected groups of scientists coming to horrible conclusions on the basis of a very narrow view of the science. One of the most famous examples is the UK failure to anticipate Chernobyl fall out being significant. A line up of the great and good of Oxbridge assured the public there was no possibility of fall out being high enough to impact on the food supply. But the scientific committees were entirely made up of physicists. Nobody thought to consult the soil scientists (mostly from ‘lesser’ universities, somewhere up north) who were well aware that a mix of acid soils and nuclear fall out could result in bioconcentration in grazing animals.

    The GM food is a particular example of a bad faith use of scientific consensus. It is entirely fair to say that there is minimal (but not zero) evidence of the safety of GM foods. The problem is, thats not what the vast majority of campaigners are worried about. The primary problem of GM foods is the narrowing of the genetic diversity of our food crops, the way in which it encourages far more use of chemical inputs, and corporate control of the seed supply. But since newspapers focus on the ‘safety’ aspect, advocates happily fall on that narrow conceptualization of the issue, and so can line up a ‘consensus’ on a question which nobody is really interested in.

    Reply
    1. molon labe

      Another concern with GM food is the greater use of herbicides and pesticides to which they are they are resistant.

      Reply
    2. Watt4Bob

      The GM food is a particular example of a bad faith use of scientific consensus.

      And the wide-spread, bad faith use of scientific consensus by corporate ‘stake-holders‘, suspected by a lot of folks who cannot mount a credible critique, but none the less distrust the sources, is a legitimate reason to be skeptical.

      Why do so many act as if they think you have to have a masters degree in order to question authority?

      I used to work on roofing crews in the summer, one of my bosses used to say that a bank president or a school principle will never ask any questions about the job we’re doing, for fear of looking stupid, but any farmer will not only climb up the ladder, but ask a question that totally stumps you.

      Reply
  20. Adam Eran

    bacillus thuringiensis (BT) is a natural pesticide. Then Monsanto made the GMO BT corn. The bacteria don’t last long enough in nature for insects to develop immunity, but the BT pesticide is in the corn all season long. This means Monsanto is destroying the efficacy of a natural pesticide. I’d say they owe organic farmers at least compensation.

    So no…it’s not necessarily harmful to eat GMO stuff, but eating is not the only place the harm appears.

    Reply
  21. Anthony G Stegman

    Perhaps the “wisdom of the crowds” ought to be taken into consideration and not be disparaged by the “experts”.

    Reply
  22. KD

    “A main cause of philosophical disease-an unbalanced diet: one nourishes one’s thinking with only one kind of example.” L. Wittgenstein

    While the above affects philosophers, it also affects economists, social theorists and even biologists.

    Empirical studies are great, but to conduct an empirical study, you have to look at something, and if by virtue of philosophical habit, you aren’t looking in a particular direction, you won’t find anything. Instead of this meaning your philosophical habit is correct as there is no evidence, it may simply reflect the failure to look.

    Further, it is not enough to be anti-consensus. There is stupid anti-consensus, and informed anti-consensus. With respect to the latter, there is often something important to be learned or gained because sometimes what is more important than being right or wrong is understanding how you got to a particular position–that is to say insight into the process. I would take an informed anti-consensus viewpoint over a stupid consensus person any day, because the latter is simply repeating and has no insight into why they are repeating it.. . knowledge without wisdom or understanding.

    Further, a world in which PMC run around and accuse people of being anti-consensus to shut them up is an even stupider world than the one in which we live. May the dialectic of understanding continue to unfold.

    Reply
  23. KD

    The other science/religion issue is that groups have *shared beliefs* that give rise to a shared *group identity*. For example, for someone like me, whether I believe in evolution or not, it doesn’t really matter. However, for some, *believing in evolution* puts them outside their group.

    Since these groups based around shared identity often cooperate and act as mutual aid societies, it may be more important to the survival of members of the group to contribute to the survival of the group by spouting the orthodoxy of the group (plus, humans are social conformists, not truth-seekers, and that may be why on the whole we make shitty rationalists even when we try). I think Ibn Sina formulated his “two truths” theory, which got him into trouble, but I tend to think he was on to something, because there is stuff people say because it signals membership in their group, and there is stuff people say based on experience, knowledge, or scientific investigation which may contradict it, but you are talking about two separate tracks (studying the evolution of yeast in a laboratory vs. being confirmed as a Catholic) .

    Reply
  24. Alice X

    Many excellent comments. The party may be over but I’ll head out right over my skis to start, anyway.

    The Big Bang may be an unfortunate description. I think of whatever happened as a big transition. All of the mass and energy of the universe existed at the point of transition which also was all of the space of the universe. I don’t believe there was anything outside of that universe, which is a really difficult thing to wrap one’s head around. The theory that nothing can travel through space faster than the speed of light has held up very well. However space itself can expand many times faster than the speed of light, and this is what happened for some time after the transition. During the first microseconds the laws of physics as presently understood did not apply. It has been described that it took 300,000 years for the density to diminish such that light could travel. But that is 300,000 years to us, to the photons reaching us now, no time has elapsed at all. Those first microseconds are unfathomable as time itself, whatever it is, could have been very different. The universe was not created, as it existed before the transition, but I don’t see how there can ever be data for that as it was wiped away in the transition. Is there anything outside of the universe? I don’t see how there can be any data for that either. So that’s my view, which is always subject to revision with new information. It is kind of difficult to put that into a 7 point scale.

    Reply
  25. Recovering Milennial

    Nice quote of Psalm 2.

    This phenomenon has implications in both directions.

    Those opposed to guns are likely to have less objective knowledge about guns. Those opposed to homeschooling are likely to have less objective knowledge about homeschooling.

    But so what? Whether their recommendations should be followed depends on the strength of their arguments and the premises of the particular argument they’re making, not their general knowledge. Robert Cialdini covers this well in the “Authority” chapter of his book Influence. People often get themselves into disasters when they suspend their critical faculties on the behavior and judgment of a subject matter expert.

    Reply
  26. Karl

    Footnote #4 seems important, highlighting the difference between science and “scientism”. I suspect this concerns “science” vs. the “guise of science”. An example is the purported 7-point “Likert” scale, which seems very “scientific” but is a “scientistic” facade:

    7-point Likert scale: Definitely false, Probably false, Maybe false, Not sure, Maybe true, Probably true, Definitely true.

    When you venture outside of the “hard” sciences and into areas of greater socio-economic-political complexity (nuclear power, homeopathy, GM foods) this scale is meaningless without more nuance and caveats. Example:

    “Nuclear power is necessary and should be expanded to mitigate the effects of climate change.”

    A more accurate statement would include a number of crucial caveats:

    “Safe, affordable nuclear power and nuclear waste disposal is necessary….”

    With these caveats you aren’t describing something that exists but rather a unicorn. But polling lay opinion on any complex topic is probably also pursuing a unicorn.

    Many senior level decision makers in large organizations don’t seem much better than the laity with complexity and nuance. For example, today, the Fed seems to embrace the following simplistic meme as a consensus view: “raising interest rates is the correct macro-economic response to rising inflation.” But here we are, with rising interest rates because Fed economists practice economic “scientism,” not anything approaching science with the necessary nuance.

    Probably the Fed, the CDC and other “objective” organizations, with their armies of specialists, are not applying the “scientific method” but the “scientistic method.” Perhaps this is why so many outside the PMC feel they are getting guidance based not on science but ideology. “Cultural cognition” presented as fact.

    Reply
  27. rob

    Then there is cognitive dissonance.
    People really don’t WANT to know the truth.
    the truth is ugly. it implies too much complicity, for too many people.
    It destabilizes their world view. the myth they want to believe about themselves, and those they look up to.
    But how does something so important, as 9/11… go un reported… for so long?
    https://ine.uaf.edu/wtc7

    the pretense people have who claim to be arbiters of “what is real”, and “what isn’t”. The hypocrisy of it all.

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