Evidence Shmevidence 2: Consensus Nonsense

Evidence Shmevidence - Consensus nonsensePreviously, on Zongo’s Cancer Diaries….

The world is full of ideas….. How do you decide which ideas are right?  Which ones to believe?…. You would want to see the evidence…Right?   But some people believe in all sorts of stuff…. And when you get down to it, their arguments always seem to involve the same two claims:

1) “Well, science hasn’t disproved it yet, has it?”

2) “You’re only against it because it goes against the Scientific Consensus!”



So, my last post addressed the first argument above, the “science hasn’t disproved it” one.  In this post, I’ll be talking about the second argument, the “Scientific Consensus” one.

This is one of the hoariest pieces of nonsense that the Anti-science brigade come up with.  I’ve come across this type of statement over and over again.  A lot of them act like there is this strange, all-powerful entity called SCIENCE, standing over humanity and dictating “THE TRUTH” from on high….”I Am SCIENCE! I Have SPOKEN!”  And I’ll often come across criticisms of scientists that run along the lines of, “Science should do this…Science should do that…Science doesn’t agree with this…..Science is scared of that…”

But the world doesn’t work like that.  The “scientific consensus” is not one booming, scary voice barking out orders.  And there isn’t a list of SCIENTIFIC TRUTHS that are decreed from on high and which we all believe with religious fervour.   Believe me, having spent 20 years working in a research lab and having met plenty of professors and senior academics, I can tell you that if you stick a bunch of them in a room and try and tell them what to believe, you’ll start a bloody riot!   (Although actually, if you stick a bunch of senior academics in a room, they are more likely to start squabbling about who should sit at the head of the table and who gets first dibs on the chocolate biscuits, than they are to try and proclaim “THE TRUTH”.)

Instead, science advances by experimentation and testing of hypotheses.  This leads to the construction of new theories and hypotheses, which are then interrogated by experimentation in turn.  And who is it that is doing all this?  Individuals.  That is how the real world works: by having individual scientists working in their own areas of interest, sometimes in collaboration, sometimes in competition.  And each individual scientist will have their own beliefs and opinions, which they form by reviewing the evidence in their own field and coming to their own conclusions.  Independently.

And the scientific consensus is just that. A consensus.  If a majority of individuals independently come to the same conclusion, then that becomes the consensus view.  And that’s all the consensus is.  It is simply the view point that is held by the majority – not everyone – just the majority. So, if you want to change this consensus view, you don’t do it by trying to convince a non-existent SCIENCE, you do it by convincing individual scientists.  Convince enough individuals, and the overall, majority consensus view will change.

That’s it.  No decrees from on high.  Just a big number of individual scientists that need to be convinced.  Individually.

But, unfortunately, there are a helluva lot of people out there who can’t accept this, and still cling to the idea of the scientific consensus as an almighty Thing proclaiming “THE TRUTH” from its Ivory Tower.  And, according to research into public perception (as described here), it seems that whether or not you agree with the consensus has very little to do with the actual evidence that exists, and a damn sight more to do with your pre-existing beliefs and values.  People don’t like to be challenged.  That is why some scientific facts for which there is overwhelming evidence – like evolution, like global warming, like the fact that homeopathy doesn’t work – these ideas are still resisted.

But, I urge you all: don’t take any old claim at face value.  Look at the evidence.  Where does it come from?  Is it reliable?  And question the evidence…. Even if it contradicts your own long-held beliefs.  If you do, you’ll be taking part in the scientific process.  You can add your voice to the consensus.  Who knows, you may be able to make a difference.

…But, if this doesn’t appeal to you and you are still content to accept outrageous claims without evidence…… then can I interest you in helping me transfer $4 billion from the Nigerian Finance Ministry?

Just send me your bank details and I’ll happily get to work…..

Kahan, D., Jenkins‐Smith, H., & Braman, D. (2011). Cultural cognition of scientific consensus Journal of Risk Research, 14 (2), 147-174 DOI: 10.1080/13669877.2010.511246


AG McCluskey (2016). Evidence Shmevidence 2: Consensus Nonsense Zongo’s Cancer Diaries


Evidence, Shmevidence

Consensus NonsensusThe world is full of ideas.  Lots of ideas.  Some of them are good ideas.  Some of them are bad ideas.  Some of them are sensible.  And some of them are insane.  Now, how do you decide which ideas are right?  Which ones to believe?

…And how do you decide which ideas are nonsense, and which ones are nuts?

Now, if you are sane and rational, then the way you will do this is by looking at the evidence.  So, if someone emails you, claiming to be the Nigerian Finance Minister who wants to transfer $4 billion into your bank account, you wouldn’t just say “Fair enough, here’s my account number…”  I mean, you wouldn’t just take what they say at face value and hand over your details.  You would want to see hard evidence that they are on the level.  Right?  RIGHT? 

At least, I hope that’s right.  But as a scientist, there is a strange phenomenon that I often come across.  One that seems to contradict this fairly sensible notion.  There are a helluva lot of people out there who don’t look at the evidence before accepting something.  On the contrary, they seem accept some ideas – some fairly whack-a-doodle ideas – at face value.  And jump right in, with great enthusiasm.

So, for example, if someone tells you that you have a psychic aura that makes you happy or sad, unsuccessful or successful – and that they can change it for you using a special Gizmo, for only $29.95 + postage & packaging…. Would you just accept that, or would you want to see proof that they could do what they say they can?  Well, funnily enough, it seems that there are plenty of people out there who would accept this sort of claim without evidence.

But, but ….. the website above does have evidence….right?  After all, there are loads of quotes from people saying they used the Aura Gizmo, and it worked.  So it must be true.  After all, faceless, nameless strangers wouldn’t just lie about something like that, would they…?

The sad thing is, there are plenty of people out there who will accept this sort of unverified testimony as evidence.  But it isn’t.  Not even close.  Who are the people making these claims?  How can you trust their motives, when you don’t know who they are?  Or why they are saying it?  But lots of people do.  Fervently.  And if someone comes along and says, “Hold on, how can you make these claims?  Where is the evidence – proper, hard evidence – for this?” well, that person is likely to be, at best, ignored, and at worst, subjected to abuse.

The world is full of stuff like this.  I’ve been involved in many arguments with people who believe in all sorts of stuff.  Fair enough, they are free to believe anything they like.  But when challenged to actually provide proper evidence to support their beliefs, they get defensive.   And when you get down to it, their counter arguments always seem to involve the same two claims:

1) “Well, science hasn’t disproved it yet, has it?”

2) “You’re only against it because it goes against the Scientific Consensus!”

Arguments like these show a peculiar misunderstanding of what science is, and how it works.  But that’s one of the big problems with Woo-merchants & conspiracy theorists – their lack of understanding.  So, taking the first argument, this idea seems to suggest that it is up to science, and scientists to disprove the claims made by Woo-merchants and that, until they do, we should be “open-minded” and accept any old claim until it has been disproven.  This is the wrong way round.  It is not a scientist’s job to take unproven claims at face value and investigate them.  Consider how many outrageous claims have been made….psychic auras….energy fields….homeopathy….cannabis as cancer cure…  The list goes on.

Scientists can’t just drop what they are doing (and what they are PAID to be doing, remember) to spend time debunking any old claim.  There isn’t enough time in the world to do that.  The way the scientific process REALLY works is simple:  If anyone believes that homeopathy works, or that Special Pendulums can remove negative auras, then the onus is on that person to do the work to provide verifiable evidence for his/her claims.  That’s how scientists work. If you make a claim, then you need to back it up.  So in short, I don’t need to prove the Aura pendulums DON’T work, the makers need to prove that they DO.

And by “evidence”, I don’t mean anecdotal “it worked for me” type testimonials.  These are utterly worthless, because a) you can’t trust that the people making them are telling the truth; b) they might have their own agenda, or biases which makes them want to believe it’s true; c) they might be guilty of cherry-picking, ie. only reporting the 20 cases where it did work, but not reporting the 2,000,000 when it didn’t.


So that is argument No.1

…And I’ll deal with the second argument next time.



Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, Rachel J. Ammirati (2015). Science Versus Pseudoscience The Encyclopedia of Clinical Psychology DOI: 10.1002/9781118625392.wbecp572


AG McCluskey (2016). Evidence, Shmevidence Zongo’s Cancer Diaries

Bring Me Sunshine…

Bring me sunshineAnother day, another Press Release…..

“No safe way to suntan, new NICE guidance warns”

Just what is their problem?  After all, the sun is our friend….right?  Keeps us warm…makes plants grow…helps us make Vitamin D, thus avoiding rickets…gives us a reason to skip work and head off to the park or the beach with a crate of beers…  And everyone loves a suntan.  Makes you look healthy.  So why have NICE got such a downer on suntans & sun exposure.

One word:  Melanoma.

According to Cancer Research UK, Melanoma (ie. skin cancer) rates have been increasing steadily since the mid-1970’s.  Now part of this may be due to improved detection rates, but mostly it is put down to the massive increase in foreign beach holidays over the last 40 years.

Since the 1970’s, more of us have gotten used to going somewhere hot on holidays and spending 1-2 weeks lying on the beach, or by the pool, sizzling away.  And that can be dangerous, because sunlight contains a lot of Ultra Violet (UV) radiation, and it’s been long known that UV can damage DNA and lead to potentially dangerous mutations is human skin cells.

In point of fact, that is why you get a suntan in the first place.  I’ve spoken before (back in Trumpity-Trump) about the way that cells respond to damage, by putting the brakes on cell growth and activating repair mechanisms.  Well, there are other protective mechanisms inside cells, which are there to try and stop damage occurring in the first place.  If a cell is subjected to stress, or detects that there is something in the environment that is potentially damaging, it can respond by making proteins that will act to protect it.

We scientists lump them all together under the umbrella term Heat Shock Proteins (HSPs), because they were first discovered by heating up cells to see how they react.  But they aren’t just activated by heat, but by other damaging mechanisms.  And for skin cells, one thing that has the potential to create dangerous amounts of DNA damage is UV radiation.

Now, as I said, UV is a major component of sunlight.  And the stronger the sunlight, the higher the levels of UV.  So, if you expose your skin to strong sunlight, as you do when you are sunbathing, your skin cells will detect the increase in UV radiation, and try to protect themselves from UV-induced damage.  And one of the main ways they do this is by producing a range of HSPs known as Melanins.

Melanins are dark coloured pigments, and in skin cells there are two main types, the Eumelanins, which range from brown to black coloured and the Pheomelanins which range from pink to dark red.  Melanins are responsible for skin pigmentation – and also for hair colouring:  brown and black hair are due to the production of Eumelanins, while red hair is caused by Pheomelanins.

But, more importantly, Melanins can act to absorb UV light.  So, if skin cells detect increased UV radiation, they start to make Melanins, which absorb the UV and stop it from damaging the cells’ DNA.  Now, the upshot of this is that, because the skin cells are making more of the dark coloured pigment, the cells themselves will start to go darker.  If this keeps happening….Bingo!  The skin tans**.  And that is what you see.  That is what a suntan is.  It is the cells in your skin trying to protect themselves from the damaging effects of UV light.  And if this protection fails completely, the skin cells get damaged & burned: sunburn.  And the more damage, the bigger the risk that this damage will result in DNA alterations which could become cancerous.

The protective effects of Melanin production are well known.  And, obviously, the more Melanin that is made the better the protection.  And if the Melanin production is constant, that is better still.  This is why, according to Cancer Research UK, people from the Black & Asian communities have lower rates of skin cancer than White people.

But what this new press release tells us, is that the dangers from over-exposure to UV light MASSIVELY outweigh any protective effects of suntan-induced Melanin production.

So, remember!  Next time you are lying on the beach, admiring your tan, think what is really going on.  Your skin is only tanning because you are trying to hurt it.  Just watch out that it doesn’t try to hurt you back with Melanoma……..

** As an aside, the fact that there are different types of Melanin may also explain another peculiar effect that many people have noticed.  People who use a sunbed tend to go orange, rather than brown.  One explanation for this is that, just as Melanin is not one thing, but a range of different things (grouped as Eumelanins and Pheomelanins), UV radiation is not one thing either, but is a range of different wavelengths of light.  So, the theory is that different wavelengths of UV light are absorbed by different specific types of Melanin.  The sun produces the whole range of UV, therefore your skin makes the whole range of Melanins in response.  But, as the UV produced by a sunbed is artificial, it doesn’t have the whole range of wavelengths, so the skin makes less of the browny-black Eumelanins and more of the pinky-red Pheomelanins.  The upshot being that the artificially produced suntan from a sunbed looks less brown and more orange.


NICE (2016). Sunlight exposure: risks and benefits National Institute for Health & Care Excellence

Cancer Research UK (2016). Skin cancer incidence statistics CRUK website

Newton-Bishop, J., Chang, Y., Elliott, F., Chan, M., Leake, S., Karpavicius, B., Haynes, S., Fitzgibbon, E., Kukalizch, K., Randerson-Moor, J., Elder, D., Bishop, D., & Barrett, J. (2011). Relationship between sun exposure and melanoma risk for tumours in different body sites in a large case-control study in a temperate climate European Journal of Cancer, 47 (5), 732-741 DOI: 10.1016/j.ejca.2010.10.008


AG McCluskey (2016). Bring Me Sunshine… Zongo’s Cancer Diaries