The 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.
TO BE CONTINUED……
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