Sunday, May 27 , 2018, 7:52 am | Fair 52º


Victor Dominocielo: The Scientific Manufactroversy

Take an issue on which almost all scientists agree, find the few and rare proponents of an alternate position, and have an attention-getting disagreement between science and belief. Often the scientific experts will be pitted against a “man on the street” opinion or well-known personalities in other scientific fields of study or even completely different fields such as politics or religion.

The media are mostly responsible for creating this type of “news structuring” or manufacturing a controversy. News stories on which almost all experts agree are considered kind of boring information and only of interest to a narrow segment of the population. So the media will go out of their way to find odd, rare and exotic views. People tend to pay much more attention when an emotional argument is taking place, and reporters convince themselves that they are only trying to fairly portray both sides of the story.

Also, the construction of doubt (where there is none) helps generate larger audiences. This is why National Geographic has Chasing UFOs in its program lineup and the History Channel has Cryptid: the Swamp Beast and The Legend of Bigfoot. Most unfortunately, the Science channel has programs on The Russian Yeti, Voodoo Zombies, Life After Death and Shadow People (i.e. ghosts) all designed to entice the viewer of the “possibilities” of this nonsense. The History Channel even has this ridiculous byline in its Cryptid Faq Section: “That’s part of the fun! ... You don’t know where the truth ends and superstition begins.” This is history? Really?

Another problem in the age of Google is the “My Expert versus Your Expert” dilemma. You can always find an expert to support your point of view no matter how improbable. There‘s always a seemingly rational argument on the other side. Kurt Weis has a Ph.D. in geology from Harvard University, and thinks the Earth is less than 10,000 years old! Talk about mixing science with belief and opinion and creating … well, creating a Young Earth Creationist.

Most of these Manufactroversies can be dismissed by looking at the preponderance of scientific evidence for both sides of the issue. How many Harvard-educated geologists are there who believe that the Earth is about 10,000 years old? One? OK, maybe two? Most all other geologists agree on the evidence, definitive since 1926, that the Earth is about 4.55 billion years old. So, there is no scientific controversy about the age of the Earth.

Likewise, there is also no scientific controversy about evolution. Since Charles Darwin published in 1859, all biologists have come to agree with Russian geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky: “Nothing in biology makes sense, except in the light of evolution.” There are a lot of theological arguments against evolution, various beliefs about the origin of life and an unending number of contrary opinions — but no scientific evidence.

In fact, the process of evolution is so essentially intertwined with the existence of life that evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins observed in his book The Blind Watchmaker that, “I want to persuade the reader not just that Darwinian world-view happens to be true, but that it is the only known theory that could, in principle, solve the mystery of our existence. ... A good case can be made that Darwinism is true, not just on this planet, but all over the universe wherever life may be found" (ix - x).

So, where does the preponderance of scientific evidence lie? One hundred fifty-six years of evidence demonstrating that small changes from generation to generation (microevolution) accumulate over millions of years to produce new species — or the beliefs and opinions of certain religious groups. Everyone is entitled to their beliefs and opinions, but just don’t make the mistake of calling those ideas scientific.

Anti-vaccination proponents have a particularly difficult scientific case to make. Vaccinations have been used since the time of Dr. Edward Jenner in 1796. In the last 219 years, vaccinations have proved to be the best and most effective medical technique ever devised, saving more lives than any other medical procedure by significantly reducing and eliminating many diseases that have been the scourge of the human race (smallpox, polio, malaria, measles and rubella, to name but a few). The World Health Organization estimates that 6 million lives are saved each year worldwide due to vaccinations.

Where does the preponderance of evidence lie? Against over 200 years of scientific evidence, there is one fraudulent study by disgraced ex-physician Andrew Wakefield, Jenny McCarthy’s musings about autism and a group of vocal conspiracy theorists who are very upset that Big Pharma is making money and poisoning us all. Go figure.

Another recently manufactured scientific controversy within the medical establishment is due to the attitude, among some physicians, of “clinical supremacy.” That is, some doctors can get so good at their clinical practice that they might eschew the scientific research on a treatment and pursue their own methods of treatment.

There is currently no better example of this than some doctors designating themselves as Lyme Literate MDs (LLMD). Instead of following the research in infectious disease and instead of adhering to the standards set by the Infectious Diseases Society of America and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these few doctors treat patients according to their personal clinical results. In doing so, they are subject to the bias and placebo results that scientific research is designed to eliminate.

Our human tendency towards confirmation bias almost guarantees that we will find whatever proposition or idea that we go looking for because, even if there isn’t any evidence, we will reliably manufacture it. Scientific methodology is the only way out of this slavery to our personal biases and beliefs and a guide to how the natural world works.

It sometimes happens in science that an Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking comes along with game-changing discoveries that rock the scientific establishment. However, science usually just plods along, incrementally building on what has gone before and making small discoveries and changes that slowly improve our world. It is a fair certainty that creationists, anti-vaxers and Lyme Literate MDs are no Einsteins. In these cases of manufactured scientific controversy, looking at where the preponderance of evidence lies resolves any questions about the proper direction of science.

— Victor Dominocielo, M.A., a California-credentialed teacher for 37 years, is the human biology and health teacher at a local middle school. He earned his master of arts degree in education from UCSB. The opinions expressed are his own.

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