Doug Axe has a new post over on EnV: "Public Opinion Is the Ultimate Peer Review" and as you can guess I disagree with a lot of what he says. He is, in my opinion, taking a commencement speech way out of context. The original speech was printed up in the New Yorker, "The Mistrust of Science" and, in my opinion is a damn good speech. Before getting into Doug's spin, I want to look at the commencement address myself.
The speaker, Atul Gawande, is a contributor to The New Yorker for quite a while. He's also an author, a surgeon, a professor, the executive director of Ariadne Labs, a joint center for health-systems innovation, and the chairman of Lifebox, a nonprofit organization making surgery safer globally. His main topic for this particular speech is dealing with the public's growing mistrust of science. I am not terribly surprised that someone from the Discovery Institute is commenting on the speech, after all they are one of the main purveyors of scientific mistrust, are they not? Let's see . . . evolution is ONLY a theory . . . teach the controversy . . . Darwin caused the Holocaust . . . let's re-baptize Jefferson, Wallace, even Superman as ID proponents . . . they claim scientific status without using any scientific methodology . . . yea, definitely purveyors of scientific mistrust.
This is a great speech and one I hope the graduates take to heart. Here is my favorite part, and I almost can't wait to get to the end so I can see if Doug responded specifically to:
"Science’s defenders have identified five hallmark moves of pseudoscientists. They argue that the scientific consensus emerges from a conspiracy to suppress dissenting views. They produce fake experts, who have views contrary to established knowledge but do not actually have a credible scientific track record. They cherry-pick the data and papers that challenge the dominant view as a means of discrediting an entire field. They deploy false analogies and other logical fallacies. And they set impossible expectations of research: when scientists produce one level of certainty, the pseudoscientists insist they achieve another."If I didn't know better I would think I was reading a checklist of everything Doug and his Lords and Masters at the Discovery Institute (DI) do. Remember, Doug works for the 'Biologics Institute', which is the pet 'laboratory' of the DI. But you gotta look at this, tell me it's not the DI:
- Conspiracies: How many times have we heard how the DI isn't taken seriously . . . how the DI can't get published in real scientific journals, or how 'Big Science' is keeping them out of the classroom. Too many times to count . . . all I hear is George Carlin's 'It's a conspiracy, man!'
- Lack of a credible scientific track record: Or do you think people like William Dembski, Casey Luskin, Paul Nelson, and even Michael Behe have actual scientific track records for ID. Yes, even Professor Michael Behe who has done absolutely no science to support his idea of irreducible complexity -- he admitted so in court.
- Cherry-picking: Although I think you can also add quote-mining here. How often has the DI taken real scientific research and tried to frame it in a different way, claiming the research, or the scientists themselves are supporting ID. Remember the list of 44 publications the DI presented to the Ohio State School Board claiming support for ID . . . and how the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) contacted the majority of the authors (26 of 34) and found the authors were surprised to learn their work could be construed to support ID in any fashion. Doug's discussion of this speech is another good example, he pretty well ignored this part.
- False analogies and other logical fallacies: The whole tautological argument of if it looks designed, it must be designed . . . of trying to equate the definition of 'theory' with the more precise definition of 'scientific theory' in order to artificially equate ID with real science. I might so another post later to see how many logical fallacies I can attribute to the DI.
- Impossible research expectations: Also known as 'moving the goalposts'. How often has the DI bunch of talking heads demanded that evolution has to provide a complete evolutionary pathway in order to be deemed worthwhile . . . and yet ID isn't required to explain anything. One set of rules for science and no rules at all for the DI. Remember Behe during the Dover trial, when faced with over 50 peer-reviewed scientific publications refuting his claims of irreducible complexity he said that it was not enough!
"But when you see several or all of these tactics deployed, you know that you’re not dealing with a scientific claim anymore. Pseudoscience is the form of science without the substance."
The rest of the speech focused on how to deal with such mistrust. I like his approach. As anyone who has had an argument with a creationist, presenting the holes in their arguments doesn't do much good. All you tend to do is drive them into a philosophical corner and they start spouting Bible verses, real and imaginary ones. His approach is a more positive one, keep asserting the real science, the good science. When someone quotes an anti-vaxxer, talk about the diseases nearly eradicated by vaccines. When an anti-evolutionist goes off the deep end, talk about the benefits of evolution in medicine, food production, and the environment.
Now, Doug on the other hand presents a pretty typical commentary. He strings together some personal revisionist history, some innocuous sounding phrases and then he completely glosses over the five ways to identify pseudo-scientists. Yes, this is all he says about it:
"Gawande gave five handy tips for writing people off as pseudoscientists, but instead of alienating people by dismissing them in this way, what if we were to view public opinion as the ultimate form of peer review?"
"Having a scientific understanding of the world is fundamentally about how you judge which information to trust. It doesn’t mean poring through the evidence on every question yourself. You can’t. Knowledge has become too vast and complex for any one person, scientist or otherwise, to convincingly master more than corners of it."Yet Doug wants to make the general public the ultimate form of peer review? So Gawande basically says it's not possible for any one person to be experts in all fields, Doug wants to make science answer to the general public. Yes, as long as various polls show a majority supporting various forms of Creationism over science, Doug wants that to be the determining factor. Of course once the pendulum swings and places folks like Doug in the minority, he'll be changing his tune really quickly.
The reality seems to be that no one appears to be able to critique intelligent design . . after all how many times has the DI whined about any criticisms by claiming the critic 'didn't understand' ID . . . he's never going to allow ID to come under any form of peer review . . . at least not when the DI isn't holding the controls. Think again how often they claim to have published 'peer reviews' that are nothing but comments by people who already support the DI and their pet version of Creationism? We've discussed it many times, for example in "Is it Peer-Reviewed?"
But Doug and his buddies would love it if the scientific peer review process, which is not a perfect process by any means, was replaced with one more subject to the whims of the general public. Think of how much more mileage the DI can get out of the opinion polls. Suddenly popular opinion equates to peer review! How ridiculous.
Yes, the scientific peer review process isn't perfect. But is bypassing it for the court of public opinion an improvement? I am no rocket scientist, so now my opinion is the equal of actual rocket scientists when it comes to rocket science? I think not! I'm sure I can tell them a few things about computer programming, repairing radar equipment, and maybe teaching community college classes, but when it comes to rocket science, the experts need to have a greater weight. As Gawande said about the scientific community:
"Beautifully organized, however, it is not. Seen up close, the scientific community—with its muddled peer-review process, badly written journal articles, subtly contemptuous letters to the editor, overtly contemptuous subreddit threads, and pompous pronouncements of the academy— looks like a rickety vehicle for getting to truth. Yet the hive mind swarms ever forward. It now advances knowledge in almost every realm of existence—even the humanities, where neuroscience and computerization are shaping understanding of everything from free will to how art and literature have evolved over time."