Saturday, 11 January 2014

Can you trust scientists?

Can consumers trust scientists and the things they say? Should you believe the things that scientists tell you?

The answer is, of course, yes, you can trust what scientists say and what their findings suggest but ONLY if they really ARE scientists and what they’re saying is actually science. The problem is that the vast majority of us aren’t qualified to evaluate everything we’re told by so-called experts.

Another problem is that part of the business world is dedicated to confusing us about science and facts in general. It’s what scientists call “the advertising industry”.

We’ve all seen advertisements for products, usually washing powders and anything claiming to offer health benefits, that are presented by a man (and it always seems to be a man) wearing a white suit, trying his best to add some scientific authenticity to whatever product it is he’s selling.

Of course he’s not really a scientist at all, he’s an actor pretending to be one.

This is a good example of a logical fallacy. Logical fallacies are mistakes in thinking that lead us to false conclusions. The one the advertisers are exploiting in these advertisements is called the “argument from authority”, which has been defined as “a fallacy of irrelevance when the authority being cited is not really an authority”. The scientist in the advertisement isn’t actually a scientist so why should we believe what he says?

To be fair, it’s not just the advertising industry. There’s no shortage of industries that are prepared to hijack supposed authority figures and use them in an argument from authority. Albert Einstein is a very good example of this. Einstein was remarkably gifted as both a theoretical physicist and as a humanitarian but that’s where his skills ended. Any appeal using poor old Einstein’s name in any other area can easily be false. Einstein’s thoughts on religion, philosophy and horse racing are no more likely to be correct that yours or mine. In the same way, the thoughts of a religious leader on biology or geology, those of a medical doctor on spirituality and those of a combi driver on anything at all are not necessarily worthy of respect.

The appeal to authority is also endemic in the Multi-Level Marketing industry, the distant cousin of the pyramid scheme. Almost all of them quote Robert Kiyosaki, the overrated author of Rich Dad Poor Dad, and the billionaire speculator and philanthropist Warren Buffett, both of whom, the MLMs say, have endorsed the MLM industry. However here’s a fact that the MLM advocates don’t tell you. Neither of these two “authorities” have ever made money by being involved in selling products in a Multi-Level Marketing scheme. Kiyosaki actually made his money by selling his book to Amway recruits as part of a deal with Amway management. What they also won’t tell you you is that Kiyosaki’s book appears to be at least partially a work of fiction. There was no Rich Dad.

Warren Buffett also made his money without actually doing any MLM work. All he did was buy an entire MLM company that already existed. When you’re that rich you can buy your way to the top of the pyramid in one step. That’s really the only way to make money from such schemes: buy the entire scheme.

The real concern for me is the use of the argument from authority in things that really matter: health, education and food.

Last year an article was published in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology reporting the results of a study that spread alarm throughout the world. The press coverage of the article claimed quite clearly that genetically modified foods caused cancer. Newspaper headlines suggested that “rats fed genetically modified corn grew massive tumors”, referred to “shocking cancer findings” and others said that GM foods cause “tumors, organ failure and premature death”. Some articles even showed pictures of rats with enormous growths all over their bodies.

Unfortunately the story was much more complex than this. To begin with there were numerous problems with the experiment. It turns out that the type of rat they used develops these tumors all the time, particularly if they are overfed or if they’re older than average. It also seems that the researchers only published some of the results, ignoring groups of rats that were fed GM foods but which didn’t subsequently develop the tumors. The researchers were also somewhat selective when it came to “peer review”, the normal process where other researchers are permitted to review the research before it’s published. Not in this case. Professor Anthony Trewavas from the University of Edinburgh, a genuine authority on these issues, was quoted by New Scientist magazine as saying “these results are of no value”.

A couple of weeks ago the story changed. The Food and Chemical Toxicology journal completely withdrew the article and the publishers, Elsevier, issued a statement saying (and I'm paraphrasing) that while the researchers hadn't actually lied, they had been guilty of very poor science.

The background information that wasn’t originally made known is that the lead researcher in this study also heads the scientific board of the “Committee for Research and Independent Information on Genetic Engineering”, an organization opposed in principle to genetically modified food and he also has a book and film coming out entitled “All of Us Guinea-Pigs Now?” He’s hardly unbiased.

My point isn’t to attack people who oppose GM foods, although there is precisely no genuine scientific evidence that I can find that suggests they are in any way harmful. The point is that even though science is the most powerful weapon we have in the fight against disease, poverty and ignorance, all of that is undermined when the scientists we rely on to educate and inform us turn out not to be real scientists.

If we’re going to make rational decisions on matters as important as food then we need to rely on real authorities rather than pseudo-scientists peddling an agenda rather than facts. It’s critically important that we all develop a much better understanding of science if we’re going to make correct decisions.

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