Guest Opinion by Kip Hansen
Science, the journal, is beginning to go the way of the magazine Scientific American, in that it is beginning to become an oxymoron all by itself, as SciAm did in the Forrest Mims scandal. Science Magazine has turned itself into Politics-uber-Science.
In today’s email of Science News, comes this article “Fighting back against ‘alternative facts’: Experts share their secrets” by Dan Ferber. The article starts out with a clichéd attack on the sitting President of the United States and the repeated-ad-nauseam liberal-progressive assertion that all “alternative facts” are necessarily intentional falsehoods (“lies”) for the simple reason that they do not support their favored “experts”:
“…Chuck Todd, host of NBC’s Meet the Press, confronted her about an overinflated White House estimate of the crowd size at the president’s inauguration. “Don’t be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck,” she shot back. “You’re saying it’s a falsehood. [But] Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts.”
The exchange became fodder for a thousand late-night TV monologues, and it seemed to launch a new era of degraded public discourse, in which falsehoods become “alternative truths,” and unwelcome news for politicians becomes “fake news.”
One has to feel sorry for Dan Ferber, who doesn’t even seem to get his own story straight. He conflates and confuses “alternative facts” and “alternative truths”. He is reporting on an “unconference session” at the AAAS Annual Meeting just wrapped up in Austin, Texas, which is listed in the meeting program as:
The proliferation and staying power of alternative facts have grievous consequences for scientists, researchers, and others who rely on demonstrable evidence to do their jobs. Are there techniques that have shown promise in rebutting alternative facts and claims of fake news? Approaches that make matters worse? Any lessons from history, or is the current dynamic unprecedented? This unconference session will explore these issues with participants in an open, active discussion.
Friday, February 16, 2018
Although reportedly attended by “approximately five dozen researchers, teachers, journalists, students, and science advocates” who “brainstormed ways to push back” — Ferber is able to report almost nothing about the meeting except for a few [obviously] politically inspired quotes. This is no surprise. The unconference session is not led by a scientist at all but rather by the Democratic political operative Mark Bayer, an Arlington, Virginia-based consultant and former longtime aide to Senator Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Markey who “just happens to be” the Chair of the U.S. Senate Climate Change Task Force.
According to Ferber’s report, there was nothing worthwhile to report, except for politician Bayer’s assertions: (please note: assertions are just definitive statements, not facts.)
“Alternative facts are not facts at all, but socially sanctioned beliefs, said Bayer, who has studied the scientific literature of persuasion enough to call himself a “persuasion nerd.” — Bayer
Oops, not a social scientist, no degree, just read some stuff. I have written about Alternative Facts in science over at Dr. Curry’s blog: What’s wrong with ‘alternative facts’? There I point out that the concept of “alternative facts” is not some late-night-comedian’s fodder, but a necessary and useful concept from Law:
“‘Alternative facts’ is a term in law to describe inconsistent sets of facts put forth in a court given that there is plausible evidence to support both alternatives. The term is also used to describe competing facts for the two sides of the case.”
Those who mock ‘alternative facts’ or denigrate them as ‘not facts at all’ or as ‘lies’ are just displaying their ignorance.
Quoting myself again:
“So . . . what’s wrong with ‘alternative facts?’
Nothing — absolutely nothing. Quite the opposite, really. Alternative facts are what we use to learn new things about the world around us. Science is the subject of using alternative facts to come to a better understanding. Discovering that there are alternative facts about something – even better, seemingly contradictory facts – is what points us to an area of study that promises the reward of new insights into the natural world.”
In Science (the field of knowledge, not the dodgy magazine), ‘alternative facts’ are used to help scientists discover new knowledge, when facts seem to be contradictory is when we know to dig in and find out what’s really going on; discovering new ways of looking at things, making new hypotheses and formulating new theories and new paradigms.
Bayer, having flubbed the definition of ‘alternative facts’ then does nothing but brag about Senator Markey’s ability to persuade the Senate to pass various laws using rhetorical tricks taught in every high school debating class. If Ferber is representing the meeting properly, nothing further is said about “alternative facts” nor the “fake news” meme at all, by Bayer or anyone else.
Dan Ferber might actually think the question is “So why is it so hard to change people’s minds about “alternative facts” that are demonstrably false?”
But, in my opinion, the real question is “So why is it so hard to change people’s beliefs about things that are demonstrably false?” The second version is a serious question and has answers, it just has nothing whatever to so with Alternative Facts. People do tend to believe things that are not based on good evidence — look at how many apparently believe in Catastrophic Anthropogenic Climate Change.
The real beef that Bayer and Ferber appear to have is that the common man, that’s us and your neighbors and their kids and grandkids, have the nasty habit of thinking for themselves and not always automatically agreeing with …. ”The Experts”. And when they say “The Experts”, they explicitly mean themselves and those who agree with them. Those who disagree with them, however credentialed and widely published in science journals, are labelled as “non-experts” and are commonly described as “science deniers”.
So, STOP IT! is the message from ‘Science’ Magazine– stop thinking, stop using critical thinking skills to evaluate the validity of expert pronouncements, absolutely stop looking at the actual evidence behind those pronouncements, never ever read any journal paper that has not been approved by the “Name Your Topic’s” Consensus Team, and totally absolutely never ever allow any facts — no matter how true — into your mind that do not come from The Experts with a AAAS-Stamp-of-Approval.
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Author’s Comment Policy:
This is an Opinion piece — you may have a different opinion — I’d love to hear it.
I will not discuss US Two-Party politics — that is the egregious error the Science Magazine has made, I will not repeat it.
WUWT and the thousand or so skeptical blogs spanning many fields of Science and Medicine, serve up alternative facts as the main course — and like the facts they are alternatives to, they are not always perfect, not always accurate, not always well thought out and not always well expressed — and some, exactly like their mainstream twins, are just plain wrong. But they move the discussion — they change mainstream thinking and move the edges of inquiry in the direction of greater understanding by challenging stultified, consensus-biased paradigms.
It is a crying shame to see Science co-opted by politics….yet again.
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