I have had a few exchanges with all sorts of irrational skeptics who advocate conspiracy theories, from global warming and COVID-19 severity deniers to anti-vaccination advocates, creationists, and chemtrail and flat Earth proponents. One of the things I’ve noted about these skeptics, the vast majority of whom have never personally studied or trained as scientists, is that they believe that they know more than the experts. To justify this stance, these individuals employ several rationalizations.
First and foremost, irrational skeptics argue that there is a conspiracy. They claim that the majority of scientists who accept the consensus in fields that have become hot button issues are either corrupt individuals who have sold out and misrepresented or faked their data, or cowardly, mistaken, or dumb persons who go along with the herd. It follows then that there is no point in listening to the experts as whatever they say is tainted. Thus the training, experience, publications, ideas, and achievements of scientists become irrelevant.
Second, irrational skeptics do support those scientists who criticize the consensus in these fields. Presumably, in the eyes of these skeptics, the mere action of disagreeing with their peers makes these contrarian scientists right. This is why, more often than not, irrational skeptics end up supporting individuals who are at best misguided and at worst frauds. For example, those opposed to vaccination supported the infamous Andrew Wakefield who put forward the notion that the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine is linked to autism (which it isn’t). Wakefield convinced many parents not to vaccinate their children leading to a surge in measles and mumps in many areas.
This is not to say that all individuals that buck the trend in their fields are misguided. Some are honest people who want to examine the data on their own terms. Such was the case of Richard Muller. He questioned global warming and for a while he was a darling of the global warming denialists. But Dr. Muller was not an irrational skeptic. He did what no irrational skeptic would dare to do. He got funds, assembled a team that examined the data of global warming on their own, and indeed confirmed that global warming was real! As a result of this, scores of his formers supporters turned on him. The irrational skeptics will support specific scientists only if their views are the same as theirs.
Third, having disavowed the majority of scientists and embraced those with extreme views, irrational skeptics then feel that, with no scientific training whatsoever, they are competent to read the scientific literature and figure out what is and isn’t valid. This has been humorously phrased as getting your degree from “Google University”.
Scientists have to go through a learning process that takes more than a decade and involves training with other scientists just to bring them up to speed in their fields, and teach them how to think about science and how to evaluate what they read. A scientific article is not valid by the mere fact that it got published. There are a lot of mediocre publications in the scientific literature with questionable data and ideas, and this is even more so today with the advent of the so-called predatory journals and pre-print publishing. When scientists read the scientific literature, they evaluate what they read based on their knowledge and, more importantly, their experience. By the time scientists reach intellectual maturity they have experienced what it is to be wrong countless times and also witnessed the mistakes of others. Thus, most scientists can recognize when the evidence does not favor their ideas, and this ability is essential to avoid fooling themselves.
People not trained as scientists have not “lived” what it is to be wrong within the context of scientific research, and when they take it upon themselves to read the scientific literature without any formal training or practical experience they don’t recognize when the evidence shows they are wrong. They are fooling themselves, and they have become so impervious to evidence that they cannot be proven to be wrong. Thus their ideas and arguments have ceased to be scientific. If there is no way you can be wrong, then there is no way you can be right.
This is not to say that the word of individual experts should be taken as dogma, especially when they pontificate about things outside of their field of expertise. A lot of scientist have said stupid things and advocated false or silly ideas. However, when the vast majority of scientists in a scientific field arrive at a consensus supported by a sufficiently-developed scientific theory, this is something that should be valued and respected by us as individuals and as a society. Nothing good can come from questioning the honesty of the experts and berating their training, skills, expertise, and achievements just because what they are finding runs contrary to the beliefs of some people. And if on top of that these very same people also assume that they know more than the experts and that they are capable of navigating the subtleties and complexities of the scientific literature, then we open the door to the acceptance of all sorts of error and quackery.
Image by Tumisu from pixabay is free for commercial use and was modified.
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