Why science is hard to believe

Here is an excerpt from a well written opinion piece by Washington Post columnist Joel Achenbach:

Washington Post: We live in an age when all manner of scientific knowledge — from the safety of fluoride and vaccines to the reality of climate change — faces organized and often furious opposition. Empowered by their own sources of information and their own interpretations of research, doubters have declared war on the consensus of experts. There are so many of these controversies these days, you’d think a diabolical agency had put something in the water to make people argumentative.

Science doubt has become a pop-culture meme. In the recent movie “Interstellar,” set in a futuristic, downtrodden America where NASA has been forced into hiding, school textbooks say the Apollo moon landings were faked.

I recommend reading the whole piece.


9 thoughts on “Why science is hard to believe

  1. I’ll add another reason why science is hard to believe from a slightly different angle.

    The ‘nasa faked the moon landing’ meme was the subject in part of a paper by a psychologist named lewandowsky. He basically was trying to show that people who believed in conspiracy theories (hiv doesnt cause aids, 911 was an ‘inside job’, JFK murder was different than reported, vaccines cause autism, evolution is false, etc.) are basically the same as people who think human caused climate change is a hoax, and / or have libertarian, pro free market beliefs.

    For that paper, hailed by climate scientists (since it helped support the case that climate ‘denialists’ were kooks and opportunists—-and many or almost all are), and also pop science writers like C Mooney (who i consider to be partly a shallow, opportunist hack like others such as George Will and Samuelson on the Post op-ed page), it appears he got a big grant and also a new job (moving from australia to the UK).

    There is a big criticism of the data in that paper , for which he used as data sample to show this correlation in popular beliefs, answers to questions he posted on an internet poll. So, it was self selected, and many responses are almost obviously jokes. (I think some said they were like 5 years old, others they were born in 1828, etc. )

    i’ve looked at the paper on his web site and my glance is it is really bad—partly because the sample size was miniscule, and he used a very stupid (in my view) way of agregating the responses so they would fit his theory, and he also took out a few ‘outliers’ which if included would have contradicted his theory.

    It looks like, actually, alot of his and other published and funded papers. People get a few skills, and then just try to think up a research problem which they can finish in a week or 2 (on say a 4 hour workday) and then publish. Then of course, they ‘replicate’ it the same way, and get another publication. (There are quite a few documented cases of this in the literature. Some physics papers i’ve read (and i’m not an expert) look like they are a sort of collection of rewritten paragraphs from other papers, combined with some automated calculations using mathematica for example. (The blog ‘mathematics under the microscope ‘ by someone in the UK—-likely fairly prominent and he has a beautiful online and free book which i’ve only just skimmed, discusses this i think. Its often difficult to tell if equations have been produced by a machine or a student. )

    I came across this issue somewhat randomly (actually i was looking at realclimate blog —perhaps the most legit scientific blog on climate — to see what they had to say about judith curry, who is a denialist but seems to know her chaos and ergodic theory, unlike others, and also nichola scafetta and bruce west (at duke and the military) who also do some ‘econophysics’ but who seem to be both pro-military right wing types. (they have stuff on arxiv and also gave presentations to the US military on why climate change is caused by solar sunspots—scafetta now has an elaborate theory, looks he’s using splines or wavelets to connects the dots, so he can fit any climate data curve he wants a la norbert wiener (give me 5 parameters and i can turn your data into an elephant and make it’s ears wiggle). I think he’s predicting global cooling soon. He also has his own scientific journal now too.

    see ‘lewandowsky scam’ on


    and http://www.joseduarte.com/blog/more-fraud . ((he’s sort of right wing libertarian also, and has a recent paper with a well known social scientist (who i dont particularily like) at u va in BBS (brain and behavioral sciences).

    my 2 cents, or seconds. some science and scientists are hard to believe all the time (i’d throw in also Shockley and Hernnstein (iq), Tipler (physics of god) and Freeman Dyson, some writers on animal and human social behavior, group selection, arrow of time, etc.) Some say Godel starved himself, maybe because he didnt believe the food was safe. (Some feel this about GMOs too, and that bees and monarch butterflies believe the same about some pesticides).


  2. ps. I looked a bit more at Jose Duarte’s blog and he’s a bit too sympathetic to some of the well known ‘global warming skeptics’ than I am.

    His critique of Lewandowsky’s ‘moon’ paper however i still agree with.

    (A few ‘AGW skeptics’ have made some good points—even Slutsky’s theorem or the slutsky-yule effect —Econometrica 1937 (free online) —-on ‘summation of random causes as the source of cyclical processes’ (spurious correlations) came up when discussing time series analyses of earth temperatures (‘hockey stick’). I learned a little about turning a time series into a differential equation there. The Slutsky paper is a classic in my view (though its a bit like reading Darwin or Newton or Hamilton—old style, but more readable. Its been discussed in the economics literature off and on, on the theme of ‘is there a pattern there or are we making it up’. Ornstein and Weiss in BAMS (bull am math soc) 1991 (‘statistical properties of chaotic systems’ —also free online ) have related types of arguments, though i’ve only seen 2 economics papers mention them. .

    His Brain and Behavioral Sciences article (which i skimmed free on-line ) has been criticized (the U Va co-author is Jonathon Haidt, now at NYU) by quite a few people (Coyne at UC in biology, even Krugman i think) . Haidt has a web page on it.


    Evan Charney of Duke (who has a point of view on the ‘missing heritability’ issue, as well as iq heritability and genetic bases of pollitical beliefs (alford, etc.)) has a comment on the BBS article, mentioned by Duarte.

    The Achenbach Post article is quite good—he mentions many of these issues. One can throw in a few more reasons for not being sure about science—Otto Rossler (Rossler attractor of chaos theory) who said searching for the Higgs might destroy the earth (as people considered when developing the atom bomb), Montaignier (of AIDS and homeopathy), and there are a whole lot of others on ‘hidden variables’ in QM and Cantor’s theorem (or paradise). I have my own proof that the integers are uncountable ( obviously flawed but interesting, and i found some other paper which already had it). This weather is excellent but daunting. I’m hoping some people get back from delaware before the snow starts.


  3. i think you are correct about judith curry —i just mix up terms.(in math i used to mix up plus and minus signs, and i always i was sure i was right even tho i realized later i wasnt). a paper i mentioned on math education (which you have also blogged on) is at


    or at http://www.micromath.wordpress.com ‘calling a spade a spade’

    i’m looking forward to the possible 0 degrees tonite though i realize this may be a minority view..


  4. ps i just noticed today is my birthday and i missed where i was supposed to go yesterday. my landlord was getting on my case because i let someone stayed here who played the music too loud. i dont celebrate any holidays or birhtdays but i dontcare if others do. i am a bit depressed about stuff i hear about terrorism and such on the radio.


  5. Well, happy birthday ishi. Do you call yourself after the last Yahi?Some of your comments here could be blog posts in and of themselves. Any reason why you don’t do more writeups on your blog?


  6. that is where i took that name—one of my s/heroes.

    there are even recordings of ishi which are quite funny. the anthropologists were trying to get him to explain various things about religion, philosophy, culture, etc of his tribe, and he’d say a few things, and then go into a 30 minute segment on things like how to make an arrowhead or what some animal was thinking. most people would consider it boring cuz he would go on and on—scrape the rock here….

    ishi also was his given name—he wouldnt tell them his own. he was a sort of tragic case; and he died in the museum he stayed at.

    I dont do many writings on my blog because it seems there are already several blogs on the web (and i haven’t finished reading all of them) so who needs another one—alot of them are quite good, like this one, even if i often disagree with some things on them. Also i have zero discipline, so alot of what i write is loaded with grammar and typo errors, and tends to be a mixture of stream of consciousness and then some attempts at loigcal and reason based analyses. I’m one hald into science and reason, the other half into stuff like antonin artaud (wikipedia) and ‘underground/radical’ music—basically crazy people. i also like ‘interactive’ stuff which is why i put comments on other blogs or facebook (there i’m ishi.crew and ishi.crew.9 ).
    Quite a few of my comments get deleted since they aren’t pc (though i actually agree with pc stuff in general, but many places i go or went are loaded with non pc stuff—i was/am even into gangsta rap tho i disagree with the lyrics).

    Maybe i should try to write on my own blog (there are some semicoherent things by me on it but its mostly links—music, science, and amusing or depressing wack, and i seem to have forgotten how to post links now or its because i switched to google chrome and cant do it. .I am talking to a person about putting together some essays or something in a book (partly because i might be able to make a little money, and thats his business), but its very tentative. peace out. (i hear it might go down to near zero tonite—i actually like this weather because its sortuh of a challenge —i’ve slept outside in -45 at least up in alaska, probably more like -50 when i was walking from from eagle alaska to dawson city yukon on the yukon river—see ‘to build a fire’ by jack london; it was about 150 miles but the postmaster picked me up about 20 miles from dawson since he drove a snowmobile. he even visited me once when he came to dc. (he’s in the book ‘coming into the country’ by john mcphee, which has a section on eagle alaska. i burned one of my abandoned cabins down up there but found another a few miles away; they once sent a plane to look for me since i was gone a couple weeks going to see some caribous and almost froze to death).

    i hope this is on topic.


  7. ps i just looked up antonin artaud on wikipedia; he’s as interesting as ishi, and i have a fair amount of overlap with him (except stuff like asylums). my parents did take me once to a psychiatrist, but i told the person leave me alone (in every way). Emil Post, of post’s correspondance problem (a sort of Godelian undecidability result) has a paper in a very old collection edited i think by martin davis (FOM-list on google—foundations of math; alot of interesting or funny stuff there) which overlaps with artaud. (the same collection has the classics by godel, turing, kleene and many others.


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