Paul Alper points us to this transcribed lecture by John Horgan. It’s a talk Horgan gave to a conference on Science and Skepticism, which began:
I [Horgan] am a science journalist. I don’t celebrate science, I criticize it, because science needs critics more than cheerleaders. I point out gaps between scientific hype and reality. That keeps me busy, because, as you know, most peer-reviewed scientific claims are wrong.
Following the links, I also came across this bit by Horgan, from a post entitled, “A Dig Through Old Files Reminds Me Why I’m So Critical of Science”:
I [Horgan] keep struggling to find the right balance between celebrating and challenging alleged advances in science. After all, I became a science writer because I love science, and so I have tried not to become too cynical and suspicious of researchers. I worry sometimes that I’m becoming a knee-jerk critic. But the lesson I keep learning over and over again is that I am, if anything, not critical enough. . . .
The vast majority of scientists and journalists who write about science—not to mention the legions of flaks working at universities, science-oriented corporations and other institutions—present science in a positive light. My own journalistic shortcomings aside, I believe science has been ill-served by all this positivity.
I agree. It doesn’t help when credentialed scientists, recipients of huge levels of public funds and publicity, issue pronouncements such as “the replication rate in psychology is quite high—indeed, it is statistically indistinguishable from 100%.” Or when the National Academy of Sciences puts its seal of approval on laughable papers on air rage, himmicanes, etc. Or when Lancet publishes with a straight face an unregularized regression with 50 data points and 39 predictors. Or when leading news organizations such as NPR hype this sort of work.
It’s hard not to be a skeptic when so many leading institutions keep trying to keep following business as usual.
The controversial parts of Horgan’s speech, though, were not where he criticized picayune bad science—he didn’t mention “power pose” and Ted talks, and he could’ve, but that all wouldn’t’ve been so relevant to his audience, who I think are (rightly) more interested in the big questions (How does the universe work? Why are we here? Etc.) than in the daily life of the scientific community.
Rather, controversy came from his recommendations of where skeptics should aim their fire. Here’s Horgan:
You don’t apply your skepticism equally. You are extremely critical of belief in God, ghosts, heaven, ESP, astrology, homeopathy and Bigfoot. You also attack disbelief in global warming, vaccines and genetically modified food.
These beliefs and disbeliefs deserve criticism, but they are what I call “soft targets.” . . .
Meanwhile, you neglect what I call hard targets. These are dubious and even harmful claims promoted by major scientists and institutions. In the rest of this talk, I’ll give you examples of hard targets from physics, medicine and biology. I’ll wrap up with a rant about war, the hardest target of all.
Rather than getting into the details of Horgan’s argument with Pinker and others (go to Horgan’s post and search on Pinker for lots of links, including this fascinating story involving Marc “Evilicious” Hauser, among others), I thought it could be helpful to attempt some sort of taxonomy of science, or pseudo-science, that could be criticized. Then we can se how Horgan and the organized skeptic community fit on this scale.
So, here are various scientific or pseudo-scientific beliefs that get criticized:
1. Crackpot ideas: Bigfoot, perpetual motion machines, spoon bending, etc. These are ridiculous notions that educated people talk about only because they really want to believe (Conan Doyle and those obviously faked photographs of fairies) or perhaps for some political or quasi-politcal reason (Freeman Dyson and Velikovsky).
2. Ideas with a religious connection: Jesus sightings, Dead Sea crossings, Noah’s ark, creationism, anonymous prayer, etc. These ideas make zero sense on their own, but can be difficult to dispute without offending millions of religious fundamentalists. Perhaps for some people, offending the fundamentalists is a goal in itself, but in any case these ideas have baggage that spoon bending, etc., do not.
3. Pathological science: ESP, N-rays, cold fusion, and any other phenomena that show up when studied by the proponents of the idea, but which outsiders can never see. The work of Marc Hauser is an extreme example here in that he actively tried to stop others in his lab from questioning his data coding.
4. Junk science: power pose, air rage, ovulation and voting, beauty and sex ratio, himmicanes, etc. These ideas don’t contradict any known science but have been studied in such a sloppy way that nothing can be learned from the research in question. This work is junk science in part because of the very weak connection between theory and measurement.
5. Politicized questions: effectiveness of charter schools, causes of global warming, effects of a higher minimum wage, etc. These are issues that, at least in the U.S., are so strongly tied to political affiliation that it seems that one can only have discussions on the specifics, not on the bigger questions. Sometimes this leads to actual junk science (for example, claims about negative effects of abortion, or Soviet-era claims about the effectiveness of planned economies) but lots of this is solid science that’s hard for people to handle because they don’t want to hear the conclusions.
6. Slightly different are theories that are not inherently political but which some people seem to feel very strongly about, ideas such as vaccines and autism, various theories about diet. Also somewhere in here are belief systems such as astrology and homeopathy that follow some of the forms of science but sort of live in their own bubbles.
7. Unfalsifiable theories (what I call frameworks): Marxism, racism, Freudianism, evolutionary psychology, neoclassical economics, etc. All these frameworks are based on real insights and observation (as well as hopes and biases) but can get taken way beyond any level of falsifiability: for their enthusiasts, these become universal explanations of human behavior.
8. Mathematical models: Here I’m thinking of string theory, which Horgan disses because of being undetectable by experiment. I put these in a different category than item 4 above because . . . ummmm, it’s hard to explain, but I think there’s a difference between a mathematical theory such as superstrings, and a catchall explanation machine such as racism or Freudianism or neoclassical economics or whatever.
9. Hype: This could be any of the categories above (for example, the “gay gene”), or simply good science that’s getting hyped, for example solid research on genetics that is being inappropriately sold as representing a cancer cure just around the corner.
10. Misdirection: Horgan and others are bothered by the scientific establishment spending zillions on Big Science without attacking real problems that face the world. As we used to say, How come they can put a man on the moon but they can’t cure the common cold? This line of reasoning might be wrong—maybe Big Science really is the way to go. I’m just listing this as one of the ways in which science gets criticized.
11. Scientific error. This can get controversial. Horgan criticized (and believes skeptics should criticize) “the deep-roots theory of war,” on the grounds that “the evidence is overwhelming that war was a cultural innovation—like agriculture, religion, or slavery—that emerged less than 12,000 years ago.” On the other hand, various other people think there is strong evidence for deep roots of war. It’s hard for me to judge this one, so all I’ll say is that this kind of thing is different than items 1-7 above.
Different skeptics have different tastes on what to criticize. Horgan things we should be slamming items 8, 9, 10, and 11. I spend a lot of time on items 3, 4, and 9. Items 1 and 2 don’t interest me so much, perhaps because they’re pretty much outside of science. Various commenters here think I talk too much about item 4, but those cases interest me in part because of the statistical insight I can draw from them. Item 5 is super-important and it comes up on this blog from time to time, but I’m never quite sure what to say on such issues because it seems that people have already decided what they’re going to think. Item 6 is kind of boring to me but it’s a traditional topic of skeptical inquiry. Finally, items 10 and 11 are huge; I don’t talk that much about them because I don’t have much particular expertise there. Except for some specific areas in political science where I’ve done the research: I really do get annoyed when political pundits such as Michael Barone garble the connections between income and voting, or when know-it-alls such as Steven Levitt go around saying it’s irrational to vote, or when people who are know just enough math to be dangerous but not enough to really understand things go around saying that voters in large states have an electoral college advantage. These items are pretty small potatoes though, so I don’t spend too much time screaming about them.
P.S. I doubt that anyone’s actually talking about bigfoot anymore. But I do think that skeptics target the items that get the hype. Back in the 1970s, we really were hearing a lot in the media about bigfoot, the Bermuda triangle, Biblical relics, and ESP, so it makes sense that these topics were investigated by skeptics. In the 2005-2015 era, major news media such as NPR, Gladwell, Freakonomics, Ted, etc., were talking about psychology pseudoscience, and this attracted skeptics’ attention. Horgan’s point, I suppose, is that by always following the bouncing ball of what’s in the news RIGHT NOW, we’re neglecting the big chronic issues.