The Disingenuous Tactics of Anti-Science Activists

Science is completely unlike any other human endeavor or experience because it is based on exploring and understanding the workings (cause and effect relationships) of the physical universe – that understanding attempts to describe everything from how stars and galaxies form and interact to the physical evidence that describes the formation and evolving history of our planet and the life forms on it to the chemical reactions which take place within living (and quasi-living) organisms to the behavior of subatomic particles. That understanding is based on continual observations and experiments that test educated guesses (hypotheses) made about suspected cause and effect relationships.

The 1915 Nobel Laureate in physics, William Henry Bragg (1862–1942), made one of the most perceptive distinctions between Science and NotScience I have encountered, “From religion comes a man’s purpose; from science, his power to achieve it. Sometimes people ask if religion and science are not opposed to one another. They are: in the sense that the thumb and fingers of my hand are opposed to one another. It is an opposition by means of which anything can be grasped.” This distinction applies equally well to all other NotScience human endeavors like Politics, Religion, Arts, Laws, Ethics, Philosophy, Emotions etc.

Unless a person has been carefully trained in the process of acquiring scientific evidence and accurately interpreting that evidence, the conclusions reached by the scientific community can easily be misunderstood (particularly with some ‘nudging’) as personal opinions which are no different from the opinions most people are familiar with, for example, whether to support a Democratic or Republican political agenda, whether to accept the Baptist, Presbyterian, Catholic, Muslim or other religious belief, whether or not to legalize marijuana, whether the music of Mozart is better than that of Stravinsky, etc. None of these NotScience opinions or beliefs can be tested or validated by any scientific observation or experiment, but they are a critical part of everyday human existence which everyone has continual experience dealing with. The bottom line is that beliefs and opinions (no matter how strongly held) do not support or justify any scientific conclusions which are based on scientific evidence.

So, a primary goal of anti-science activists is to create the illusion that the scientific consensus is no different from the consensus in all other NotScience realms – in other words, they vigorously promote the idea that scientific evidence can be interpreted by caring and intelligent members of the public (with no relevant training or experience) as accurately as scientists and health care professionals. To help that message gain traction, they portray mainstream science and health care professionals as completely untrustworthy with personal opinions that don’t align with the scientific evidence (as they portray it).

Scientists are taught the dangers of how personal biases can interfere with their research, and they learn to be as impartial as humanly possible. Strong beliefs and biases about what should happen in observational or experimental scientific studies can, if the researcher is not extremely diligent, influence the study design, implementation and interpretation of the results. To err is human, and since scientists are human, there are numerous ways in which errors can creep into and distort the processes and conclusions of science.

Science, as a human endeavor, is far from perfect. Every scientist has personal goals for success, an ego and personality, specific biases, resource limitations, experience and knowledge, ethical standards, and expectations of how a research project will turn out. If not controlled, these specific individual attributes can compromise the validity of any scientific endeavor no matter how well intentioned.

It is also important to understand that not everyone who claims to be a scientist actually employs scientific methods. The mantle of science is frequently assumed by charlatans in an effort to provide legitimacy and authority to ideas, practices and products that have no actual characteristics of science - in other words, anti-science scams.

Because scientists are human and there are very real risks of bias-based research, the scientific methods of inquiry depend on several safeguards designed to reduce bias and enable accurate and useful theories and natural laws to evolve. These defenses include:

  1. the recognition that any scientific consensus, theory or law is not immutable. It must be subject to continual evaluation and will evolve based on new evidence;
  2. the requirement that any science-based conclusion be subject to validation by other who are able to reproduce the experiment or observation and draw the same conclusions;
  3. the presentation of new evidence to the scientific community in legitimate journals which require review of the evidence and conclusions by peers;
  4. the results of any important legitimate scientific conclusion should be presented to the public as an agreement of relevant experts (a scientific consensus) instead of by anti-science activists who apparently expect members of the public to accurately evaluate specific pieces of complex evidence completely out of context.

Democracy only works if decisions are made by accurately informed members of the public, whether they are the voters making decisions that determine how science is used to best help and protect their fellow citizens or the individuals elected by the voters who are entrusted with making those decisions. Most of the voters and elected officials are not trained scientists, and they must depend on some trusted authority to provide an interpretation of the entire body of relevant scientific evidence. It is the goal of anti-science activists to formulate distrust of any scientific consensus they disagree with and the scientists and/or health care providers who support the consensus of relevant experts.

Anti Science Activists desperately, and often successfully, promote and encourage the belief that the scientific safeguards are irrelevant and utilize the tactics outlined below to scam and scare the public and hijack democracy.

Many anti-science activists claim to be legitimate scientists and yet they violate every principle that makes the processes of science work by employing the tactics below.  The specific examples below are from anti-science activists with a paranoid aversion to community water fluoridation (CWF) and will be updated as time allows:

  1. Anti-science activists completely ignore the scientific consensus if possible (and dismiss it as an irrelevant farce if confronted) because their strongly held beliefs prevent any consideration of differing viewpoints.  The development of a scientific consensus is the way legitimate scientists – trained in their relevant fields – work together to best interpret all the available evidence and formulate conclusions.

  2. Anti-science activists claim to have legitimate scientific evidence to support their beliefs, yet they don’t work with other scientists and use that evidence to change the consensus.  The fact is that anti-science activists carefully select and interpret only the “evidence” that can be “adjusted” to support their beliefs.  The reason they don’t work within the relevant scientific communities is because the only “evidence” they accept as legitimate does not support the scientific consensus, and it is generally not of sufficient quality or reproducibility to even be considered in discussions.

  3. Since the “evidence” of anti-science activists does not convince the relevant experts to change the scientific consensus, they take their battle against science to the public with the knowledge that most individuals will not understand the science, but many will respond to the tactics of deceit and fear they employ.  Anti-science activists dismiss the scientific consensus as irrelevant and try to replace it with a public consensus where conclusions about complex scientific evidence are determined by anyone (based on their beliefs), regardless of training and experience, instead of by scientists and health care professionals who actually understand the evidence and its context and the consequences of making science-based decisions.

  4. Anti-science activists blur the boundary between ethics and science to set up false moral arguments – for example, dismissing fluoridation because they believe it is an unsanctioned form of mass medication. That is not science – that is not even a supportable belief – yet it fuels the chaos they promote.

  5. Anti-science activists make public, libelous claims against the scientists and health care professionals who disagree with them, sowing confusion and encouraging public distrust of the scientific processes and the science and health communities.

  6. Anti-science activists cite inconclusive studies as proof their opinions are valid, and they deliberately distort conclusions of legitimate scientific evidence before spinning it out to the public.

  7. Anti-science activists utilize fear-mongering techniques to try and change public opinion and spread discord.

  8. Anti-science activists manipulate their followers, who don’t fully understand the complexities of science, to Trust in Them, Only Them, instead of trusting the overwhelming majority of other scientists and health care providers who don’t accept the anti-science interpretation of current scientific evidence.

  9. Anti-science activists utilize Gish Gallop to create questions that require textbooks worth of explanations to answer. They often dump piles of meaningless content into any discussion or debate in order to bury rational dialog and their failure to answer specific questions. One excellent example of this is found in an online dialogue of so-called cancer evidence by antifluoridation activist, Bill Osmunson.  Dr. Osmunson is a dentist who seeks to mislead readers into believing there is valid scientific evidence to support his claims, implying that his personal evaluation of the scientific literature on cancer is superior to that of cancer experts. While members of recognized cancer organizations such as American Cancer Society, National Cancer Institute, Canadian Cancer Society, Ireland National Cancer Control Programme, Australian Cancer Council have not concluded CWF causes cancer, Dr. Osmunson dumps a plethora of misrepresented and irrelevant information as a substitute for credible facts and evidence relevant to the issue.  Dr. Osmunson's tactics also prove that he believes the average citizen is better able to interpret decades of complex scientific evidence than experts in the relevant fields of study.

  10. Anti-science activists focus all attention on any mistakes (or alleged mistakes) made by scientists and health care providers at any point in history to create distrust.  They seem not to realize that it is precisely the processes of recognizing and correcting mistakes and integrating legitimate, new scientific evidence into the consensus that is the foundation of how knowledge in all scientific fields progresses.

  11. Anti-science activists bully those who support the scientific consensus, and they often threaten legal action if their demands are not met. Several examples:
    ~> This 2016 "suggestion" to the American Thyroid Association (ATA) prepared by anti-F activist, KSpencer, clearly exposes the anti-F tactics. The petition “suggests” the ATA “Publish a position statement opposing the practice of community water fluoridation…” and provides a not-so-subtle suggestion of potential consequences of ignoring the petition, “In closing, given the fluoridation lawsuit pending in Peel, Ontario … and other anticipated American lawsuits yet to be filed, we suggest that the ATA leadership and directors should be prepared to demonstrate their scientific integrity and professional ethics. We suggest the ATA speak for themselves…
    ~> In 2007, an attorney, Robert Reeves, sent the National Kidney Foundation (NKF) an unconscionable letter threatening lawsuits against the then current and past members of the NKF Board of Directors, both collectively and against their personal assets, as well as against the NKF staff, if NKF did not remove its name from the list of organizations which support fluoridation. The NKF is a charitable organization which provides much needed services and activities on behalf of kidney patients. Rather than waste its limited resources and subjecting its Boards and staff to protracted and expensive litigation fighting an antifluoridationist attorney with nothing to lose, the NKF prudently decided to simply remove its name from the list.
The tactics of anti-science activists remind me of the ‘wizard’ behind the drapes frantically trying to divert attention from reality by fabricating an illusion of chaos and shouting “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”. Another strategy is highlighted by the scene in Jungle Book where Kaa claims “I'm not like those so-called fair-weather friends of yours. You can believe in me” then places Mowgli in a trance and instructs him to “Trust in me” in preparation to eating him. Substitute ‘mainstream scientists and health care providers’ for ‘fair-weather friends’ and you will have an excellent description of the goals of the deceptive tactics employed by anti-science activists.