Monday, May 23, 2011
The Difference Between a Skeptic and a Denialist
To some degree, a healthy dose of skepticism is a good thing, because it forces people to challenge their own beliefs. In truth, most scientists and researches are skeptical by nature, and most would never accept anything at face value unless it has been proven, replicated, verified, and proven again.
A skeptic doesn't just develop a hypothesis and assume it is factual. Rather the skeptic examines a problem, then determines the hypothesis. They will then perform research to determine if this hypothesis is supported and if so... they will verify the original hypothesis. If it turns out their research does not support the hypothesis, they will then need to re-examine the data to come up with a different result. This is what makes science so exciting for real scientists... because they will often admit that the most amazing discoveries come when they least expect it. Some discoveries are considered nothing more than accidents, and others are found to be the inverse of what was anticipated.
A skeptic doesn't formulate the answer and then find data to support the answer. Instead, they perform the data and then formulate the answer based upon the findings. In short a skeptic follows the facts where they lead no matter where that may be. They don't establish the result before doing the research, and they keep an open mind.
This is a key aspect that identifies the difference between being a skeptic versus being a denialist, because a denialist does the inverse. A denialist formulates the answer they want to hear, and then they collect information to support that answer while disregarding the information that conflicts with it. Essentially a denialist determines what their viewpoint is, and then they back into this position by specifically calling out data that aligns with their answer which is often referred to as "confirmation bias". Confirmation Bias not only involves hand-picking information to support a viewpoint, but also involves interpreting that data in a biased manner.
Thus when you have someone like Andrew Wakefield who (for some reason) gets the idea that the MMR vaccine causes Autism, he doesn't perform legitimate research to prove his hypothesis, but rather he steers his research towards what he believes is the inevitable outcome. In Wakefield's case, that resulted in manipulation of data, falsification of patient records, numerous ethical violations as well as conflicts of interest etc, etc, but the point is prior to Wakefield being entirely discredited he was doing a bang-up job of convincing others that his hypothesis was supportable all due to his personal bias and lack of scientific integrity.
The same is true with people like Lowell Hubbs. Mr. Hubbs believes that vaccines cause autism, and instead of being skeptical of vaccines and studying them or researching them to come up with an unbiased viewpoint, Mr. Hubbs instead takes the line of the denialist and simply ignores the mountains upon mountains of evidence which time and time again show there is no such link between vaccines and autism. He will even go so far as to invent wild conspiracy theories to explain why all of the published studies are never able to find a link while making excuses for the lack of evidence to actually support his viewpoint.
What Mr. Hubbs accepts as truth is only the data he is able to find which supports his version of reality, and because there are no peer-reviewed studies linking vaccines and autism, and because there is no accepted science proving vaccines are harmful, Mr. Hubbs then has to resort to non-scientific sources such as personal blogs, articles hosted from biased websites, personal opinion, non peer-reviewed articles and the ever-present misunderstanding of the basic premise that correlation does not equal causation.
In effect, Mr. Hubbs relies upon illusory correlation as he tends to identify relationships within the data that do not really exist. He will misinterpret data and display a severe misunderstanding of the data he tends to cite. Aside from lacking the scientific knowledge to properly understand the complexities of the subject matter, Mr. Hubbs displays an extreme level of personal bias against mainstream medicine, vaccines, "big pharma", and anyone or anything associated with any of the above while displaying an equal amount of personal bias towards anyone or anything which finds fault with mainstream medicine or vaccines.
In fact, Mr. Hubbs displays a complete disregard for the scientific process, and he has displayed a level of bias which is rarely seen outside of discussions involving climate change, Creationism, or President Obama's birth certificate. If Mr. Hubbs was truly honest with himself, he would recognize his bias and acknowledge his lack of credibility on the subject matter. He would also acknowledge he tends to only seek out those who consider themselves firmly entrenched in the "alternative medicine" camp and/or those who have a personal (but scientifically unsupportable) position that vaccines cause autism.
Granted to anyone who knows Mr. Hubbs knows he likely will never shift his viewpoints from those of a denialist to those of an independent thinker, nor will he ever be able to objectively study the information that exists on the subject. In fact, Mr. Hubbs has taken the denialist role to the extreme and has become nothing more than a common conspiracy theorist who personally believes that doctors, researchers, and scientists are all involved in some massive cover-up to prevent legitimate cancer cures from being released to the public while somehow keeping the lid on all of the data which could somehow prove a link between vaccines and autism.
Whether it be accusations that a three letter agency (FDA, CDC, WHO, AMA etc) is in control of all of the world's scientific data, accusations that 9/11 was an inside job involving the US government and bombs inside the buildings, or claims that people are out to kill him due to the "knowledge" he holds, Mr. Hubbs commonly resorts to such claims of a conspiracy when he recognizes a lack of evidence to support his claims. He then assumes because his statements are not taken seriously that it somehow suggests they are "truth" which tells us nothing other than the fact that Mr. Hubbs lacks the understanding of the concepts of falsifiability and burden of proof.
Skepticism itself is a good thing and is necessary within the scientific process. Denialism adds nothing to the equation and merely serves to create a distraction, and full-blown conspiracy theorists such as Mr. Hubbs are the proverbial trainwreck in the center of Logic town. Yes they might be a mess... but they tend to be rather fun to watch as long as you know you aren't the one who has to clean it up.