It has been almost a year since I last posted on this blog. I apologise for this hiatus. I’m afraid it’ll continue as it will probably be even longer before my next post. I simply don’t have the time for the blog these days. But in a brief lull in activities I decided to write this well-overdue post. No, this is not yet another neuroscientist wheeling out his Dunning-Krugerism to make a simplistic and probably dead-wrong (no pun intended) model of the CoViD-19 pandemic, and I certainly won’t be talking about what the governments are doing right or wrong in handling this dreadful situation. But the post is at least moderately related to the pandemic and to this very issue of expertise, and more broadly to current world events.
Years ago, I was locked in an extended debate with parapsychology researchers about the evidence for so-called “psi” effects (precognition, telepathy, and the like). What made matters worse, I made the crucial mistake of also engaging in discussion with some of the social media followers of these researchers. I have since gotten a little wiser and learned about the futility and sanity-destroying nature of social media (but not before going through the pain of experiencing the horrors of social media in other contexts, not least of all Brexitrump). I now try my best (but sometimes still fail) to stay away from this shit and all the outrage junkies and drama royalty. Perhaps I just got tired…
Anyway, in the course of this discussion about “psi” research, I uttered following phrase (or at least this is it paraphrased – I’m too lazy to look it up):
To be a scientist, is to be a skeptic.
This statement was based on the notions of scientific scrutiny, objectively weighing evidence for or against a proposition, giving the null hypothesis a chance, and never to take anybody’s word for granted. It was driven by an idealistic and quite possibly naive belief in the scientific method and the excitement about scientific thinking in some popular circles. But I was wrong.
Taken on their own, none of these things are wrong of course. It is true that scientists should challenge dogma and widely-held assumptions. We should be skeptical of scientific claims and the same level of scrutiny should be applied to evidence confirming our predictions as to those that seem to refute them. Arguments from authority are logically fallacious and we shouldn’t just take somebody at their word simply because of their expertise. As fallible human beings we scientists can fool ourselves into believing something that actually isn’t true, regardless of expertise, and perhaps at times expertise can even result in deeply entrenched viewpoints, so it pays to keep an open mind.
But there’s too much of a good thing. Too much skepticism will lead you astray. There is a saying, that has been (mis-)attributed to various people in various forms. I don’t know who first said it and I don’t much care either:
It pays to keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out.
Taken at face value, this may seem out-of-place. Isn’t an open mind the exact opposite of being skeptical? Isn’t the purpose of this quote precisely to tell people not to believe just about any nonsense? Yes and no. If you spend any time reading and listening to conspiracy theories – and I strongly advise you not to – then you’ll find that the admonition to keep an open mind is actually a major hallmark of this misguided and dangerous ideology. I’ve seen memes making the rounds that most people are “sheeple” and only those who have awoken to the truth see the world as it really is, and lots of other such crap. Conspiracy theorists do really keep a very open mind indeed.
A belief in wild-eyed conspiracies goes hand-in-hand with the utmost skepticism of anything that smells even remotely like the status quo or our current knowledge. It involves being open to every explanation out there – except to the one thing that is most likely true. It is the Trust No One philosophy. When I was a teenager, I enjoyed the X-Files. One of the my favourite video games, Deus Ex, was strongly inspired by a whole range of conspiracy theories. It is great entertainment but some people seem to take this message a little too much to heart. If you look into the plot of Deus Ex, you’ll find some haunting parallels to actual world events, from terrorist attacks on New York City to the pandemic we are experiencing now. Ironically, one could even spin conspiracies about the game itself for that reason.
Conspiracy theories are very much in fashion right now, probably helped by the fact that there is currently a lunatic in the White House who is actively promoting them. It would be all fun and games, if it were only about UFOs, Ancient Aliens, Flat Earth, or the yeti. Or even about the idea that us dogmatic scientists want to suppress the “truth” that precognition is a thing*. But it isn’t just that.
From the origins of the novel coronavirus disease over vaccinations to climate change, we are constantly bombarded by conspiratorial thinking and its consequences. People apparently set fire to 5G radio masts because of this. Trust in authorities and experts has been eroded all over the globe. The internet seems to facilitate the spread of these ideas so they become far more influential than they would have been in past decades – sometimes to very damaging effects.
Can we even blame people? It does become increasingly harder to trust anything or anybody. I have seen first-hand how many news media are more interested in publishing articles to make a political point than in providing factual accuracy. This may not even be deliberate; journalists work to tight deadlines and they are a struggling industry trying to keep financially afloat. Revelations about the origins of the Iraq War and scandals of collusion and election meddling, some of which may well be true conspiracies while others may be liberal pipe dreams (and many may fall into a grey area in between), don’t help to restore public trust. And of course public trust in science isn’t helped by the Replication Crisis**.
Science isn’t just about being skeptical
Sure, science is about challenging assumptions but it is also about weighing all available evidence. The challenging of assumptions we see in conspiracies is all too often cherry-picking. Science is also about the principle of parsimony and it requires us to determine the plausibility of claims. Crucially, it is also about acknowledging all the things we don’t know. That last point includes recognising that, you know, perhaps an expert in an area actually does occasionally know more about it than you.
No, you shouldn’t just believe anything someone says merely because they have PhD in the topic. And I honestly don’t know if expertise is really all that crucial in replicating social priming effects – this is for me where the issues with plausibility kick in. But knowing something about a topic gives experts insights that will elude an outsider and it would serve us well to listen to them. They should certainly have to justify and validate their claims – you shouldn’t just take their word as gospel. But don’t delude yourself into thinking you’ve uncovered “the Truth” by disbelieving everybody else. If I’ve learned anything from doing research, it is that the greatest delusion is when you think you’ve actually understood anything.
I have observed a worrying trend among some otherwise rather sensible people to brush aside criticism of conspiracy theories as smugness or over-confidence. This manifests in insinuations like these:
- Of course, vaccines don’t cause autism, but perhaps this just distracts from the fact that they could be dangerous after all?
- Of course, 5G doesn’t give people coronavirus but have governments used this pandemic as an opportunity to roll out 5G tech?
- Of course, the CoViD-19 wasn’t manufactured in a Chinese lab, but researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology published studies on such coronaviruses and isn’t it possible that they already had the virus and it escaped the lab due to negligence or was even set loose on purpose?
Conspiracy theories are always dealing in possibilities. Of course, they require ardent believers to promote their tinfoil hat ideas. But they also feed on people like us, people with a somewhat skeptical and inquisitive mind who every so often fall prey to their own cognitive biases. Of course, all of these statements are possible – but that’s not the point. Science is not about what is possible but what is probable. Probabilities change as the evidence accumulates.
How plausible is the claim and even if it is plausible, is it more probable than other explanations or scenarios? Even if there were evidence that companies took advantage of the pandemic to roll out 5G (you know, this thing that has been debated for years and which had been planned ages before anyone even knew what a coronavirus is), wouldn’t it make sense to do this at a time when there is an unprecedented need of a world population in lockdown to have reliable and sophisticated mobile internet? Also, so fucking what? What concrete reason is it why you think 5G is a problem? Or are you just talking about the same itchy feeling people in past ages had about the internet, television, radio, and doubtless at some point also about books?
Let us for a moment ignore the blatant racism and various other factors that make this idea actually quite unlikely and accept the possibility that the coronavirus escaped from a lab in Wuhan. Why shouldn’t there be a lab studying animal-to-human transmission of viruses that have the potential for causing pandemics, especially since we already know this happened with numerous illnesses before and researchers have already warned years ago that such a coronavirus pandemic was coming? Doesn’t it make sense to study this at a place where this is likely to occur? What is more likely, that the thing that we know happens happened or that someone left a jar open by accident and let the virus escape the lab? How do you think the virus got in the lab in the first place? What makes it more likely that it escaped a lab than that it originated on a market where wild exotic animals are being consumed?
There is also an odd irony about some of these ideas. Anti-vaxxers seem somewhat quiet these days now that everybody is clamouring for a vaccine for CoViD-19. Perhaps that’s to be expected. But while there is literally no evidence that widely used vaccines are making you sick (at least beyond that weakened form of creating an immune response that makes you unsusceptible to the actually disease anyway) there are very good reasons to ask whether a new drug or treatment is safe. This is why researchers keep reminding us that a vaccine is still at least a year away and why I find recent suggestions one could become available even this September somewhat concerning. It is certainly great that so much work is put into fighting this pandemic and if human usage can begin soon that is obviously good news – but before we have wide global use perhaps we should ensure that this vaccine is actually safe. The plus side is, in contrast to anti-vaxxers, vaccine scientists are actually concerned about people’s health and well-being.
The real conspiracy
Ask yourself who stands to gain if you believe a claim, whether it is a scientific finding, an official government statement, or a conspiracy. Most conspiracy theories further somebody’s agenda. It could help somebody’s reelection or bring them political influence to erode trust in certain organisations or professions, but it could also be much simpler than that: clickbait makes serious money, and some people actually sow disinformation simply for the fun of it. We can be sure of one real conspiracy: the industry behind conspiracy theories.
* Still waiting for my paycheck for being in the pocket of Big Second-Law-of-Thermodynamics…
** This is no reason not to improve the replicability and transparency of scientific research – quite the opposite!