It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Systematic Noise

Denial of science can be dressed in leftist or rightist garb but as described in the PLOS medical online journal, it follows universal patterns.
Deniers also paint themselves as skeptics working to break down a misguided and deeply rooted belief. They argue that when mainstream scientists speak out against the scientific “orthodoxy,” they are persecuted and dismissed. For example, HIV deniers make much of the demise of Peter Duesberg's career, claiming that when he began speaking out against HIV as the cause of AIDS, he was “ignored and discredited” because of his dissidence [23]. South African President Mbeki went even further, stating: “In an earlier period in human history, these [dissidents] would be heretics that would be burnt at the stake!” [1].

HIV deniers accuse scientists of quashing dissent regarding the cause of AIDS, and not allowing so-called “alternative” theories to be heard. However, this claim could be applied to any well-established scientific theory that is being challenged by politically motivated pseudoscientific notions—for example, creationist challenges to evolution. Further, as HIV denial can plausibly reduce compliance with safe sex practices and anti-HIV drugs, potentially costing lives, this motivates the scientific and health care communities to exclude HIV denial from any public forum. (As one editorial has bluntly phrased it, HIV denial is “deadly quackery”) [24]. Because HIV denial is not scientifically legitimate, such exclusion is justified, but it further fuels the deniers' claims of oppression.

1 comment:

inel said...

Three quick thoughts:

1. Many denialists operate as victims, distrusting the authority they imply, claim or believe has caused their miserable state. This enables a large section of the population to sympathise with them.

2. There are more gossips than noble types. As a result, it is not only scientists who need to make efforts to raise standards of scientific literacy amongst the population. In fact, all people who care about fair treatment of others need to work to encourage appropriate true and accurate information of all kinds to be valued, reported, and relied upon, even though this takes quite a bit more concerted effort than repeating a sloppy remark without checking its foundation.

3. It takes time and effort to build up a relationship and get a stranger to trust you and your information. It is easier and quicker to build trust face-to-face. Contrariwise, it is pretty easy to sow doubts with false warnings in writing, even with a short alarming blog post or email that gets passed on to all and sundry. Unfortunately, this is the world—with all its imbalances in weight of information, and effort required to build and maintain trust—that we have to operate within.