Science red flags

Science red flags.

The ‘scientifically proven’ subterfuge.Scammers and deniers use two forms of  this tactic:

  • they claim that their idea/discovery/product is valid because it has been ‘scientifically proven’
  • they refuse to accept someone else’s claim unless it can be ‘scientifically proven’

Persecuted prophets and maligned mavericks: The Galileo Gambit. Users of this tactic will try to persuade you that they belong to a tradition of maverick scientists who have been responsible for great advances despite being persecuted by mainstream science. Empty edicts – absence of empirical evidence This tactic shows up when people make claims in the form of bald statements – “this is the way it is” or “this is true” or “I know/believe this” or “everybody knows this” – without any reference to supporting evidence.Anecdotes, testimonials and urban legends Those who use this tactic try to present stories about specific cases or events as supporting evidence. The stories range from personal testimonials, to anecdotes about acquaintances, to tales about unidentifiable subjects.
Charges of conspiracy, collusion and connivance Conspiracy theorists usually start by targeting weaknesses in an accepted model, then propose a conspiracy that explains why their ‘better’ model has been suppressed. Although there can be overwhelming evidence favouring the accepted model, they claim that this simply means the conspiracy has been successful.
Stressing status and appealing to authorityPeople who use this tactic try to convince you by quoting some ‘authority’ who agrees with their claims and pointing to that person’s status, position or qualifications, instead of producing real-world evidence. The tactic is known as the argument from authority.
Devious deception in displaying data: Cherry pickingIn cherry-picking, people use legitimate evidence, but not all of the evidence. They select segments of evidence that appear to support their argument and hide or ignore the rest of the evidence which tends to refute it.
Repetition of discredited arguments – parroting PRATTIn this tactic, people persist in repeating claims that have been shown over and over to have no foundation. Look for slogans, sweeping statements or claims that look as though they could easily be refuted.
Duplicity and distraction – false dichotomyIn this tactic, people assert that there are only two possible (and usually opposite) positions to choose from, when in fact there are more. They try to argue that if one position is shown to be false, then the other must be correct.
Wishful thinking – favouring fantasy over factWe all fall victim to this tactic because we use it on ourselves. We like to believe things that conform with our wishes or desires, even to the extent of ignoring evidence to the contrary.
Appeals to ancient wisdom – trusting traditional trickeryPeople who use this tactic try to persuade you that a certain explanation, treatment or model must be correct because it’s been around for a long time.
Technobabble and tenuous terminology: the use of pseudo scientific languageIn this tactic, people use invented terms that sound “sciencey” or co-opt real science terms and apply them incorrectly.
Confusing correlation with causation: rooster syndromeThis is the natural human tendency to assume that, if two events or phenomena consistently occur at about the same time, then one is the cause of the other. Hence “rooster syndrome”, from the rooster who believed that his crowing caused the sun to rise.
Straw man: crushing concocted canardsWhen this tactic is used, it’s always in response to an argument put up by an opponent. Unable to come up with a reasoned response, the perpetrator constructs a distorted, incorrect version (the “straw man”) of the opponent’s argument, and then proceeds to tear it to shreds.
Indelible initial impressions: the anchoring effectAnchoring is the human tendency to rely almost entirely on one piece of evidence or study, usually one that we encountered early, when making a decision.
Perceiving phoney patterns: apopheniaThis happens when you convince yourself, or someone tries to convince you, that some data reveal a significant pattern when really the data are random or meaningless.
Esoteric energy and fanciful forces.This tactic is easy to pick because people who use it try to convince you that some kind of elusive energy or power or force is responsible for whatever effect they are promoting.
Banishing boundaries and pushing panaceas – applying models where they don’t belongThose who use this tactic take a model that works under certain conditions and try to apply it more widely to circumstances beyond its scope, where it does not work. Look for jargon, sweeping statements and vague, rambling “explanations” that try to sound scientific.
Averting anxiety with cosmic connectivity: magical thinkingMagical thinking is present when anyone argues that everything is connected: thoughts, symbols and rituals can have distant physical and mental effects; inanimate objects can have intentions and mystical influences. Often, the connectivity is supposedly mediated by some mysterious energy, force or vibration and there is much talk of holism, resonance, balance, essences and higher states.
Single study syndrome – clutching at convenient confirmationThis tactic shows up when a person who has a vested interest in a particular point of view pounces on some new finding which seems to either support or threaten that point of view. It’s usually used in a context where the weight of evidence is against the perpetrator’s view.
Appeal to nature – the authenticity axiomYou are expected to accept without question that anything ‘natural’ is good, and anything ‘artificial’, ‘synthetic’ or ‘man-made’ is bad.
The reversed responsibility response – switching the burden of proofThis tactic is usually used by someone who’s made a claim and then been asked for evidence to support it. Their response is to demand that you show that the claim is wrong and if you can’t, to insist that this means their claim is true.
The scary science scenario – science portrayed as evil.The perpetrators try to convince you that scientific knowledge has resulted in overwhelmingly more harm than good. They identify environmental disasters, accidents, human tragedies, hazards, weapons and uncomfortable ideas that have some link to scientific discoveries and claim that science must be blamed for the any damage they cause. They may even go so far as claiming that scientists themselves are generally cold, unfeeling people who enjoy causing harm.
False balance – cultivating counterfeit controversy to create confusion This tactic is promoted by peddlers of bad science and pseudoscience and is often taken up by journalists and politicians. In discussing an issue, they insist that “both sides” be presented.  Many journalists routinely look for a representative of each “side” to include in their stories, even though it might be inappropriate. Groups or individuals who are pushing nonsense or marginal ideas like to exploit this tendency so that their point of view gains undeserved publicity.Confirmation bias – ferreting favourable findings while overlooking opposing observations This is a cognitive bias that we all use. We go out of our way to look for evidence that confirms our ideas and avoid evidence that would contradict them..



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