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How to spot “alternative scientists”.

Filed under: — rasmus @ 12 August 2020

Recently, a so-called “white coat summit” gave me a sense of dejavu. It was held by a group that calls itself ‘America’s Frontline Doctors’ (AFD) that consisted of about a dozen people wearing white coats to the effect of achieving an appearance of being experts on medical matters.


The AFD apparently wanted to address a “massive disinformation campaign” (what irony) and counter the medical advice from real health experts. This move has a similar counterpart in climate science, where some individuals also have claimed to be experts and dismissed well-established scientific facts, eg. that emissions of CO2 from the use of fossil fuels results in global warming.


Climate science is not the only discipline where we see confusion sown by a small number of “renegades”. A few white-coated scholars have disputed the well-established danger of tobacco. We see similar attitudes among the “Intelligent Design” community and the so-called “anti-vaxxers”.


Statistically speaking, we should not be surprised by a few contrarians who have an exceptional opinion within a large scientific community. It is to be expected from a statistical point of view where there is a range of opinions, so there should be little reason to make a big deal out it.


On the other hand, there are some fascinating stories to be told. Sometimes there are individuals who can be described as “crackpots” and “quakesalvers” (e.g. a scholar believing in dowsing rods among the climate renegades and some within the AFD who talk about demons). Hollywood has even realized that some scientists may be mad, which has given us the familiar term “mad scientist”. But all “renegades” may of course not necessarily be mad.


Nevertheless, according to Snopes, the background of the individuals of the AFD is rather colourful. And there is nothing in the background provided about them that gave me any confidence in their judgement. On the contrary.


A sign that should trigger a big warning is that Snopes found it difficult to see who the AFD really are or where their conclusions really come from. The transparency is lacking and their story is murky. Especially so if the results have not been published through renowned peer-reviewed scientific journals. This is something we have seen time and again with climate change contrarians.


Any claim would be more convincing if colleagues independently are able to replicate the work and get the same results (without finding anything wrong with the process). This would require transparency and openness.


Another sign that should make you skeptical is if the claims have a dogmatic character. The AFD address is all dogma. This is also typical among the science deniers.


It’s also typical that the extreme fringes cannot falsify the established science and therefore move on to conspiracy theories. In the case of AFD, it is the alleged “massive disinformation campaign”.


Should we take such fringe views seriously? This type of “infodemics” seems to become a growing problem as described in a feature article in Physics World July 2020: ‘Fighting flat-Earth Theory’. The term “infodemic” reflects the fact that false information is just as contagious as an epidemic. Imposters dressed in white coats peddling false information can cause harm if people take them seriously.


The damage caused by erroneous information and conspiracy theories is discussed in the HBO documentary ‘After truth’, and the wildest claims can spread like a rampant disease as shown in that film.

We have witnessed how misinformation and lack of trust of true medical sciences have caused bad situations in some countries, while in others (eg. New Zealand, Canada, and some Nordic countries) the pandemic has been kept under control because the general public in general has followed the scientific health advice.


There is a common denominator when it comes to the AFD, anti-vaxxers, flat-earthers, “intelligent design”, chem-trail evangelists and those dismissing climate science. I think it may be useful to join forces within the broader scientific community to help the general public understand the real issues. This effort should also be on more general terms. People have a right to reliable and truthful information. Everybody should understand that anyone who spreads bullshit or lies also shows you a great deal of disrespect. The same goes for platforms spreading disinformation.


So what can we do to make people understand how science works and enhance the general science literacy? Is it better to teach people how to spot these “alternative scientists” (the term is inspired by “alternative facts”), conspiracy theories, and falsehoods, if we show a range of examples from different disciplines? We can probably learn from each others. There seems to be a lesson to be learned from the pandemic.

249 Responses to “How to spot “alternative scientists”.”

  1. 51
    Radge Havers says:

    @ ~ 42 BJ Chippendale

    Well, I guess you can pick your favorite point for when our problem with facts got started, but I think there are trends and key moments going way back. That’s history, it may be even messier than climate…

    How America Lost Its Mind
    The nation’s current post-truth moment is the ultimate expression of mind-sets that have made America exceptional throughout its history.

    I think it might be a good idea to consolidate the tools and ethos needed to discern what’s alt-reality and what’s first rate discernment and put them out there where it’s easy for people to access.

  2. 52
    Susan Anderson says:

    Ray Ladbury, as usual, wastes no time on Mack. The rest of us should not feed Mack’s ego by responding.

    Ann F Kah, your first and my second comment were posted at the same time, so perhaps this is unnecessary, but to be clear it was an amusing weekend afternoon with a couple of curious guys and their families (I was a young teenager, not a budding scientist). This physicist did not need to “go back to school” ->

    Al Bundy, I am not a “triangle wagger”. I did this once and moved on. Were you ever young?

    I am surprised at how negative and emotional some of you are about this, and by extension, lacking curiosity. A sense of wonder is a valuable asset, and not all things are quantifiable. All of us, hopefully, have moments when the numinous intrudes and we don’t need to solve it.

    I have a healthy dislike of fake science and a strong radar for denial in an old lady kicking the tires kind of way. In fake skeptic material the presentation and contradictions are a dead giveaway, even to an informed layperson.

    I had the good luck to socialize with a group Richard Feynman joined at the end of his life (freewheeling drawing group at MIT while he was at Thinking Machines), and he would have appreciated and known how to value my anecdote. But aside from sharing the story, I thought it might have some use in separating science from rigid rote ideas.

  3. 53
    jgnfld says:

    @39 “Because the Earth’s surface temp is an atmospheric temp, measured in Stevenson screens about 5ft off the ground. The Moon’s temperature is taken right at the surface.”

    That’s one measure. There are many others. For example, about 75% of the Earth is ocean and has no Stevenson screens. Yet somehow sea surface temps are continuousy monitored. They all agree that the Earth is warmer than the Moon.

    For example, about 75% of the Earth is ocean and has no Stevenson screens. Yet sea surface temps are continuousy monitored.

    Anyway…The Earth’s surface temps are easily measured directly. They average warmer than those on the Moon. Air temps are harder from space–but there are several satellite series available as well.

    Why the mods allow greenhouse effect denial here is still beyond me. It’s simply ridiculous.

  4. 54
  5. 55

    #39, Mack:

    @ 21 jgnfld
    Because the Earth’s surface temp is an atmospheric temp, measured in Stevenson screens about 5ft off the ground. The Moon’s temperature is taken right at the surface.

    Well, now, that’s surprising news. Who’ve they got taking it, then?

  6. 56

    #42, BJC–

    Agree with a lot in your diagnosis.

    But this, not so much:

    To get it back now is I think, beyond us. The rot is too pervasive. We are not able to talk about “the same facts” because we do not share facts.

    Imagining improvement can often be very difficult, and I won’t deny it is in this case, too. Yet it’s also true that there is a long, long list of once firmly entrenched evils that are now history. I can imagine that this evil could well be added to that list in the future.

  7. 57
    Brendan Wypich says:

    Your outlook is far too simplistic. The sad reality is that science has become so politicized that study results are manipulated to present whatever results the interested parties wish to say. We can thank Washington lobbyists and think-tanks for this.

    The challenges facing the world today are far too complex to simply fall along party lines. Dismissing AFD doctors simply because they don’t align with your politics is a major blindspot on your behalf. I consider myself an environmentalist, a human rights activist, but when it comes to the handling of Corona Virus, the CDC and FDA are manufacturing a reality that financially benefits pharmaceutical companies (and it’s highly influential board members). “America’s Frontline Doctors” (AFD) aren’t the only ones speaking up about this – plenty of other doctors around the world are talking about the mishandling of Corona Virus – even dstinguished Yale Epidemiolgists ( You find find these stories in maintstream media because mainstream media is largely funded by pharmaceutical companies.

    Bundling all science that you don’t agree with as “alternative science” is building your own little bubble of reality. If you’re honest with yourself, perhaps you might realize you’re fabricating your own little conspiracy theory…

  8. 58
    Mal Adapted says:


    Mal, I looked at your reference and I was not super-impressed; I think the problem is, as I suggested at #17, communicating the science itself, rather than the socio-economic structure of the practice of science.

    First, I’ll highlight my own comprehensive non-expertise. The problem AFAICT is, who should I believe when the science gets beyond my personal competence? JN-G’s point is that few people have time to be fully literate, i.e. expert, in all scientific sub-disciplines. That includes scientists who may be expert in one subject or another. He points out that scientists confronting an unfamiliar topic can use their knowledge of who the experts are to prune their reading list. JN-G (my emphasis):

    There are, perhaps, less than a thousand people worldwide who know enough about climate change’s impacts on tropical cyclones, extratropical transitions, wind speeds, rainfall rates, and sea level rise to qualify them to evaluate [a technical claim about super-storm Sandy]. It’s not even clear that I’m one of them! The requisite level of climate literacy is enormous.

    But there’s an important lesson here about how we decide which scientific statements to believe and which ones not to believe. Those of us who are trained scientists but who do not have enough personal literacy to independently evaluate a particular statement do not throw up our hands in despair. Instead, we evaluate the source and the context.

    We scientists rely upon a hierarchy of reliability. We know that a talking head is less reliable than a press release. We know that a press release is less reliable than a paper. We know that an ordinary peer-reviewed paper is less reliable than a review article. And so on, all the way up to a National Academy report. If we’re equipped with knowledge of this hierarchy of reliability, we can generally do a good job navigating through an unfamiliar field, even if we have very little prior technical knowledge in that field.

    That’s the insight that impressed me. We know there’s a deep public knowledge deficit about climate science. We know fake experts are paid to fill it with pernicious sciencey-sounding nonsense. How do we teach non-scientists to evaluate a wide range of scientific arguments, well enough to overcome the Dunning-Kruger effect? How does a non-DK-afflicted non-expert distinguish mercenary deniers from genuine experts, who are in overwhelming agreement regarding the science of AGW?


    So I have this crazy idea that you can communicate science to “the (unbiased) public”. But that requires treating them with some respect, which means expecting them to work at it as well, and being as disciplined in language as you would be in a professional setting.

    Ima quote J-NG again:

    Well, the typical member of the public has very little retained technical knowledge about just about everything. I claim that it’s an impossible task to raise the level of climate literacy in the general public to the point where most can tell that the statement about the ice age is wrong, let alone whether the statement about Sandy is wrong. And what about all the other fields in which they need to be literate as well?

    The solution to this problem is not scientific literacy, but what I call scientific meta-literacy. Forget that dream about enabling the public to independently evaluate scientific claims on their merits – that’s just not going to happen. Instead, enable the public to distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources of scientific information.

    I suppose that does sound a little disrespectful: I, for one, think it’s nonetheless correct. IMMO teaching scientific meta-literacy in high school and college, instead of or in addition to the science itself, would pay off in accelerated decarbonization of the global economy. YMMV, of course.

  9. 59
    Robert Cartwright says:

    I used to be able to reliably distinguish pseudo-science from real by its style. The fakers couldn’t quite copy the writing style of real scientists, and it was a sure sign. Some industries have come to realize they can help their profitability by messing with the public’s understanding of science; they’ve hired competent propagandists and contrarian or corrupt scientists to create disinformation, so now, except for content, it’s indistinguishable from the real thing.

  10. 60
    William B Jackson says:

    Mack…. According to NASA:”The natural greenhouse effect raises the Earth’s surface temperature to about 15 degrees Celsius on average—more than 30 degrees warmer than it would be if it didn’t have an atmosphere. The amount of heat radiated from the atmosphere to the surface (sometimes called “back radiation”) is equivalent to 100 percent of the incoming solar energy. The Earth’s surface responds to the “extra” (on top of direct solar heating) energy by raising its temperature.” Please tell NASA that back radiation is a term unknown to science!

  11. 61
    Random says:

    Please – never ever speak of conspiracy *theories*

    A theory, as you know better than I do, is subject to reason and falsification. That stuff is neither of it.

    Please call it ‘conspiracy myths’.

    Or ‘tales’ or ‘narratives’ or whatever. But never refer to it as ‘theory’ again. Ever. Thanks!

  12. 62

    There is no problem spotting “alternative scientists”.

    The real problem is NOT being able to recognise “REAL scientists”.

    There is too much story-telling, cherry-picking of facts, and alarmism, in today’s political climate (pun intended).

    There is only a sprinkling of REAL science, and it is hard to spot.

  13. 63
    nigelj says:

    Al Bundy @44

    ” Good list (alternative scientists, cranks). I’d add “got crappy grades”. Amazing how ‘C’ students think they’re qualified to be President.”

    Yes most of the cranks look like they would have bad grades, but I didn’t include “crappy grades” because some cranks look like they would have very high grades, like the Pielke fellow (that wrote a paper on water divining), he looks like a crank. Perhaps quite a big minority would have high grades.

    It just seems that crankiness might primarily be driven by general world view, with a huge distrust of the authorities, the established order, and governments high on the list.

  14. 64
    nigelj says:

    Brendan Wypich @57, yes no doubt some results are manipulated due to politics, but your specific evidence regarding covid 19 is weak as follows.

    “….but when it comes to the handling of Corona Virus, the CDC and FDA are manufacturing a reality that financially benefits pharmaceutical companies (and it’s highly influential board members). “America’s Frontline Doctors” (AFD) aren’t the only ones speaking up about this – plenty of other doctors….”

    This doesn’t make much sense to me. This virus is real and deadly enough so the CDC and so on promoting using pharmaceutical drugs, masks etcetera does not look like a plot to enrich pharmaceutical companies. If the virus was relatively benign and the CDC were going crazy, you would have a fair complaint.

    And the CDC and FDA opposing hydroxychloroquine actually hurts the pharmaceutical industry. So not much of a plot to enrich pharmaceutical companies there.

    And regarding your link on hydroxychloroquine. This was just one doctors opinion on its value. Several clinical trials have now shown conclusively that it doesn’t work for covid 19. Other trials have shown that a common steroid drug does work. Doesn’t this show that science is working ok? Isn’t this what you would expect? Some successes and some failures with various drugs?

  15. 65
    Mack says:

    “And what’s the temperature of the Earth directly measured on the surface?”

    Well, that depends upon where on Earth you’re shoving your thermometer…I have a few suggestions.
    But I’ll engage with your wacko charade, comparing apples and oranges….
    And what’s the temperature of the Moon measured in Stevenson screens about 5 ft above the surface?

  16. 66
    Mack says:

    @ William B Jackson,
    According to NASA “…. blah blah….if it didn’t have an atmosphere”

    Well, I’ve got news for you and NASA , the Earth DOES HAVE an atmosphere. That’s reality. So in science, you are faced with reality and you just have to work with that. You cannot go on some insane, speculative thought process whereby you just simply separate the atmosphere away from the oceans. This “atmosphere/ no atmosphere” is pure fanciful, unreal, doodlings on the blackboard, wacko nonsense. How can you possibly start talking about atmospheric temperatures without them being integrated with sea temperatures? When talking about Global average temperature the oceans are part of the atmosphere.
    This primer school crap of atmosphere/no atmosphere has got to stop. It’s an embarrassment to Earth science and an insult to human intelligence.

  17. 67
    Mack says:

    @WB Jackson,
    “Atmosphere/ no atmosphere”…. primary school, doodling on the blackboard, speculative, unreal, pseudo-science.

  18. 68
    John N-G says:

    #58 Mal Adapted: Thanks!

    #47 Zebra: I agree that all people can learn some science. But I argue that we must consider why we want people to learn some fundamental science concepts and some simple lab techniques as the primary or nearly-exclusive focus within the broader category of learning some stuff about science. The best choice would depend on how you want their learning to benefit (a) them for the rest of their lives and (b) society.

  19. 69
    MA Rodger says:

    Brendan Wypich @57
    You refute the use of the term “alternative science” telling us “The sad reality is that science has become so politicized that study results are manipulated to present whatever results the interested parties wish to say.”
    Your argument appears confused.
    Are you saying “study results are manipulated” and thus that the science is valid but the reporting of it is “manipulated”? Or are you saying that the science itself is being “manipulated”?
    If it is the former, the term “alternative science” is entirely valid as this would be describing the “manipulated” results as being non-scientific or an alternative to the actual science. If the latter, this would suggest a far more serious situation, one where the term “alternative science” would indeed be inappropriate. With science being the results found in multiple ‘studies’, you would be advocating the view that the whole of the scientific process is broken. Mind, I don’t think the scientific process is broken. If this latter position is what you advocate, perhaps you could furnish an example of this to support your position.

  20. 70
    Guest (O.) says:

    When people say ‘climate science did not take into account …’, but you can find scientists’ articles mentioning these things already, then you know that the claim that science did not take … into account is either done by a person who has no insight/overview in the field (so is no expert), or is lying to you deliberately.

    In any case you then know: this is not trustworthy.

    If people on the one hand say that the percentage of scientists agreeing on AGW does not matter (and if it’s 80%, 90%, 95% or 99,99% also don’t matter), because majorities don’t count, only truth does – but on the other hand try to convince you that there are a lot climate scientists, that disagree with the existence of AGW, you also know, there’s something wrong with the arguments.

    The argument by a minority, that the majority can be wrong (and only truth counts, and that this minority stands for truth) is used to imply that “the majority can be wrong” would imply “the minority mentioning this must be right anyway”.
    Or in short terms: “Because the majority (‘them’) can (will be) be wrong, listen to the minority (‘us’)!”
    Of course they don’t say it this way. But thats the hidden persuasion-trick in use.

    ‘The majority CAN be wrong’ is what they say, but ‘the majority MUST BE wrong’ is what they imply. And just by CLAIMING opposite ‘facts’/’truths’ they imply that the ‘consensus’ MUST be wrong. Thats enough for the deniers (and their laymen listeners) to come up with Popper and falsification principle and to claim that climate science was disproven or did not brought enough evidence.

    These are some of the tricks.

    Sometimes it needs climate science / physics knowledge to check claims, but not seldom it’s enough to find logical errors. Of course it often needs at least some minimal topic knowledge to follow the arguments and…
    to find the contradictions of the AGW-deniers, or to find that there are no contradictions in the climate science, which are claimed by the deniers.

    One thing is: for laymen it’s not easy to check if some information was cherry picked. But logical errors can be detected. Maybe better education in formal logic for the masses would be a good idea. Also some basic knowledge of physics and statistics/math. But I think the problem with the logic is unerrated.

    The problem of cherry-picking information is harder to solve than the logic problem. To detect cherry-picking of information needs overview/insight into the topic and knowledge about the contexts. Hence a layman will have problems, where a not-so-laymen might disclose the fake easily. But the logic errors might be easier to see.

    If not in the detailed domain knowledge, then in the form (the experts who don’t know that the influence of the sun (just as an example) has already been taken into account by climate science, while claiming the opposite, can’t be an expert). But to find out that climate science has taken this into account, this information should be available easily even for laymen.

    All that of course does not help, when people just want to ignore the facts and just look for a rationalization of it – thats then psychology of denialism.

  21. 71
    Karsten V. Johansen says:

    Thanks to Rasmus #15 for the link to an excellent article. But I think main public “understanding” problem is located at a much more elementary level. The “greenhouse” picture is not very good, and the molecular differences between assymetric ones like CO2, H2O, CH4 etc. on one side, and symmetric like N2 and O2 on the other, is of course not easy to explain to people who 1) are creationists etc. and don’t even understand what a molecule is and 2) don’t want to understand this at all (they just want to collect money…)

    We are here confronted with the main problem of mankind in the scientific age: “everyone” wants the commodities/gadgets etc. emerging from the commercial uses of science, but very many don’t want to know what science is about. They are “positive”, ie. liberalist ignorants.

    Ignorantism isn’t exactly a new phenomenon in history. An old saying, obviously based on experience goes like this:

    “Lies travel all the way around the globe, before the truth can even reach to put it’s shoes on”.

    And here is another one: “One idiot can ask more questions than thousands of scientific specialists can answer”.

    Goebbels is said to have explained the main method of how to rule by ignorance, in the way of the born demagogue: “The mass will only believe a lie, when it is big and nasty enough”. He proclaimed the nescessity of german imperialism to “secure the egg on the breakfast table of the little man”. More than a third of germans then agreed with this in rather free elections (there was lots of terror in the streets, 40 pct. were without jobs etc.).

    Also today it is the main problem of democracy and for our common future that a now again growing number of people are “thinking” along these lines.

    A clear parallell from then to our times is the nazi movement of “german physics”, which denied the relativity theory of Einstein (because of his jewish origins) – but still of course wanted the german atomic bomb…

    A rather well-known norwegian poet, Georg Johannesen, put the antitotalitarian view this way: “War is defense. Attack is only assault”.

    Gandhi: “The truth does not need to be sustained. It is self-sustaining”. By this he meant that anyone of course can try to ignore the reality, and it happens all the time. But if you ignore the reality, in the longer run you are doomed.

    Marx: “You can kick the truth out through the front door as hard as you like. Regardless, sooner or later it will return through the kitchen window” (unfortunately a huge lot of marxists didn’t understand that…)

    I don’t think it’s possible to explain the theory and facts about the climate problem arising from the burning of fossil fuels to any of the propagandists for climate ignorance (“climate sceptics” is misleading, because they obviously are willing to believe just anything but the the scientific theory concerning the matter. There is no skepticism whatsoever in that).

    Like liars in general they are not motivated by any kind of scientific interest. They are not interested in getting closer to the thruth. They are not trying to reject any hypotheses, just to make those they don’t like unpopular through propaganda.

    This because the actions needed to cut fossil fuel consumption will reduce their profits and earnings for some time, their driving motor cars, their flying on weekend trips to New York etc. etc. Cutting fossil fuel use will make life more uneasy for some time, especially for the rich. Therefore many are motivated by fear – mainly of loosing their huge fortunes or the payments they get form the owners of these fortunes, fear of losing all they buy, fear of loosing their power.

    And then and therefore there is the problem we call the media. Their owners are not interested in anything but the profits they can make by selling “news”. The result has been the relentless drift towards what Neil Postman 1985 called “Amusing ourselves to death”, what we have today is a huge obstacle to any enlightened discussion of anything, and therefore to any kind of even very limited democracy or just survival of the humans. Not enlightening deliberation but censorship through a cacaphony of nonsense. Liberal or consensual totalitarianism.

  22. 72
    Karsten V. Johansen says:

    Sorry for some typos in my writing above. Not very easy to write in this programme.

  23. 73
    zebra says:

    #58 Mal Adapted,

    “teaching scientific meta-literacy”

    But you have such a narrow definition of that… there’s nothing to teach. You make a hierarchical of list of “whom to believe the most” as JNG does, and have people memorize it. Then what?

    My point is that 99% of Denialist memes are fallacious at the level of logic and basic physics and language… and, as I said to Susan Anderson, even the actual scientists are really sloppy sometimes. So for me, “scientific meta-literacy” means teaching critical thinking and quantitative reasoning and metaphysics and logic and basic concepts like “energy”, and so on… so that these things are internalized and maintained over time, and provide at least a first-order evaluation of validity for such memes.

    I long ago gave up on the math wars and physics wars. People still seem to be convinced that memorizing algorithms and factoids is what should constitute “education”. I just saw an article in NYT, I believe, by Khan of Khan Academy. I didn’t read beyond the first few sentences, but the picture said it all: There was a young girl, sitting in front of a computer, and writing down trig functions on a piece of paper. Now, there may be some neuroscience studies that show some kind of benefit to this, but I doubt it would have any significance in the real world into which she will grow.

    The reason people get fooled by superficial appearances that something is “scientific” is because the science they have experienced in school is often just that… superficial.

  24. 74

    Robert Cartwright says:

    “I used to be able to reliably distinguish pseudo-science from real by its style.”

    What I notice is that it has almost become sport to debunk silly climate change theories. Actually, it’s become just sad — at least watching the Harlem Globetrotters demolish the Washington Generals time and time again is entertaining. But this is more like watching someone communicating with Pirini Scleroso, who has no idea what you are saying and responding in gibberish.

    Instead, I would like to see climate scientists respond to some of the incredible research that is out there pertaining to natural climate variability. But as a general rule, the climate community seems awfully timid in responding to it. I’ve looked at much of the research and it’s pretty solid, with none of the obvious pseudo-science “giveaways” that the charlatans present.

    Maybe Murray Gell-Mann was right.

  25. 75
    Mal Adapted says:

    Brendan Wypich:

    Bundling all science that you don’t agree with as “alternative science” is building your own little bubble of reality. If you’re honest with yourself, perhaps you might realize you’re fabricating your own little conspiracy theory…

    If Mr. Wypich is honest with himself, he’ll recognize the benefits of scientific meta-literacy as defined by JN-G, and make the effort to attain some. Sadly, that’s not how the DK effect works.

  26. 76

    #57, BW–

    Your outlook is far too simplistic. The sad reality is that science has become so politicized that study results are manipulated to present whatever results the interested parties wish to say.

    He said, with no evidentiary support whatever.

    I don’t believe it. And the reason I don’t believe it is that I know, and have known, many scientists and other scholars. Some are for sale. Many, many more are not. And really, if they were about money above all else, they mostly wouldn’t have gone into research in the first place.

  27. 77
    Mal Adapted says:

    Thinking a bit more about scientific meta-literacy, IMMO it’s crucial for public school graduates to understand the role of communities of individual specialists, i.e. peers, in justifying science’s epistemic authority. Too few non-scientists recognize how easily they fool themselves, and why scientists are suspicious of new claims by default: “The first principle [of science] is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool” (the aforementioned R. Feynman). Is it really so hard to understand that adding to humanity’s accumulating store of intersubjectively verified empirical knowledge, i.e. “justified belief”, is a collective enterprise carried out by individual trained, disciplined skeptics? Apparently it is, if only because there are psychological and social forces actively opposed to understanding it. I don’t think it’s beyond the “wattage”, i.e. sheer intellectual capacity, of the average person however.

    Virtually always, new knowledge is obtained at the margin of what’s already known. WRT to the claim “Storms like Sandy will become more frequent because of climate change”: realistically, only JN-G’s “less than a thousand people worldwide” have put the time in with what comes before the bleeding edge, sufficient to parse reality from creative imagination in the evidence. Yet even the most learned expert can be fooled, because we all harbor cognitive biases in some form or another. That’s where a scientist’s peers come in: they’ve each investigated her topic themselves, so they can most easily spot her errors; their cognitive biases tend to cancel hers out; and unsparing skepticism of competitors’ work (“peer review” broadly defined) is a norm of scientific culture, winnowing unverifiable claims out of the ever-growing pile of global knowledge over the long term. Disciplined specialists recognize their peers by the quality of their work, and it’s up to them collectively to decide who is or isn’t one of them.

    This, BTW, is why consensus is fundamental to scientific progress. New knowledge must be iteratively verified by a preponderance of specialists, before and after publication in their dedicated venues; they and other specialists then base further research on it, while the dwindling dissenters aren’t censored but merely ignored. The new consensus spreads iteratively to the larger community of trained scientists, by both literacy (anyone can take their shot at the primary reports) and meta-literacy (if a claim makes it into a high-impact specialist journal I may take a look; if the US National Academy of Sciences confirms it I’ll accept it as true, though always tentatively and provisionally, like the genuine experts do).

    Escaping the DK effect requires the non-expert to surrender the illusion of effortless omnicompetence (aka the Lake Wobegon effect), and acknowledge that actual experts exist, who know more than he does about some things because they’ve put the freakin’ time in. Once past that, honest skeptics can learn to tell justified belief from overconfidence and deliberate deception, without post-graduate preparation for a scientific career. At least that’s my hope. How the DK-afflicted can be helped to escape, and how populist culture warriors can be persuaded to trust a consensus of genuine experts when “populist” leaders insist on their own expertise while equating consensus with conspiracy, are IMO harder problems.

  28. 78
    Charly Cadou says:

    Peering through climate Websites of the “believer” or “denier” variety, I notice that a number of climate statistical experts are reconverting into COVID statistical experts, after all, all you need is a buch of numbers, and they come up with conclusions that reflect their “believer/denier” tag. We already had the tobacco crutch,now comes the COVID crutch. When will climate science be able to stand-up without limping?

  29. 79
    Mack says:

    There’s a little bit more follow up of my engagement with Thessalface, here..

  30. 80
    sidd says:

    Re: “writing down trig functions on a piece of paper”

    were there any pictures on the piece of paper ? you can have great fun working out sin(a+b) or cos(a+b) and such if you draw a picture of triangles and perpendiculars and use all that wonderful euclidean geometry …

    Or is that too old fashined to be taught these days ?


  31. 81
    William B Jackson says:

    Mack Your childish insults are as useless as your posts, good night sir!

  32. 82
    nigelj says:

    Zebra @ 73, you promote teaching kids logic, basic concepts, quantitative reasoning, and critical thinking. You criticise rote learning as having little or no practical value. You quote the example of basic trig lacking practical value.
    I agree we should teach more logic, basic concepts, quantitative reasoning, and critical thinking. Ive been trying to convince the education experts of this for frigging decades. Its especially important in this age of climate denialism, vaccine denialism, alternative facts and so on. However Mal or someone is quite right, people need skills in recognising fake exerts and fake studies.

    But teaching kids rote learning is still important. It teaches them how to remember information, it teaches discipline, and enough basic information so they can navigate the world. Learning basic trig is teaching basic quantitative reasoning skills, the very thing you promote, and is a skill used in many jobs. I used to use basic trig all the time.

    I’ve watched our system swing too far away from rote learning and its caused a disaster. Its not about dumping the old teaching system and adopting something completely new. That seldom works out well. It’s about combining the best of the old and the new. I’ve explained this to you before. Not sure why you cant or wont see it.


    Karsten V. Johansen @71, agree with most of your comments, but could you please stop scapegoating and criticising liberals. Plenty of reputable studies show liberals are more accepting of science than conservatives. That’s just the way it is.


    Mack @79

    I doubt anyone cares what you say or think about anything. Your comments on temperatures at the surface and a few feet higher shows conclusively you do not understand quite basic things.

  33. 83
    Guest (O.) says:

    Game shows in TV are wide spread, and a lot of people like them. Some are about knowledge (if you know more, you can get more money). But the questions are rarely about math or physics.

    But maybe that would be a way to get more people to think about natural sciences, math, logic and so on. If it’s too dry, it might be combined with some classical game show components, like balancing and sport, where people can laugh about, if some clumsiness occurs, but only to keep them at the screen. If such shows transport enough knowledge on math and physics etc. it might be a way to enhance knowledge and insight of the people in front of the screens.
    Nerds have become some positive attention since a while.

    Let’s make science become fun!

    (See also: J. Huizinga -> Homo Ludens)

  34. 84
    Guest (O.) says:

    Let me add this question: how much history of science was part of the history that was teached in school?!

  35. 85

    M 66: the oceans are part of the atmosphere.

    BPL: No, Mack. The oceans are the liquid part at sea level and beneath. The atmosphere is the gaseous part on top of sea level and above the land. Didn’t you have this in school?

  36. 86

    Here’s my own, very likely futile, attempt at increasing science literacy:

  37. 87
    zebra says:

    #80 sidd,

    Sidd, geometry is great fun indeed. But that young lady has…in her pocket!…a computer that would allow her to do Non-Euclidean geometry, with 3-D pictures, that she can pull and push with her finger to explore concepts and quantitative relationships.

    So, the question is one of priorities. Technology makes it possible to engage students at a higher level of cognition, and establish the thought processes, as I said above, that are more “meta”, that can be applied across different subject areas and contexts.

    That doesn’t mean that specialization stops existing, but most people don’t get advanced degrees in very narrow areas of science. They need to learn good “thinking habits” to be able to navigate life and distinguish reality from the BS with which they are bombarded.

  38. 88
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Charlie Cadou@78: “When will climate science be able to stand-up without limping?”

    Perhaps when ignorant asses quit kicking it in the shins!?!

    I’m sorry, but what the fuck are you talking about? Try again with something resembling a nonsequitur.

  39. 89
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Unfortunately, humans have always had a tendency to believe bullshit–perticularly if said bullshit seems to support what we already want to believe. Fortunately, humans have developed a methodology to counter this tendency that is quite effective: SCIENCE.

    Yes, folks, the key to countering alternative science is real science. I don’t mean the facts. I mean the method. I mean the understanding–at least at a rudimentary level-of how scientists do science.

    Look, science works. We have 400 years of societal progress that prove it. If humans choose to eschew the proven methodology that they, themselves, have developed to arrive at reliable understanding, then I really don’t have much hope for–or see much point in–the survival of the species.

  40. 90
    Mark Duigon says:

    Since “dowsing” was mentioned in the post and a few comments, I’d like to note: I used to follow a lot of debate about dowsing in James Randi’s skepticism blog. Randi had a long-standing challenge for anyone who could demonstrate the capability. No one ever won that challenge. In my years as a hydrologist, I came across many, many people who believed in dowsing, often with a religious zeal (I also selected locations for wells after homeowners had a dowser try, but fail). The nature of that belief makes it impossible to convince many of the “faithful” that there really is nothing to it.

  41. 91
    Mal Adapted says:


    But you have such a narrow definition of that… there’s nothing to teach. You make a hierarchical of list of “whom to believe the most” as JNG does, and have people memorize it. Then what?

    Oh, I’m not up for a slapfight, z. You’re smart enough, but you’re too pugnacious to expend energy on. I’ve said my piece, appending “Y[our ]M[ileage ]M[ay ]V[ary]” (old Usenet allusion). I also happen to have Dr. N-G right here (old movie allusion, lol), at least tacitly supporting my understanding of his blog post. If you’re looking for an argument (old TV allusion, LOL!), argue with him ;^D!

  42. 92
    Russell says:

    Stoat has an intriguing link to Fake Nous the blog of a U.Colorado philosophy professor who fears Peak Baloney is upon us, opines:

    “I’m generally an optimist about history; the world gets much better over time. But at this particular moment, it really seems as if America’s intellectual culture is falling apart. I don’t remember ever seeing such a bitterly divided society in my lifetime. It’s not just that people have strong disagreements. It’s that they have disagreements between completely unreasonable on their face positions. …

    I remember some attacks on free speech when I was in college, but they weren’t anything like as furious, or as hair-triggered, as today. Today you can get fired for stating platitudes, such as “everyone’s life matters”. Today, a milquetoast letter of support for open dialogue provokes outrage.

    What happened?

    I think the internet and social media have something to do with it. I think the democratization of information is endangering actual democracy.

    Let’s back up for a second and talk about the masses and the elites in a democratic society. Naively, you might be tempted to assume that the masses love democracy, since it lets “the people rule”, and the people, surely, want to rule. You might assume, then, that the elites are the main threat to democracy. Maybe rich business and political leaders, or perhaps intellectual elites, are conspiring behind the scenes to figure out how to undermine democracy in order to give themselves control. Then they would implement policies for their own benefit, at the expense of the masses. Muhahaha.

    That’s what undergraduates are inclined to think, from the start of their thinking about politics. Many still think that decades later. It is, however, pretty much the exact opposite of reality.

    Whole thing at

  43. 93
    Radge Havers says:

    Zebra @ ~ 73

    Re: Metaliteracy

    But you have such a narrow definition of that… there’s nothing to teach. You make a hierarchical of list of “whom to believe the most” as JNG does, and have people memorize it. Then what?

    A mischaracterization. Come on.

    It’s one thing to teach an old standardized curricula to semi-domesticated adolescents in a controlled setting. It’s another thing to address what’s going on out in the wild. They eat zoo keepers for breakfast out there.

    “But there’s an important lesson here about how we decide which scientific statements to believe and which ones not to believe. Those of us who are trained scientists but who do not have enough personal literacy to independently evaluate a particular statement do not throw up our hands in despair. Instead, we evaluate the source and the context.”
    John n-g
    [bold mine]

    EVALUATE the source and the context

    IOW, we need to add some better heuristics to teaching, and some additional resources to the public at large, IMO.

  44. 94
    Karsten V. Johansen says:


    Sorry, misunderstanding. The problem here is that the meaning of “liberal” in USA differs from it’s meaning in Scandinavia and Europe. In the US “liberal” is something like “social democratic” or even “socialist” in Europe. But when we (and I) here use the phrase, the usual meaning is “liberalist” as in neoliberalism, thatcherism, reaganomics etc., ie. close to what an american would often call “conservative”: dogmatic belief in neoclassical economic doctrines (Walras etc., subjective theory of value), monetarism (Chicago school), privatization of everything from prisons to health and railways, schools etc., as opposed to keynesian economics, critical economic thinking like undogmatic (non-stalinist) marxian inspired, schumpeterian, neokeynesian and (more important) any form of heterodox/ecological economic theory, like fx. in “For the common good” by Herman E. Daly og John B. Cobb, jr.

    The climate crisis offers a very clear example of the deep problems within neoclassical theory of value: the costs in this theory is only is only what is payed by the “producer” (factory owner(s) etc.) before the commodities are marketed. Therefore all costs connected with environmental problems are “externalities” and must be carried by “society” (which as said once by Thatcher “does not exist”…). But the vast majority of costs connected with production using fossil fuels will occur (long) *after* the products were sold and consumed. This deep problem cannot be solved by any kind of liberalist/neoclassical economic dogmatism. And then there is of course the main problem with any market equilibrium “theory”: a market is what in physics is called a metastable system, meaning: any kind of instability is self-sustaining, creating exactly the opposite of equilibrium. Like a coin on the edge tumbling. And who would make an electric waterboiler, which does not close down before all the water has boiled away and the kitchen burned down to the ground?

  45. 95

    From Mal’s ref to John N-G’s post:

    “This next statement is the classic misconception: “Summer is warm because the Earth is closer to the Sun in summer.” Notice, by the way, how the addition of an authoritative scientific diagram makes any statement more plausible. Here, knowing a bit of science hurts you, because this statement makes physical sense. It’s easy to demonstrate that it’s wrong – just note that if this were the case, the Northern and Southern Hemispheres would experience summer at the same time of year, and they do not.”

    There’s the infamous YouTube video asking freshly-minted Harvard grads this same question on what mechanism controls the seasoons:

    What’s intriguing about this what-should-be-obvious explanation is how rarely that simple concepts have been further elaborated on in climate science. So in the case of natural climate variability, how the strong seasonal signal interacts with the periodic gravitational forcing to essentially completely control the El Nino/La Nina cycles.

    Alas, there’s been relatively little fanfare from the consensus climate science community on this finding despite its significance in predictive modeling. Is it because it’s considered “alternative science”?

  46. 96

    #78, CC–

    When will climate science be able to stand-up without limping?

    It has done so just fine since early in the nineteenth century. You appear to be confusing science with commentary on science.

  47. 97
    Mr. Know It All says:

    6 – Susan Anderson
    “…While there have been prehistoric periods of global warming, observed changes since the mid-20th century have been unprecedented in rate and scale.”…”

    Not true. As documented here a month or two ago, the earth temperature rose 14C “in a few decades” and resulted in SLR of several meters sometime around 11K or 14K years ago. That rapid climate change has not been explained to date. This is an article about similar unexplained rapid disappearance of the NA ice sheets – this is not the phenomenon I was referring to, but has some similarities:

    As for the original OP article above,we’ve laughably come full circle. First, AGW “believers” bellyached that “deniers” were denying the “science”, even though similar temperature swings have occurred throughout the history of the planet. Now, today we have so-called “scientists” denying the reports of practicing Medical Doctors that certain drugs are helping their patients with COVID! It might be good to ask the author: “What are your credentials as a scientist or Medical Doctor, or are you just a writer?”

    On dowsing rods, as some above have verified, they seem to work. I have seen them used to find the best spot for drilling water wells. I have no idea how it works, but it seems to work for some people.

  48. 98

    Kevin McKinney said:

    “It has done so just fine since early in the nineteenth century. You appear to be confusing science with commentary on science.”

    Respectfully, perhaps you are confusing the elementary science of GHG-based AGW with the much more challenging non-linear-fluid-dynamics-based climate science which is associated with behaviors such as the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO).

    I can argue that very little progress has been made on the latter, and all the computational power of GCMs have not allowed any long-range predictions to be made.
    I think CC was making a sarcastic comment that certain climate scientists are trying to solve problems in epidemiology before they finish off the unresolved — and much-easier — stuff in climate science. I am not kidding, epidemiology models are much harder than even fluid dynamics, because the human-in-the-loop feature of pandemics will alter whatever toy problem it may be into a game-theoretic problem — which in general are intractable to solve.

    Give me the straightforward geophysics of climate science any day.

  49. 99
    nigelj says:

    Guest O @83

    “Game shows in TV are wide spread, and a lot of people like them. Some are about knowledge (if you know more, you can get more money). But the questions are rarely about math or physics.”

    True, but I suggest you track down the television game show series 8 out of 10 cats! Plenty of maths in this one, and its all quite clever and with an amusing host.


    Ray Ladbury @88 says “Unfortunately, humans have always had a tendency to believe bullshit–perticularly if said bullshit seems to support what we already want to believe. Fortunately, humans have developed a methodology to counter this tendency that is quite effective: SCIENCE.”

    So true. Post Truth by Evan Davis is worth a read. We are drowning in bullshit, but I think it needs more than just science alone to counter it. It needs teaching logic and how to recognise cherry picking, and misleading rhetoric, and the seductive but vacuous nature of the art of sophistry. Lies come in many forms. But all this could possibly form part of a secondary school general science course.


    Russel @92 posted some copy and paste “Today you can get fired for stating platitudes, such as “everyone’s life matters”.

    I think they were really fired for missing the point about “black lives matter”, and gross stupidity. Ok I’m joking a bit. In a more serious vein, while I dont like the stupid, vacuous, sarcy statement “everyones lives matter” we have to lean towards free speech. We can fire people for being stupid or offensive unless it weakens their job performance or is causing other people physical harm, or serious emotional harm.


    Karsten V. Johansen @94 thank’s, and that clarifies things. Although I suggest you are better to actually use the term ‘neoliberal’ because it removes all doubt. Again I agree with your comments. Indeed you are mostly preaching to the converted. And its a tragedy of the commons problem.

    I’m not a fan of the extreme Thatcher / Reagon form of neoliberalism which ignores externalities (although Thatcher did take the climate problem seriously, she has a chemistry degree, and I think she pushed nuclear power as a solution and thought the state did have some limited role to play). And Im no fan of the attempts to push privatisation and deregulation to the limits and have open borders related to immigration.

    Where I think neoliberalism does make sense is free trade, fairly open immigration, leaving the private sector to do what its good at, such as manufacturing, and avoiding over regulation. I think there would be an optimal sort of balance on these sorts of things, but getting everyone to agree on it is very trying indeed.

  50. 100
    nigelj says:

    Meant to say: We can’t fire people for being stupid or offensive unless it weakens their job performance, or is causing other people physical harm, or serious emotional harm.