Saturday, 25 June 2011

Arguing from ignorance only makes you look ignorant

God, is this thing still here?

Over the past six months or, to be perfectly honest, year, my rant/discuss energy has been diluted by twitter, which makes it too easy to make simple statements of opinion or belief without developing the argument, and Facebook, which does something similar.

Which is of course the trouble with most social media - it makes it far too easy to comment, argue and insult from a position of ignorance.

Stop being sarcastic, I know that's not news. However, no matter how obvious that fact is it is enabling an incredibly low standard of debate across even more fora.

Last night I saw a long string of comments on a FB post, all arguing about an event which was thoroughly explained in the media at the time, without one person providing the missing, documented, information. Instead there were quite offensive allegations and wild, wildly inaccurate, suppositions.

Here's the first tip towards being a more informed, less confused member of society, consumer, voter and debater: don't wonder, find out.

Don't, as an anti-vaxer tried with me when I kept answering his questions with documented answers, say "I just wonder ...": find out.

Chances are there will be answers, sometimes astonishingly easy to find.

Every field of contentious science has common denier tropes, and they all make you look ignorant:

Anti-vaccination: Rates of autism soared after vaccines were introduced (no, definitions changed and awareness increased).

Evolution: If we descended from apes, why are there still apes? (Not descended from, there was a common ancestor we are both descended from).

Climate change: it has been warmer in the past (only in small areas, the issue is world-wide warming. Oh, and basic physics).

The thing is: if all you say is "follow the money" and "the government line" and "sheeple", all you are doing is demonstrating your inability or unwillingness to do your background research, test your assumptions and develop your arguments: in other words, to "debate".

On ABC1's Lateline on Wednesday June 22, Australia's new chief scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, said "If he wants to address the substance of the issue, he can. He's entitled to. He can argue his case and he can put his own arguments and his own evidence that he's - or the evidence - the conclusions that he's drawn from the evidence that he has on the table and have them properly debated"

The key point being: you need to have evidence, or arguments, in order to play. Otherwise you are just part of the noise, not the signal.

When I was the information officer for a disability support agency, it was obviously simple professionalism that saw me investigate new health claims and new or old treatments before saying anything to clients or colleagues, regardless of how much or little background I had in that area.

It was the experience that restarted my research and critical skills, atrophying since I finished my first degree, and got me keenly interested in science again.

When I kept being confronted by the (sadly ongoing) big-shouty health issue of the day, the alleged link between vaccines and autism, I found out the mercury link was fundamentally unlikely, large studies had found no correlation between vaccination and autism, studies of unvaccinated populations had found the same rates of autism as in vaccinated populations, and the side-effect rates of vaccination pale into insignificance compared to, say, the health effects of measles. Check out Science Based Medicine for an overview.

I read as much as I could about evolution and found that evolution has been witnessed in action and yes, we have transition fossils.

Then, when I was comfortable with those, the issue of climate change got raised (around a bonfire, while drunk) and I had to take a deep breath and dive back into research again.

The idea of climate change being a conspiracy appears at face value to be laughably paranoid. It would need more collusion than, frankly, we've ever demonstrated ourselves capable of. So yes, I went in sceptical of the sceptics, expecting to find more explanations than cover-ups.

I found out about the difference between climate and weather, and why local weather patterns over the short term are irrelevant. I found out the century-old knowledge that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and how we know that human activity is increasing levels in the atmosphere and why the claim "it's irrelevant because there's so little of it" is not just wrong, it's completely idiotic (hint: it takes a lower concentration of arsenic in your blood to kill you.

And so on, and so on and so forth. There really is an enormous amount of evidence.

And, at no point, although I have said extremely unpleasant things about particular people to select friends, at no point have I sent abusive or threatening emails to people, no matter how much ... Actually, no, I shall avoid the provocation to link to anyone, no matter how much they have abdicated the right to avoid insult by denying it to others.

The point is: I shut up until I felt I had as much of a handle on the evidence as I could given my background, time and willingness to learn ("I am not a scientist, but ..." in my case: But I listened to those who were).

In this age of the internet, when so much is available, good quality and bad, diving in without having done the basic background research may be easier than ever before, but has never been less excusable.

Shut up until you've done your homework. Then we can talk.

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