“Scientific” debate on the internet

In her post incoming woo – ‘stabilised liquid oxygen’ & other nonsense Alison discusses some of the pseudo science rubbish that gets published in newspapers. Particularly in the “Letters to the Editor” columns. Andre Picard discussed the same phenomena occurring on the internet (The Internet has changed the nature of scientific debate). He says:

“What is truly troubling is that the most common “debating” technique in cyberspace has become the dismissal of anyone with respect for scientific fact and reasoned opinion as part of some vast conspiracy.

If you read scientific literature and health research with an open mind and still conclude that vaccines are not poisons, that chelation therapy will not cure heart disease, that realigning someone’s chakra is not going to clear up a bladder infection, or that strange concoctions of vitamins and minerals cannot cure bipolar disorder – all theories that have pretty broad followings on the Web – then you are dismissed as an agent of an evil empire.

Those who promote these bogus therapies – and often profit from them – will, paradoxically, dismiss you as a paid shill for Big Pharma, oppressive government or some other branch of the devilish military-industrial complex.

Doctors, nurses, pharmacists, pharmacologists, biochemists, immunologists, geneticists and journalists are not to be trusted. They are all on the take.

Medical journals that publish peer-reviews research: They are nothing but promotional tools for Big Pharma and researchers are their puppets and profiteers.

So who do you trust?

Well, you depend on chiropractors and Hollywood stars to give you advice about vaccinating your baby; you trust the guy at the health-food store to offer up a sure-fire cure for arthritis; and you take as gospel the e-mail that warns ominously that if new food safety rules are adopted by government, storm troopers will soon be busting down your front door to seize the chamomile tea.

In the world of cyberspace science, the best evidence is anecdote and the more fantastical the claims, the larger the following they seem to garner.

On the Web, you can find ample material to confirm any prejudice and enough “evidence” to fuel any conspiracy theory.”

The internet is such a useful and effective medium for information and education. It’s sad, therefore, that pseudo scientific and anti-scientific propagandists are able to use it like the “Letters to the Editor” column of a give away paper. People really need to develop a critical approach to information on the internet. They must learn how to separate the “wheat from the chaff.”

Hostility to science on the web

On the one hand we can start by recognising the democratic nature of the internet. This means that the presence of false information, stupid ideas and just plain rubbish is a fact of life.

On the other hand we should also recognise that the medium is used by highly motivated people and organisations, often very organised and with large financial resources. They can produce material and arguments with an appearance of authenticity and credibility. Their motives may be skilfully hidden.

Creationism/intelligent design

I think the creationist/intelligent design (ID) lobby belong to this group. This makes them different, more effective and more dangerous than the average woo-merchant. They are able to promote an anti-science agenda more effectively than the usual anti-science or pseudo science advocate. They have big backers and a largely captive constituency (fundamentalist Christians). They also have a wider fertile constituency where they often find a receptive ear and from which they can draw recruits. These are the other branches of Christianity and other religions who are vulnerable because their beliefs promote sympathy to “supernatural” explanations.

Christians have proven to be avid users of the internet so it is no accident that the creationist/ID industry utilise it as their main communication medium. But the lies pedalled by this industry are, in the long term, just as harmful to Christians as as to other people.

Christians should also learn to separate the “wheat from the chaff” in their internet browsing.


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4 responses to ““Scientific” debate on the internet

  1. Are you implying that Christians should not believe in the supernatural? That is like saying that mathematicians should not believe in multiplication.
    One day the wheat will be separated from the chaff, as Jesus mentioned in its original context.


  2. This sort of problem is probably going to get worse before it gets better. You might be interested in the following essay about the crisis situation in newspaper journalism brought about by modern communication technologies.



  3. Ross – I don’t know where you got “should” from. But, as you point out, most Christian do accept”supernatural” explanations. This makes them vulnerable to accepting all sorts of anti-scientific stories. This interferes with their ability to separate the “wheat from the chaff.”

    Having said that – of course there are Christians who are able to do this. In New Zealand about 60% of Christians do accept evolutionary science, for example.


  4. Another part of debate on the internet, that I’ve just run into again (!), is that those that don’t like considering opposing views to their own are inclined to “dismiss” not just “in argument, but also literally, by banishing the alternative views from their forum. This, of course, makes for lop-sided “discussions”, that tend to favour what they would like to be true. Unless readers have some idea of what is “missing”—a catch-22 for a newcomer to a topic or for someone coming from the same viewpoint as the forum hosts—the forum will be quite misleading.

    Christians should also learn to separate the “wheat from the chaff” in their internet browsing.

    They should probably be wary of the credentials of guest writers and their agendas, too!

    Bottom line, I guess, is that if you want information about topic ‘X’, you really have to get it from a reliable source that speaks for topic ‘X’. Only after you have a genuine understanding of the argument for topic ‘X’ can you put the criticism or alternative arguments into perspective.

    I have yet to see apologists encourage people to try genuinely understand the science position first, which, to me, makes a mockery of their claim to be providing opposing views.


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