Category Archives: belief

Being better informed – unexpected advice from The Guardian


How often does The Guardian attack truth instead of presenting it? Credit: “The Guardian” Blaming Trump for Racism in America

This opinion piece by Piers Robinson in The Guardian surprised me – and then it pleased me – Russian news may be biased – but so is much western media.

Surprised me because, of late, The Guardian has been shockingly one-sided. Particularly in its treatment of Russian politics, nationally and internationally. Unfortunately doesn’t include any self criticisms – that would have been nice but let’s be thankful for small steps. The fact the article appeared may mean some people at The Guardian recognised the their paper’s toeing of the “party line” on these issues may have been counterproductive.  Alexander Mercouris goes so far as to pose the question:

“Could it possibly be that the new editor – Katherine Viner – does not share the obsessive anti-Russian mania that took hold at the Guardian under the preceding Rusbridger regime?”

Wouldn’t it be  nice if this opinion piece was providing notice of a new policy, and is not just a one-off – an aberration?

Pleased me because the article makes recommendations I fully agree with and have often advocated:

“The first step towards becoming more informed is to avoid seeing our governments and media as free from manipulation while demonising “foreign” governments and media as full of propagandistic lies.

The second step is to recognise that one can gain useful insights and information from a variety of news sources – including those that are derided as “propaganda” outlets: Russia Today, al-Jazeera and Press TV should certainly not be off-limits.”

Some commenters have attacked me here for daring to use “unapproved” sources or questioning the prevailing “official” attitudes. I have also often warned about the demonising of governments and politicians  which, unfortunately appears to drive the political thinking of many people.

The article is directed mainly at common media reaction in the UK to the Russian news outlet RT. This has always seemed to me a rather childish reaction to the success of a competitor. However, it has led to serious calls for clipping RTs wings, even somehow banning it. There have been similar, perhaps more serious, calls from US politicians.
The author says of these complaints:
“Whatever the accuracy, or lack thereof, of RT and whatever its actual impact on western audiences, one of the problems with these kinds of arguments is that they fall straight into the trap of presenting media that are aligned with official adversaries as inherently propagandistic and deceitful, while the output of “our” media is presumed to be objective and truthful. Moreover, the impression given is that our governments engage in truthful “public relations”, “strategic communication” and “public diplomacy” while the Russians lie through “propaganda”.”
And yet:
“Neither of these claims has significant academic support. A substantial body of research conducted over many decades highlights the proximity between western news media and their respective governments, especially in the realm of foreign affairs. For reasons that include overreliance on government officials as news sources, economic constraints, the imperatives of big business and good old-fashioned patriotism, mainstream western media frequently fail to meet democratic expectations regarding independence.”
It refers to a Manchester University study showing that “UK media coverage of the 2003 Iraq invasion . . . . found that most UK mainstream media performed to reinforce official views rather than to challenge them.” And the recent Chilcot report  describing how “Tony Blair had discussed how phases 1 and 2 of the “war on terror” would require a “dedicated tightly knit propaganda unit”.”
The article is certainly true in its assertion:
“These are confusing times for consumers of the news, and the issue of which media outlets should be trusted is as demanding and critical as ever. Given the level of conflict and potential conflict in the world today, plus pressing global issues regarding environmental crisis, poverty and resources, it is essential that people learn to navigate the media and defend themselves against manipulation.”
All the more reason to avoid bias – to avoid:
“seeing our governments and media as free from manipulation while demonising “foreign” governments and media as full of propagandistic lies.”
And especially to be open minded. To obtain:
“information from a variety of news sources – including those that are derided as “propaganda” outlets.”
Now, wouldn’t be nice if The Guardian followed this advice in future.

The Putin diversion

Putin and Obama in serious discussion at the G20 summit. The political leaders need to be judged intelligently.

“The Putin diversion” could be the title for a n episode of the popular show “The Big Bang Theory.” Or, more appropriately, the name of a chess strategy. But I have found this diversion a real problem in discussing important issues.

How can we discuss , for example, the current Russian/Olympic doping scandal if a serious commentor simply responds “Russian authorities ran the doping! Putin is rotten, through and through.”

When I pointed out “Unfortunately, statements like “Putin is rotten” are hardly intelligent and they are certainly not a sensible response to this whole scandal,” and attempted to return to the doping discussion I get a response:

“Putin is a monster in one of the most oppressive countries. he has his critics assassinated in the best traditions of Russia. Your support for him is bizarre.”

So we make no progress discussing the issue of doping.

Similarly, I feel that diverting a discussion about the MH17 tragedy in eastern Ukraine with raves about Putin being a “petty tyrant” or that he has “been accused of assassinating or imprisoning his political rivals” is insulting to the memory of the innocent passengers who died in the  crash and to their loved ones.

So, my purpose with this post is to provide a forum for commentors to vent their feelings about Putin and the Russian Federation. Rave on about Crimea, Ukraine or Syria. Let’s discuss here some of the issues being inappropriately raised on comments on other posts.

It would be nice, though, if commentors present a bit more than feelings and prejudices – perhaps back up their claims with some citations or evidence.

To kick off, I do not know a terrific lot about Putin or have particularly strong feelings about the man. But he is certainly an important international figure today and any cultured person should make an effort to learn a bit about him. Two books that have perhaps influenced my thinking are:

First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President

Based on interviews of Putin soon after he became president in 2000. I have attempted to read other books about Putin but find so many of them are extremely biased (he is a controversial figure) and so many authors approach him with their own political agendas – often very extreme ones.
Godfather of the Kremlin: The Decline of Russia in the Age of Gangster Capitalism

Not about Putin but describes Russia in the 1990s when it had become, as the author put it, a criminal anarchy.

It does go up to the period when Putin moved to Moscow and was given Yeltisn’s blessing as acting president. But it provides a very useful background to what preceded Putin – and provides some idea of what he has been combating during his presidency. Incidentally, it perhaps gives some insight into the current situation in Ukraine where conditions similar to Russia in the 1990s still continues.

Another book I have found useful is The Litvinenko File. Putin is only a peripheral figure in Litvenenko’s story but it provides a similar picture the the Godfather of the Kremlin about the role of the criminal oligarch Berezokovsky in promoting Putin, why he and Litvinenko felt betrayed when he refused to deliver and turned against him.

Seeing I have been accused of being “pro-Moscow” for this level of interest in this particular political figure I should note that while having read one book by President Putin (or at least his interviews) I have also read one book by the US president Obama – Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance.  So, perhaps I should also be labelled “pro-Washington.” Or, perhaps, we should just keep away from such silly McCarthyist labeling and instead get on with a good-faith discussion.

I look forward to the discussion.

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The insult of low expectations

Th above Today’s Jesus and Mo strip underlines a problem we have the “politically correct” charges of “Islamophobia.” it’s just a way to prevent rational discussion and it is insulting to Muslims because it demands lower expectations than for the rest of the community. Shouldn’t we be labeling those demanding lower expectations prejudiced or racist?

Ali A. Rizvi describes the problem well in the above video. Here is some of what he says:

“As a brown-skinned person with a Muslim name, I can get away with a lot more than you’d think. I can publicly parade my wife or daughters around in head-to-toe burqas and be excused out of “respect” for my culture and/or religion, thanks to the racism of lowered expectations. I can re-define “racism” as something non-whites can never harbor against whites, and cite colonialism and imperialism as justification for my prejudice.

And in an increasingly effective move that’s fast become something of an epidemic, I can shame you into silence for criticizing my ideas simply by calling you bigoted or Islamophobic.

For decades, Muslims around the world have rightly complained about the Israeli government labeling even legitimate criticism of its policies “anti-Semitic,” effectively shielding itself from accountability. Today, Muslim organizations like CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) have borrowed a page from their playbook with the “Islamophobia” label — and taken it even further.

In addition to calling out prejudice against Muslims (a people), the term “Islamophobia” seeks to shield Islam itself (an ideology) from criticism. It’s as if every time you said smoking was a filthy habit, you were perceived to be calling all smokers filthy people. Human beings have rights and are entitled to respect. But when did we start extending those rights to ideas, books, and beliefs? You’d think the difference would be clear, but it isn’t. The ploy has worked over and over again, and now everyone seems petrified of being tagged with this label.

The phobia of being called “Islamophobic” is on the rise — and it’s becoming much more rampant, powerful, and dangerous than Islamophobia itself.”

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Are you really right?

Great explanation of our different thinking processes by Julia Galef. Readers who listen to the Rationally Speaking podcast will recognise her.

She describes the two different mindsets we have when approaching problems – calling them the “Warrior mindset” and the “Scout mindset. Motivated reasoning which is so widespread is a strong feature of the “Warrior mindset.” While this may spur people to action it is not a good way of solving problems.

I like the way Julia brings out the fundamental role of emotions in determining mindsets – and the way different people approach problems.

So some good advice from her is to encourage emotions related to curiosity, the desire to understand and the ability to be proud about changing one’s mind and not defensive about retaining beliefs.

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Why don’t feminists fight for Muslim women?

I will probably get some negative feedback for posting this video (as I did with Richard Dawkins and the Skeptics Conference controversy). But Ayaan Hirsi Ali makes some important points worth a proper discussion.

I think she is too simplistic about some things. Such as attributing modern values to our Judeo-Christian heritage – if that was the over-riding factor our values system would be far more backwards.

But often groups fighting for improvements in the values systems of our society can be hypocritical in their attitudes towards the problems in other societies. This appears to be the case with at least some feminist groups – but is also true of some other groups which consider themselves “progressive.”


Thanks to Why Evolution is True: Ayaan Hirsi Ali on the failure of feminists to fight for Muslim women.

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Richard Dawkins – speech to Reason Rally, 2016

This was Richard Dawkins’ speech to the 20116 Reason Rally in Washington DC last week.

Richard suffered a mild stroke earlier this year and this video shows he is still not fully well. Anyway, too unwell to travel so he presented the speech as a video.

There is nothing new here – he has made all these points before. But these points are well worth repeating, and he makes them so well.

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Debating fluoridation and tyranny – Tom O’Connor responds


Individual consent – what does it mean and how is it obtained?

This article below is a guest contribution from Tom O’Connor responding to my article Attempting a tyranny of the minority on fluoridation. I invited Tom to discuss the issue here, and offered him a right of reply because I think there is value in discussing the points he raised in his Timaru Courier opinion piece and  that I critiqued in my article.

Unfortunately, in this issue, the scientific arguments are very often a proxy for underlying values issues, at least on the part of opponents of fluoridation. It is in the nature of values issues that there is no “correct” answer (in contrast to arguments about facts). Nevertheless, the values issues are important so I hope they can be developed in discussion here around Tom’s original opinion piece and his response here. In the end, such issues are decided by democratic and political means so open discussion of the issues is important.

Firstly I am not opposed to the use of fluoride to combat tooth decay per se. Nor do I have any “anti-fluoride mates” as you put it. If the government wants to make fluoride freely available there are many ways of doing that without imposing it on everyone.

There are three main elements to the fluoride debate. The first is the efficacy or otherwise of fluoride as a preventative for tooth decay.

The second is the use of reticulated potable water as a means of delivering anything other than clean water to the community.

The third is the issue of mass medication, or mass treatment or mass therapy of people without individual consent and practical convenient and affordable alternatives. Legislating to declare a medical treatment is not a medical treatment simply on the ground that the dose rate is measured in parts per million is one of the most stupid and dishonest things I have ever seen any government do. Many medications are measured in such minute quantities.

The Grey Power Federation objection to the proposed addition of fluoride to potable reticulated water is based on the third element only. We do not have a policy in the first element simply because we do not have the expertise or scientific qualifications to develop such a policy. We have not considered the second element.

That policy has been, in my view, adequately explained in the Timaru Courier opinion piece you refer to. The following comments are therefore mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Grey Power members or anyone else.


As you rightly point out there is probably nothing to be gained in participating in the endless argument between proponents and opponents of fluoride as an oral health treatment. Both sides have accused the other of engaging in pseudo-science and scare mongering. Both are, to some extent, probably accurate and in agreement on that point alone. However, where doubts exist, it is probably better to err on the side of caution.

Reticulated water

Territorial local authorities have the responsibility to provide potable water to their communities where no other sources are available or suitable. The principle responsibility of local authorities, as outlined in the Drinking Water Standards for New Zealand, administered by the Ministry of Health, is to ensure drinking water is as free from all other substances and organisms as possible. Using reticulated potable water to convey anything else, be it medical or not, is contrary to that principle.

The use of chlorine to remove micro-organisms and other pathogens is designed to remove unwanted and potentially unsafe matter from drinking. At the end of that process there is not supposed to be any detectable chlorine. That there often is demonstrates the difficulty of getting the addition of trace elements correct. That is a very different matter to the deliberate introduction of an additional substance which many people don’t want.

Mass treatment and individual consent

This is not the first time mass medication or treatment has been introduced in New Zealand. Iodine deficiency, as a cause for goitre, was discovered in the early 1900s and to address the problem table salt was iodised at up to 80mg of iodine per kilogram of salt in 1938. This was accompanied by an extensive public education programme and there was always un-iodised salt as a practical, convenient and affordable option on grocer shop shelves for those who did not want it.

Suggesting that those who object to fluoride in the water they pay their local authority to deliver can obtain alternative supplies from a community tap or buy it from the supermarket is unacceptable. These options are not possible, practical, convenient or affordable for many people.You may also recall a recent proposal to add folic acid to all bread products as a means of addressing a reproductive issue for women. The public outcry which saw that proposal dropped was not solely based on doubts about the efficacy of folic acid but the fact they many people simply did not want their bread medicated with anything for any reason.

You may also recall a recent proposal to add folic acid to all bread products as a means of addressing a reproductive issue for women. The public outcry which saw that proposal dropped was not solely based on doubts about the efficacy of folic acid but the fact they many people simply did not want their bread medicated with anything for any reason.

There are practical and cost effective methods of providing fluoride for those who want it. Forcing it on those who don’t want it is simply unacceptable in a free society.

Tom O’Connor

I will post a response to Tom’s arguments in a few days. Meanwhile, readers are welcome to make their own arguments in the comments section.

Ken Perrott

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Misrepresentation, misogyny and misandry – these should concern sceptics


Steve Novella – prominent member of the Skeptics Gude to the Universe and NECSS

I apologize to those sensitive souls whose toes I am treading on – but I must return to the debate sparked off by the invitation/disinvitation/reinvitation fiasco involving Richard Dawkins and the US Northeast Conference on Science & Skepticism (NECSS) (see Richard Dawkins and the Skeptics Conference controversy).

I must comment on the way this issue was discussed in the last episode of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe (SGU).  Listen to the section Free Speech vs Social Justice – A discussion with Julia Galef about the recent controversies in the skeptical movement for the full discussion. In my view, this discussion was misleading because it started with a red herring (“free speech vs social justice”) and only got to the real meat of the issue (irrationality in the “skeptic movement”) at the end of the discussion. And even then that important issue was not handled objectively.

This specific discussion was important because:

1: Steven Novella is prominent in both the SGU and the executive committee of NECSS. In fact, he made a statement as a member of the executive committee of NECSS attempting to explain their decision (at that stage before the reinvitation was issued). This was widely criticised – but, to be fair, it suffered from the bureaucratic restrictions of executive membership.  I had hoped he could speak more freely about the problems of that organisation in an open discussion.

2: Steven expressed deep concern at the way these ideologically-driven debates are destroying the “skeptical movement.” In particular, he passed on the fact that several high-profile scientists with public influence had told him they no longer wished to be associated with the “movement” because of the irrationality of the debate.

The problem is Steven’s concerns about the ideological nature of these debates and the destructive role they are playing for sceptics organisations only came up at the end of the discussion. They should have been confronted at the beginning. That is why I call the long time discussing social justice vs freedom of expression a red herring. That discussion was never specific and it is misleading to think it was relevant to the specific issue of the NECSS/Dawkins invitation fiasco. Concentration on this misrepresented the real issue and misrepresented Richard Dawkin’s position.



Misrepresentation of Richard Dawkins and his statements is, of course, nothing new. After all, he is an evolutionary biologist and we all know how much evolutionary science is misrepresented by its opponents – and even the ordinary person in the street. On top of that, he is an outspoken, and largely uncompromising, atheist. Then his literary skills, and his publishers, add another layer where a catchy book title or public statement gets easily misinterpreted.

In an old blog post, Putting Dawkins in his place, I relate how back in the 1970s I fell into the trap of misinterpreting the title of Richard’s first book – The Selfish Gene. I said then:

” I had never read it, of course, but there were all those magazine articles using the book to justify selfishness in people and to provide an ethical basis for a selfish society, for capitalism. These ideas, to me, were reactionary, anti-human. My mind was made up. Despite my interest in science, I was not going to waste time reading a “reactionary” book which I knew I wouldn’t agree with.”

It wasn’t until I read The God Delusion in 1976 that I realised my mistake:

 “Mind you, because of my anti-Dawkins prejudice I almost didn’t, thinking it would be a waste of time. I am grateful I made the effort because I then found out my prejudice was baseless. The Selfish Gene was about genes, not about individual humans, other animals or society. Writers and others had taken the title of the book to justify their own political and economic agendas!”

As Dawkins has said – he could have titled the book The Cooperative Gene without changing a word of the text.

If the current fashion of de-platforming academic speakers was in fashion during the 1970s I wonder if there would have been moves to disinvite Dawkins from speaking at conferences? I wonder if I, in my ignorance, would have supported such moves?

In Richard Dawkins and the Skeptics Conference controversy, I explained how Richard’s critics were misrepresenting his position. He was not opposing social justice regarding feminism or Islamism – simply noting the destructive role of a small minority of extreme radical feminists and Islamists. He was, in fact, advocating for social justice. The social media attacks on Dawkins over this issue were misleading and the uncritical acceptance of these misleading attacks by some “sceptics” just illustrates that simple use of a name like “sceptic” is no guarantee of a sceptical or critical approach.

Perhaps sceptics should aspire to be more sceptical, critical and thoughtful in assessing claims. And I mean all claims. I have met sceptics who are justifiably proud of their sceptical approach to religion or alternative health – but who are very unsceptical and uncritical (maybe I should say biassed) about prevailing political claims. I hope this is not due to the hubris of thinking their sceptical approach in one area justifies their bias in another.

On the other hand, perhaps we should recognise that sceptics are just as human as the rest of us – just as prone to group thinking and being mislead. OK, this recognises that use of the name “sceptic” does not confer any magical properties – but it still does not remove the responsibility of at least making an effort.

Misogyny and misandry of sceptics

Some specifics were discussed towards the end of the SGU discussion – not related to Dawkins or his statements, but to the old elevatorgate “chat up” story, Rebecca Watson who “broke” that story and the harsh reaction she got in the “atheist/sceptical movement.” Participants lamented what they saw as misogyny among people who were meant to be rational, and underlined that the misogynistic attacks on Rebecca were more extreme and widespread than many people realised. Finally, there was recognition that some feminists in the “movement” were “going too far” and responding with attacks and charges which were just as extreme. Perhaps, without actually using the word, they were acknowledging that the “movement” had a problem with misandry (the hatred of men) as well as misogyny (the hatred of women).

This acknowledgement, and concern, should have been dealt with – upfront – at the beginning of the discussion instead of burying it at the end. And I don’t buy the concern being expressed over such irrational attitudes simmering away in a movement that is meant to be rational. As I keep saying, the mere use of names like “sceptic,” “atheist” or “rationalist” does not magically confer these properties on a person or movement. They do not somehow make a person or movement immune to all the attitudes, biases and instincts common in a community.

“The battle of the sexes” seems inherent in human societies – and there are probably good reasons for this. Usually, differences are handled in a friendly enough way but this battle can sometimes become extreme in sections of the community – fuelled by social inequalities and violations of human rights (often real but sometimes imaginary). Our life experiences also leave us with personal issues which can fuel resentments and irrational attitudes towards others – on both sides of the “sexual divide.” Nor are such attitudes and resentments restricted to gender issues – let’s not forget ethnic, social and economic differences.

Sceptics should take responsibility

“Sceptics” are part of the community and are not immune to all those irrational attitudes, group thinking and resentments that flourish in the community. They shouldn’t be surprised to discover people in their “movement” might actually give vent to their feelings on these issues. However, those “sceptics” who consider themselves leaders, and the organisations representing sceptics’ should, at least, make the effort to resist the group thinking involved.

That is where I disagree with Steven Novella and the executive of the NECSS. Steven in his statement expressed the:

“wish Dawkins would recognize (perhaps he does) his special place within our community and the power that position holds. When he retweets a link to a video, even with a caveat, that has a tremendous impact. It lends legitimacy to the video and the ideas expressed in it.”

Perhaps Steven should reflect on how this concept of responsibility may relate to his own actions. He and the NECSS should have resisted the misinformation and group thinking that prevented them from carefully reading Richard’s tweets – or even consulting with Richard before withdrawing their invitation (an action they now recognise as “unprofessional” but some might call just plain rude). And as leaders of the “sceptic movement,” they should have the responsibility to avoid succumbing to the irrationalities promoted in social media on the issue. To recognise and avoid the misandry driving these – as well as the misogyny.

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Scientific self-deception


There is a lot of scientific self-deception about – and not only among ideologically motivated activists who wish to opportunistically use science in their campaigns. Scientists themselves are also prone to self-deception – as Richard Feynman sums it up in this meme.

I like this cartoon Eureka! with Regina Nuzzo from Cara Gormally as it indicates why we are so prone to self-deception and some things we can do it overcome it.





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Democracy and expert advice on scientific issues


Image credit: James MacLeod

Layla Parker-Katiraee recently asked the question Should science be a democracy? in the blog Biofortified. Most readers here would probably immediately answer no! But hold on. The blog title is a bit misleading. She was actually posing this about social decisions related to scientific issues – not about science itself.

Layla gives this example:

“A January 2015 survey conducted by agricultural economists at Oklahoma State found that 82% of Americans want their food labeled if it contains GMOs. The same survey found that 80% of Americans want their food labeled if it contains DNA.”

She points out that while the scientifically informed may be aghast at such a result the fact is most of the general public are not scientifically literate – and we should recognise that:

“After the initial face-palm, my feelings of intellectual superiority gradually ebbed when I realized that my husband would be in the 80% of the population that doesn’t know that all food, unless it’s highly processed, contains DNA. My better-half has a degree in International Relations and Peace Studies. He is a consultant with high-tech companies. He’s amazing at his job and can charge a premium for his consulting fees. It’s safe to say that he is well educated and knows what he’s doing. However, his last biology class was 17 years ago.”

And another reason for avoiding intellectual snobbery is that even those who consider themselves scientifically literate will readily admit they do not necessarily have at hand the answers to many of the scientific questions posed by the non-scientifically literate who are campaigning against issues like GMOs, climate change or community water fluoridation.

So here is the dilemma. On the one hand, social policies should be decided democratically – or at least by democratically elected bodies. On the other hand, the public and even the membership of democratically elected bodies are usually not well-informed about the science involved in many controversial social policies.

As Layla says:

“This whole topic raises the question of whether scientific matters (such as food labeling) should be decided by a public that is not educated in the technical aspects or nuances of an issue. Should scientific matters be decided upon democratically?

Here are just a few examples: the Shasta County Board recently decided to look into chemtrails; Portland, Oregon rejects adding fluoride to the city’s water; Humbolt county votes to ban GMO production.”

The role of experts

And this despite the fact that society invests in experts to research these questions and give answers to any questions we may have. As she says:

“If we, the people, get to decide on such important scientific matters democratically, then why do we spend billions of dollars, on institutions such as the National Institutes of Health, the National Academy of Sciences, USDA, FDA? Do we just fund them so that they can come up with recommendations and guidelines which we can then ignore depending on whether we find it convenient or if our favorite celebrity endorses it? I can use the term “we” here because I pay what feels like a kajillion dollars in US taxes, even though I’m not a citizen.

Each of the examples above has been extensively studied and guidelines have been offered. The EPA, NASA, and the FAA joined forces to write a document about chemtrails (believe it or not); the EPA and the Department of Health and Human services have done scientific assessments on the fluoridation of water; the FDA evaluates the safety of all GMOs and regulates them (if you’re of the opinion that the FDA is “bought off”, then here’s a report on GMOs from the National Academy of Sciences). Our tax dollars funded every one of these efforts, yet we’re still taking these issues to the ballot box”.

So – we should listen to, or take the advice, of those experts – after all, that is what we pay them for. And on most issues we happily do that:

“There are MANY matters where I know very little and feel comfortable deferring to experts: what material should be used when highways are built, what water purification system my county should use, and so on. My taxes paid for all these projects and they impact me directly. I spend 2 hours a day in my car. If those highways are not built properly, if the on ramps are not sturdy, if the Bay Area bridges are not properly maintained, I could be hurt or even die. I fail to see why we defer to subject matter experts on these topics, but not on others. I don’t see any direct ballot measures to decide on the amount of concrete used when paving a road. Yet somehow, we feel that it’s appropriate to tell farmers in Hawaii what they can and cannot plant. Somehow, we the people, think we know something that a professional in his/her field doesn’t.”

Why reject expert advice?

It is illogical for “we people [to] “think we know something that a professional in his/her field doesn’t.” Yet it happens – or more correctly – some of us get fooled into rejecting the advice of the professional expert on some matters.

Inevitably on these controversial issues where scientific claims are being bandied about like political slogans one can detect the activity of ideologically or commercially motivated groups wishing to misrepresent the science – or worse, personally attack or otherwise seek to discredit the experts who should be able to give the objective information needed.

The scientifically literate person may, if they have the time, be able to check out the claims and detect the misrepresentation or distortions promoted by such groups. But even without the scientific training “we people” can always maintain a healthy suspicion of any group seeking to discredit expert scientific advice or defame such experts. We may also be able to check out the groups themselves – to discover the ideological or commercial motives and decide whether they are worth listening to.

“The ideal solution here is education”

This is what Layla Parker-Katiraee advocates. This could be helped if more students were exposed to science and critical analysis in their education.

“In the meantime, there are a few things we can do:

1) Encourage children in our circle of influence to take science classes in high school and college, even if they’re pursuing a career in an unrelated field.

2) Scientists should step up their communication skills. There aren’t many scientists in the private sector involved in science communication or education. Many of us have been trained in presentation skills. Giving concise explanations or pitches are often required in the private sector. There’s no reason why you can’t expand that skill into a part time hobby.

3) Remember that we all have gaps in our knowledge. Working to fill those gaps rather than mocking them will go a long way.”

If we worked to educate ourselves and others in understanding the role and nature of science and in critical thinking then society would be better able to handle “controversial” scientific issues requiring democratic decisions.

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