The Sciences

Orac's Pedantic Peeve

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorJan 5, 2011 3:40 PM

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Earlier this week, Jonah Lehrer responded yet again to some of the criticism leveled at his recent New Yorker article. Orac, who wasn't pleased with the article, is still not pleased with Lehrer's defense of it. This is a case of an expert (Orac) thinking that he is the prime audience for a general interest article. Orac, in his latest post on Lehrer, sums up his problem with the New Yorker article:

The short version is that not only is the "decline effect" not nearly as mysterious as Lehrer made it sound but it's not some sort of serious, near fatal problem with how science is done. Indeed, it's not particularly mysterious at all to many of us who actually--oh, you know--do science, particularly those of us who do medical science and clinical trials.

First of all, to the majority of The New Yorker's readers (who are smart and sophisticated), this story probably came as big news, as I'm sure only a small percentage of them "do medical science and clinical trials." Secondly, Lehrer wasn't the one claiming the "decline effect" was perplexing and problematic for science; it was the scientists themselves featured in his article who were saying this. Orac also has a major problem with this passage from Lehrer in his recent followup:

One of the sad ironies of scientific denialism is that we tend to be skeptical of precisely the wrong kind of scientific claims. Natural selection and climate change have been verified in thousands of different ways by thousands of different scientists working in many different fields. (This doesn't mean, of course, that such theories won't change or get modified--the strength of science is that nothing is settled.) Instead of wasting public debate on solid theories, I wish we'd spend more time considering the value of second-generation antipsychotics or the verity of the latest gene-association study.

Orac contends that this

demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of how science denialism works. Here's a hint: The reason why such topics become the targets of scientific denialism is because the conclusions of science run up against very strong religious, political, or primal views. Evolution runs up against fundamentalist religion that, or so its adherents believe, cannot abide the concept that humans evolved from "lower" creatures. Those with political views that oppose government mandated action to lower the emissions of greenhouse gases attack AGW science because of its implications. Although the treatment of mental illness can certainly bring out the crazy (see: Scientology), for most people there just isn't the same level of intense ideological investment in the efficacy of second generation antipsychotics as there is in whether or not our understanding of AGW is accurate or whether humans evolved from "lower" creatures.

This is a fine explanation of some of the root causes of "scientific denialism," but it's unfair to say that Lehrer doesn't understand this when he was merely lamenting that public debate focuses unduly on scientific claims that are, in fact, well established. I'm a fan of Orac, but in his latest swipe at Lehrer he comes off as overly peevish.

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