Nullius in Verba The Royal Society in London is the oldest scientific society in the world. It’s motto is “Nullius in Verba,” which translates to: “Take nobody’s word for it” or “Trust no one.”
Authority That’s impossible: we all need to trust other people for knowledge about lots of things. I’m not a climate scientist, I don’t have stations that collect and analyze data about global temperatures, so I can’t determine myself whether global warming is happening. I have to trust an authority to tell me if it is.
Appeal to Authority Sometimes you’ll hear about the “fallacy of appealing to authority.” But basing your views off on appeals to authority is not always fallacious. Your authority needs to be: • An expert, or better, an agreeing group of experts, on the subject in question. • A proven truth-teller on the subject.
Conflicting Reports However, sometimes there are conflicting reports between two seeming experts or two groups of seeming experts. How do we reconcile such conflict? How do we know what to believe?
Appeal to Motive It’s tempting to argue that one side is wrong because it has a motive for its position. Sometimes climate change deniers argue that scientists are lying about global warming because that brings in research dollars. Sometimes people who are pro-evolution argue that creationists are lying about the facts because they want to indoctrinate people into their religion.
Appeal to Motive It may be true that people have motives to lie and that they are acting on those motives and not the evidence. But we need to evaluate the arguments themselves. It is not enough to point out that someone has a motive to lie. That doesn’t mean what they are saying is actually untrue.
Credentials One way society has of distinguishing genuine authorities from other people is via credentials. A person’s authority can be certified by their having certain degrees, like s PhD or MD (doctor of medicine) or even a BA. A person’s ideas can have their authority certified by being published in a top peer-reviewed scientific journal.
Academic Degrees Of course, having a degree doesn’t make you an expert on everything, only on what your degree is in.
“Expert”: Dr. AlgundEenboom Dr. AlgundEenboom is a doctor. A doctor of dentistry. He is not a scientist or a historian. He is described in the program as “Author of Aircraft of the Pharaohs”
“Expert”: Giorgio Tsoukalos Giorgio Tsoukaloshas a BA degree in “Sports Information and Communication” from Ithaca College. Worked as a bodybuilding promoter until 2005. He is not a scientist, anthropologist, sociologist, or historian.
David Childress Attended the University of Montana for one year. From his personal website: “a recognized expert not only on ancient civilizations and technology, but also on free energy, anti-gravity and UFOs.”
Expert: Neil Degrasse Tyson Neil Degrasse Tyson, real astonomer. Q: What do you think about Ancient Aliens: “It’s what people say when they can’t figure out how ancient humans accomplished something.”
Expert: Neil Degrasse Tyson “Rather than say, ‘I’m too stupid to figure this one out on my own,’ they say, ‘I am smarter than these ancient humans, and since I can’t figure out what’s going on here, they must have had help from aliens.’”
The Oregon Petition For a more serious example, global warming skeptics have made a big deal about the Oregon Petition, a petition to have the U.S. government not base its policies on the supposition that global warming is happening.
The Oregon Petition Supporters of the petition point out that it is signed by over 31,000 people. However, only about 9,000 of them have PhD’s. Furthermore, only about 1,400 of the PhD holders have PhD’s in climate science and related fields.
The Oregon Petition The journal Scientific American polled the 1,400 who worked in climate science and found that many of them hadn’t ever heard of the petition, or said that though they had signed it, they would not sign a similar statement today. Scientific American estimated that the petition represented only about 200 genuine authorities.
Worthless Credentials Some “PhDs” aren’t real degrees awarded by serious institutions. Real universities are “accredited” meaning that an independent body has judged that they meet widely held academic standards. Many people try to acquire false authority by obtaining worthless credentials.
“Universities of Wild Chickens” (野鸡大学) Apparently there are fake universities in Beijing that have names that are very close to real university names, with offices located nearby, with photos of real universities on their websites. They sell degrees to people who can’t get into university.
“Dr.” Gillian McKieth Gillian McKeith is a popular nutritionist in the UK. For a while she had a TV show where she represented herself as “Dr. McKeith,” and she also did this in books and on her website.
“Dr.” Gillian McKieth Her “Dr.” credentials were on the basis of her degree from the non-accredited correspondence college Clayton College of Natural Health.
“Dr.” Gillian McKieth Claims: chlorophyll “oxygenates your blood.” • Chlorophyll doesn’t contain oxygen, it makes it in sunlight. • You can’t absorb oxygen in your stomach (like in your lungs).
Suspicious Claims Ben Goldacre, a real medical doctor and science writer suspected that McKeith’s credentials were fake.
Fake Credentials It turns out Clayton College is not a real academic institution. It’s non-accredited, and it sells its degrees: HKD$52,700 for a PhD and a Master’s, $93,800 for two PhD’s and a Master’s. It’s a correspondence college, meaning you never go to any classes.
“Dr.” No More McKeith also trumpeted her membership in the American Association of Nutritional Consultants. To prove that this was not a real credential, Goldacre signed his dead cat up for membership for $60. After receiving complaints, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority required her to stop using the title “Dr.” because it was misleading.
Degree Mills A “degree mill” is a university that is not accredited by official accrediting organizations. Many creationists have “doctorates” from degree mills. For example, prominent creationist Kent Hovind has a PhD from Patriot University, a degree mill. Patriot University is accredited by an unofficial accreditation mill, which accredits any university for USD$100.
Legal Context The law obviously has to decide what counts as expert opinion. If you’re on trial, you don’t want just anyone testifying that the evidence says you did it!
US Legal Standard In the US, for expert testimony to be admissible, the methods used have to: • Have undergone peer review. • Be falsifiable. • Have been scientifically tested. • Be replicable/ has been replicated. • Have their error rates known.
Peer Review Peer review is the accepted method of research approval among scientists and other academics. If you write a scientific or academic article, typically you send it to a “peer reviewed journal.” Your submission is “blinded” so that no one can tell who wrote the article. The editor of the journal then sends the article to “peer reviewers”: other people who have expertise in the subject.
Peer Review The reviewers read the article and write up criticism and a publication judgment (“yes it should be published,” or “no there are too many errors, not high enough quality,” etc.). The editor then makes a judgment to publish or not based on the reviews. Peer reviewed articles in leading journals are the “gold standard” of academic achievement.
Climate Change Consensus Lots of work has been published arguing that global warming is not happening. But what about the peer-reviewed literature? A study by Oreskes (2004) of the previous 10 years (1993 to 2003) showed that of the 928 peer-reviewed studies that used the phrase “climate change” in the abstract, 0% of them said that global warming was not happening.
Oreskes 2004 75% of the papers either explicitly endorsed the consensus view that global warming was happening or implicitly endorsed it, by for example, making recommendations for how to slow down or stop warming trends. The other 25% made no commitment, often because they were about climate change long ago, now climate change today. 0% disagreed with global warming.
Non Peer-Reviewed Literature The public often doesn’t understand the distinction between peer-reviewed scientific research and other types of publications. Climate skeptics use such misunderstandings to mislead and manipulate the public. There is scientific literature that is against global warming– but this literature is not peer-reviewed: it consists of editorials, letters, or reviews with no original research in them.
The Limits of Peer Review Peer review isn’t perfect, however. Academic journals can be poorly peer reviewed: the review process might not be “blind,” it might not involve real experts, and it might be “too easy.”
Bohannon’s Paper from Before • Submitted to 304 journals. • Journals were published by top publishers: Elsevier, Kluwer, Sage, Wolters • Accepted by 157 (52%) • Rejected by 98 (32%) • No decision by 49 (16%)
http://pdos.csail.mit.edu/scigen/ Students at MIT created a computer program that randomly generates nonsense Computer Science papers. Various people have used the program to submit nonsense papers to conferences and non-peer-reviewed journals. One group of students actually had a nonsense paper accepted at a peer reviewed conference in Wuhan, China.
Impact Factor One way of distinguishing good peer-reviewed academic journals from lousy ones is by a measure called the “impact factor.” Journals that publish papers that are cited by further scientific or academic research have higher impact factors. Impact factor is thus a measure of how much influence a journal has.
Sometimes the people promoting crazy views, instead of trying to fake credentials, trick people with real credentials into appearing to endorse their views.
Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment JZ Knight is a charlatan who claims to “channel” (i.e. speak for) Ramtha, a 35,000 year old spiritual entity from the fictional land of Lemuria who once conquered the fictional land of Atlantis.
Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment She runs Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment, where rich stupid people pay thousands of dollars to hear new age spiritual nonsense married with quantum physics mumbo jumbo.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3QlZ5O8_bGk Some of “Ramtha’s” views are outlined in the 2004 film “What the Bleep Do We Know?” a combination of interviews and a fictional story about a deaf woman using the power of positive thinking to influence the events in her life. Several legitimate scholars show up in the film, including one of my former teachers, David Albert.
Creative Editing Albert says, “I was edited in such a way as to completely suppress my actual views about the matters the movie discusses. I am, indeed, profoundly unsympathetic to attempts at linking quantum mechanics with consciousness…”
Creative Editing “Moreover, I explained all that, at great length, on camera, to the producers of the film… Had I known that I would have been so radically misrepresented in the movie, I would certainly not have agreed to be filmed.”
Creative Editing This is a common trick: you tell people you are working on a film about X, when really you are working on a different film about Y. You interview them for many hours, and then you edit the interview so it seems to be agreeing with you. Now you have expert testimony about Y.
“Expelled” “Expelled” had many prominent scientists like Richard Dawkins in it. Those scientists were told that they were being interviewed for a pro-Darwin movie called “Crossroads,”