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Saturday, March 10, 2018

Whose One-Liner Is It Anyway?

The scientific method is vital to knowledge development. It has helped the human race to save lives and do and discover many amazing things. Science is a hot topic these days. Scientific findings like climate change have been embroiled in controversy and politics, leading to more exposure in the news media also television shows like Cosmos, and events like the March for Science have helped to popularize it.

Sadly, scientific literacy is being diluted down to soundbites and axioms by the pop science Skeptic movement. How often have you heard phrases like these?

The plural of anecdote is not data

Everything is a chemical

Correlation is not causation

The dose makes the poison

Science doesn't care what you believe

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence

That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence

These one-liners are designed to make the person delivering them sound sciencey and smart, but when someone is using a phrase like this it often belies a facile understanding of a complex issue.

Sigh. I feel your pain, kid.
This particular quote is often used to dismiss people's observations as having no value. While one anecdote alone isn't concrete proof of something, observational data is in fact very useful. The humorous example in the British Medical Journal of the article entitled Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma related to gravitational challenge: systematic review of randomised controlled trials reminds us of this. That's even aside from the fact that this commonly used aphorism is being badly mis-quoted. The original version comes from a man named Raymond Wolfinger. In a 2003 email correspondence, Wolfinger relays the story behind his famed quote:

"I said 'The plural of anecdote is data' some time in the 1969-70 academic year while teaching a graduate seminar at Stanford. The occasion was a student's dismissal of a simple factual statement-by another student or me-as a mere anecdote. The quotation was my rejoinder."

Isn't it strangely ironic then that the Skeptic crowd would popularize the exact opposite of what the phrase was meant to convey?

Buy this sticker and you too, can pretend to be science literate.

This one generally gets whipped out when people use the term chemical to refer to a synthetic or manufactured substance, food additives or those products made by the chemical industry...what do they call those things? Oh yeah, chemicals.

Yes, all matter has a chemical structure. No, not all chemicals are bad. Shouting that 'everything is a chemical' in the middle of a conversation is about as helpful as shouting 'the sky is blue' in the middle of a conversation about airplanes. It might be correct, but it doesn't really serve to inform anyone.

The louder you shout it, the more scientific you sound.

Correlation alone is not proof of causation, this is true. But a correlation is also not a claim of proof either. And many times, what is mistaken as simply correlation is actually part of a collection of data that reinforces itself statistically. A correlation is a part of scientific investigation and it is pseudoscience to demand proof before an hypothesis can be fully tested. Imagine where we would be if every time a scientist noticed a correlation in some collected data they just waved their hand and said, 'No need to research this any further, correlation does not equal causation!'

Yes, because PCBs and asbestos are the same as potatoes and pears.

This one is a classic - literally. The axiom comes from the 16th century 'father of toxicology' Paracelsus. The original quote is, "All things are poison and nothing (is) without poison, only the dose makes that a thing is no poison." Does dose matter? Of course, but keep in mind Paracelsus lived before we knew about things like low dose effects and non-monotonic dose responses. Other factors influence toxicity too like individual susceptibility, timing, sequence, and accompanying exposures. The idea that low doses are always too low to be harmful betrays an ignorance of some of the most basic toxicological science. And as in the example above, it is used frequently by the chemical industry to confuse consumers and distract from the science surrounding their products that exhibit worrisome toxic effects.

A phrase so popularized, it even has its own Facebook page. It's all Oprah's fault, I'm sure. 

Science isn't a person, so no, of course it doesn't care what you believe. Don't be a fucking asshole.

Not to be confused with the poster on Mulder's office wall. 
While Sagan has done more for science literacy than he hasn't, we still could have done without his popularization of this one. First it lacks any real context. What defines an extraordinary claim? What would be accepted as extraordinary evidence?  Does this mean the evidence required to prove the existence of a new earth species is different or less than that to prove the existence of an alien life form? It doesn't seem logical that the required scientific evidence for proof of claims should be on some kind of arbitrary Skeptical Sliding Scale.

 Speaking of arbitrary and illogical...

This segues nicely into our last one-liner from my favorite sourpuss. "That which can be asserted with out evidence, can be dismissed without evidence." How the hell can anyone take this nihilistic shit seriously? You can't just make up your own rules as you go along and pretend it's somehow evidence-based to absolve yourself from presenting any evidence at all. This is the height of intellectual laziness, and we should pity any person who repeats this rubbish.

Science literacy is more than memorizing a series of catchy phrases, and skepticism is a discipline of thinking which cannot be accomplished by oversimplifying complex issues which is exactly what these expressions do. Make sure not be seduced by this flashy style fake skepticism - there are no shortcuts here. Learning about science takes time and effort, but it's worth doing right.

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