Featured Post

5 Astroturf Groups You Should Stop Sharing From

After a hefty helping of inspiration from blogger Dawn's Brain's series on Facebook pages that people need to stop sharing fr...

Friday, July 8, 2016

Science Communicators - Legit or Bullshit?

There are a whole crop of people calling themselves 'science communicators' these days. They have blogs and Facebook and Twitter pages, some do interviews and write articles. On face value this seems like a positive thing and I think we can all agree that the general public can certainly benefit from more science education, formal or informal. Scientists can have a great impact by promoting knowledge that can help people live better, promote awareness of critical issues such as climate change, and make scientific learning more interesting and accessible to the general population.

Science communication done right, by qualified scientists who educate according to their field of expertise is a wonderful thing. There are quite a few of them out there. But, poorly done science communication is going to cause more harm than good. Misinformation by itself is bad enough, but misinformation masquerading as science by people who think they are competent to speak authoritatively on a range of subjects can be devastating. Misleading the public under the guise of being evidence based or aligned with the scientific method is criminal. It can undermine trust and lead to profound ignorance. This is how monsters are created.

More on this at the end of the post...

Unlike many of the easily recognizable internet personalities and websites that spread potentially harmful advice (generally peppered with some harmless feel-good information or memes), there are those that claim to represent science who cloak themselves in a shiny veneer of 'logic' 'reason' and 'evidence', while being anything but. This is particularly true of the Skeptic movement. These people are fraudulent pseudoscience communicators. They are not communicating what being truly skeptical means, modeling appropriate logic, or giving people the tools to think both critically and independently - despite purporting to. Instead, they are merely projecting an image of these things for their own personal gain, whether it be influence, celebrity, accolades or career opportunities. Some may even be directly compensated monetarily for promoting industry views. A great deal of them have no actual science training, though they certainly don't let that get in the way of their ambitions.

How then, do we recognize the frauds masquerading as legitimate science communicators?

We are fortunate to have an excellent resource in The Ethical Skeptic who is compiling observations on the behavior of these pseudo-skeptics in an online archive.

Using the map of deskeption, based on the ten pillars of Social Skepticism as our guide...

We ask these questions:

Are they focused on debunking rather than teaching?

Is there an us versus them club mentality? (Anti- whatever vs Pro)

Do they portray anyone not adhering to club rules as stupid?

Are they inordinately focused on self promotion?

Do they exhibit narcissistic traits?

Do they compulsively belittle others?

Do they focus on the person instead of the issue?

Do they depict anything without a clear answer, or yet investigated by science as woo or already debunked?

Do they promote a personal religious agenda by using science as leverage, stuffing beliefs into science tenets, blurring lines of dogma and science and enforcing atheism?

Are they overly competitive?

Do they exhibit hatred/anger?

Do they justify unethical behavior by their position, or as a means to an end?

Do they justify unethical activity by followers or turn a blind eye?

Do they send followers to attack others viewed as the enemy? (#shillarmy)

Do they intentionally deceive others in the name of science?

Do they place all burden of proof on others? (citation, please!)

Do they require proof to be established immediately?

Do they misuse Ockham's Razor?

Do they misuse the Dunning-Kruger effect to their advantage?

Do they publicly vilify non club members?

Do they characterize those who have opposing ideas as intellectually inferior, brainwashed, or irrational?

Do they characterize everyone out side their club as all having the same beliefs and citing only extremes as examples? 

Should you notice even a few of these answered in the affirmative, it should be big red flag that the information you are getting is not coming from a capable source.

Now, more on our photo from above.

A popular 'science communicator' who shall remain nameless, (okay it was SciBabe and I know, you're shocked - but I swear I started this blog prior to stumbling upon such a fantastic example!) made a post about a Detroit Free Press article the other day:

"I just got an email titled "I think your followers just took on the Detroit free press."

The comments on this post are so delightful. The internet seems to have collectively figured out that detox is not a thing, at least for today. Go read for some faith in humanity. Or at least this corner of the internet.

Is it my birthday soon or something?"

She finds the 80 some-odd comments on this article delightful. The top one being...

Some of the "no science to support the existence of 'toxins'" is found here.

This, my friends, is the result of garbage science communication. This is the monster that thinks its 'science literate' that goes around repeating things it heard from Skeptical Scooby Doo or some other ridiculous poseur. The monster that bludgeons you over the head with its 'knowledge' while failing to realize it is everything it claims to be fighting against. The irony is just too much.

Now, keeping in mind the questions from above, please note the reaction from our science communicator when someone positions themselves outside of the club by disagreeing with the assessment of the article.

SciBabe communicates science. 

I sure feel like a lot of scientific knowledge was imparted there, don't you???

Now, was the article in question really a giant flaming missile of woo as is being claimed? 

Here's an excerpt:

"Will a juice regimen, fast, or cleanse solve this problem and renew and revitalize your body? Sadly, there is no pill or juice that will scrub your insides clean and reverse the effects of bad lifestyle habits.

If you really want to lose weight, gain energy and feel better, consider making the following eight lifestyle improvements. While these are not miracle cures, consider these as steps on the path toward healing."

After this they list off some common sense measures to care for one's health. Adequate sleep, healthy foods, exercise etc.. They even refer to detox as being a buzzword in the beginning of the article. Was it 100% accurate on every point? I don't know, I have no desire to sift through and research every bit of it. I see no advice in there that will cause anyone imminent danger or harm, and so I feel no need to warn anyone away from it. The barrage of comments seemed both misguided and completely unnecessary. Those people were there to enforce club rules, not to think independently.

This is yet another example of the typical knee-jerk reaction from SSkeptics when you say either the word 'toxin' or 'detox'. They turn into frothing wild beasts at the mere mention of these forbidden words. "David Avocado Wolfe says toxin and detox! Pseudoscience! Avocados!  Arghhhhh!...!@#$%^&*....(unintelligible)...."

Calling I,4; B,1 and O,4! 

Nobody is being led to believe this dirty hippie is a scientist, no matter how many of his inspirational quote memes they share on Facebook.

This guy might be utterly full of shit, but he's not the one claiming to represent science! 

Let this be a lesson to us all on whom we choose to follow. Fraudulently claiming to represent science can create more a more insidious form of science illiteracy than the folks who are spreading the woo woo.

UPDATE: It looks like Yvette felt it was worth her time to sift through the article in question and critique it using online annotations. Meanwhile, we have dozens of legitimate scientists releasing a consensus statement on toxic chemicals and children's neurodevelopment, and SciBabe remains mute. For someone who is so interested in anyone who says the word toxin, she's sure quiet on this one...

But, in her world, debunking this article is a priority. Here are two of her notes. Other than one link to the FDA website, she offers no citations for her opinions, despite giving the author epic shit for it.

If SciBabe were to take a middle school biology course on organ systems, she would fail this unit. In addition to liver and kidneys the lungs, skin and digestive system all help remove toxic chemicals from the body. Yes, you can sweat out toxic elements, heavy metals specifically have been shown to be excreted this way as well as Bisphenol A and some phthalate compounds.

Yvette's hatred for all things detox are getting in the way of some really basic information and no amount of snark can cover the fact that she's not what you'd call an expert on this topic. This isn't what science communication is supposed to be.

Now excuse me while I go detoxify.*

*I'm going to go pee.


  1. Outstanding summary! And not just because you use my stuff here 8).

    People wearing red shirts are not just for Star Trek TOS. Now you can dress an entire idea, a body of research, a person or group, a philosophy in a red shirt and kill it off by means of fake skepticism and research-free declarations of 'pseudoscience!!"

    Will wonders of pluralistic ignorance never cease.