Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


The Conversation

troll-sign

(Photo: Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH/Shutterstock)

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

• August 28, 2014 • 2:00 PM

(Photo: Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH/Shutterstock)

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.

I often like to discuss science online and I’m also rather partial to topics that promote lively discussion, such as climate change, crime statistics, and (perhaps surprisingly) the Big Bang. This inevitably brings out the trolls.

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but I’ve ignored it on occasion—including on the Conversation and Twitter—and I’ve been rewarded. Not that I’ve changed the minds of any trolls, nor have I expected to.

But I have received an education in the tactics many trolls use. These tactics are common not just to trolls but to bloggers, journalists, and politicians who attack science, from climate to cancer research.

Often attacks on science employ logic so flawed that it would be laughable in everyday life.

Some techniques are comically simple. Emotionally charged, yet evidence-free, accusations of scams, fraud, and cover-ups are common. While they mostly lack credibility, such accusations may be effective at polarizing debate and reducing understanding.

And I wish I had a dollar each time a scientifically incompetent ideologue claimed science is a religion. The chairman of the Australian prime minister’s Business Advisory Council, Maurice Newman, recently trotted out that old chestnut in the Australian. Australia’s chief scientist, Ian Chubb, was less than impressed by Newman’s use of that tactic.

Unfortunately there are too many tactics to discuss in just one article (sorry Gish Gallop and Strawman), so I will focus on just a few that I’ve encountered online and in the media recently.

“EXPERTS”

Internet trolls know who their experts are. There are thousands of professors scattered across academia, so it isn’t surprising that a few contrarians can be found. In online discussions I’ve been told of the contrarian views of “respected” professors from Harvard, MIT, and Princeton.

Back in the Conversation’s early days I even copped abuse for not being at Princeton by someone who was clearly unfamiliar with both science and my employment history. It was a useful lesson that vitriol is often disconnected from knowledge and expertise.

At times expert opinion is totally misrepresented, often with remarkable confidence.

Responding to one of my Conversation articles, the Australian Financial Review’s Mark Lawson distorted the findings of CSIRO’s John Church on sea levels.

Even after I confirmed with Church that Lawson had the science wrong, Lawson wouldn’t back down.

Such distortions aren’t limited to online debates. In the Australian, Maurice Newman warned about imminent global cooling and cited professor Mike Lockwood’s research as evidence.

But Lockwood himself stated last year that solar variability this century may reduce warming by:

between 0.06 and 0.1 degrees Celsius, a very small fraction of the warming we’re due to experience as a result of human activity.

Newman’s claims were debunked, by his expert, before he even wrote his article.

Sometimes experts are quoted correctly, but they happen to disagree with the vast majority of their equally qualified (or more qualified) colleagues. How do the scientifically illiterate select this minority of experts?

I’ve asked trolls this question a few times and, funnily enough, they cannot provide good answers. To be blunt, they are choosing experts based on agreeable conclusions rather than scientific rigor, and this problem extends well beyond online debates.

Earlier this month, Australian Senator Eric Abetz controversially seemed to link abortions with breast cancer on Channel Ten’s “The Project.”

While Abetz distanced himself from these claims, his media statement doesn’t dispute them and talks up the expertise of Dr. Angela Lanfranchi, who does link abortions with breast cancer.

Abetz does not have expertise in medical research, so why did he give Lanfranchi’s views similar or more weight than those of most doctors, including the Australian Medical Association’s president Brian Owler, who say there is no clear link between abortion and breast cancer?

They are choosing experts based on agreeable conclusions rather than scientific rigor, and this problem extends well beyond online debates.

If Abetz cannot evaluate the medical research data and methods, is his choice largely based on Lanfranchi’s conclusions? Why won’t he accept the views of most medical professionals, who can evaluate the relevant evidence?

Abetz may be doctor shopping, not for a desired diagnosis or drug, but for an desired expert opinion. And just as doctor shopping can result in the wrong diagnosis, doctor shopping for opinions gives you misleading conclusions.

BROKEN LOGIC

Often attacks on science employ logic so flawed that it would be laughable in everyday life. If I said my car was blue, and thus no cars are red, you would be unimpressed. And yet when non-experts discuss science, such flawed logic is often employed.

Carbon dioxide emissions are leading to rapid climate change now, and gradual natural climate change has also taken place over eons. There’s no reason for natural and anthropogenic climate change to be mutually exclusive, and yet climate change deniers frequently use natural climate change in an attempt to disprove anthropogenic global warming.

q2qy3rv6-1408273914Global temperatures (measured by Marcott et al. in dark blue, and HadCRUT4 in red) have changed as a result of both natural and anthropogenic climate change. There has been a dramatic rise in global temperatures over the past century.

Unfortunately, Australia’s prime minister, Tony Abbott, employed similar broken logic after the 2013 bushfires:

Australia has had fires and floods since the beginning of time. We’ve had much bigger floods and fires than the ones we’ve recently experienced. You can hardly say they were the result of anthropic [sic] global warming.

Bushfires are a natural part of the Australian environment but that does not exclude climate change altering the frequency and intensity of those fires. Indeed, the Forest Fire Danger Index has been increasing across Australia since the 1970s.

Why the prime minister would employ such flawed logic, and contradict scientific research, is puzzling.

GALILEO

The Italian scientist and astronomer Galileo Galilei was infamously persecuted by the politically powerful Catholic Church because of his promotion of the sun-centered solar system.

While Galileo suffered house arrest, his views ultimately triumphed because they were supported by observation, while the Church’s stance relied on theology.

The Galileo Gambit is a debating technique that perverts this history to defend nonsense. Criticisms by the vast majority of scientists are equated with the opinions of 17th-century clergy, while a minority promoting pseudoscience are equated with Galileo.

Ironically, the Galileo Gambit is often employed by those who have no scientific expertise and strong ideological reasons for attacking science. And its use isn’t restricted to online debates.

Bizarrely, even the politically powerful and well connected are partial to the Galileo Gambit. Maurice Newman (once again) rejects the consensus view of climate scientists and, when questioned on his rejection of the science, his (perhaps predictable) response was: “Well, Galileo was virtually on his own.”

Newman’s use of a tactic of trolls and cranks is worthy of criticism. The triumph of Galileo’s views were a result of his capacity to develop scientific ideas and test them via observation. Newman, and many of those who attack science, notably lack this ability.


This post originally appeared on The Conversation as “What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls” and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.The Conversation

Michael J. I. Brown
Michael J.I. Brown is an ARC Future fellow and senior lecturer at Monash University.

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.