Science reports that a creationist group will hold a workshop tomorrow at Michigan State. Among the various topics of discussion are why evolution is false, why the Big Bang is false, and how evolution leads to Hitler. There are even talks attacking the work of several professors. The conference is also advertising debates between MSU professors and their speakers, even though those professors apparently have no intention of showing up. The conference is sponsored through a student group, although one of the professors notes that the planning seems to all come from an outside group. The dishonest advertising using professors’ names to attract attendees ought to lead to some sort of sanctions against the group. Regardless of actual student involvement, their sponsorship of the event means that the school should be able to hold them accountable for the advertising.
Needless to say, this is quite embarrassing for the Michigan State science community. The setting and student sponsorship are an obvious attempt to lend the creationist group the appearance of legitimacy, using the name of a research university to attack that university’s mission. The school has stated that it won’t try to do anything to shut down the workshop, although the apparent lack of student control might give them a justification for doing so. There are a few courses of action that people can take. They can pack the room with a hostile crowd and then walk out in the middle, leaving an empty room, or stay and grill them with difficult questions. At this point, the beliefs of most prominent creationists are impervious to logic or evidence, so the latter probably won’t work. Another option is to do what the APS does with crackpots: let them give their talks but ignore them so that only a handful of diehard supporters even show up.
The Atlantic has a new article on how people get drawn into the anti-vaccine movement. Ultimately, the reason why many parents end up opposing vaccinating their own children seems to be that people are terrible at judging risk in a rational manner. The parents end up weighing the generally rare threat of dangerous disease against the even more rare but also more immediate threat of vaccine complications and decide that the minuscule threat from the vaccine is more dangerous. A more rational result would be that while the threat of disease is low, it is generally higher than any threats from the vaccine. Additionally, the only reason why the threat of disease is low is that nearly everyone is vaccinated, preventing many dangerous illnesses from spreading throughout the population. While one child not getting vaccinated does not change this, too many children going unvaccinated could allow for diseases such as measles and whooping cough to return. This has already been happening in a number of places. With the vaccination program, society has decided to accept a very small number of serious complications in order to prevent a much worse outcome from allowing these diseases to spread.
The article highlights the fact that many people place more weight on personal anecdotes than actual evidence (i.e. blinded studies using statistical analysis). In the words of one parent “data could be flawed … but someone’s story … I trust that more.” Obviously, data could be flawed, but scientific studies have at least attempted to remove biases and will almost always be better than talking to some non-random sample of people (by construction a flawed dataset). There’s even a doctor who uncritically accepts his patients’ beliefs about what caused their children’s medical problems as evidence that vaccines are dangerous. Doctors are supposed to listen to their patients, but also need to correct patients when they make unfounded claims. Just because someone says a vaccine hurt their child doesn’t make it true. It doesn’t make it untrue either, but the number of people claiming to have encountered vaccine complications is vastly higher than what would be expected from the scientific literature.
The article does a decent job of juxtaposing the arguments of the people opposing vaccines against some of the reasons why their views are (if we take the most charitable explanation of their views) misinformed. Too often the media prefers to frame every controversy as a debate between two equal sides when in many cases there is only one side with any significant supporting evidence.
Here’s a nice rant about people using “quantum physics” and similar terms as a way to avoid actually explaining something. Almost no one who does that actually knows anything about quantum mechanics or quantum field theory. Saying “quantum mechanics” explains your scifi technobabble, pseudoscientific crackpot theory, quack medicine, or self-help scam is lazy, unimaginative, and almost always wrong.
I’ll probably write more on this subject in the future.
It’s been a while since I’ve heard much about creationism (or its “scientific” counterpart intelligent design), but one of its more prominent evangelists is in the news again for making badly misinformed remarks.
A couple days ago, prominent creationist Ken Ham chose to use the anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing to call for the defunding of much of the US space research program (the linked article links to Ham’s actual piece).
Ham spends basically his entire piece conflating space research with the search for extraterrestrial life. He singles out exoplanet searches, which have become a hot topic in recent years and are something that a number of my friends and colleagues at MIT are involved in. The people I know who work on exoplanet searches aren’t going around looking for aliens.
Finding planets outside the solar system is an interesting activity in its own right. Exoplanets can teach us a lot about the history of our own planet. Determining properties of exoplanets (yes, including whether or not they might conceivably be capable of supporting life) lets us see just how common planets like ours actually are in the universe. These measurements allow astrophysicists to push current technology and analysis methods to their limits and can lead to improvements in both. Optics and image and spectral analysis are things that have many applications outside pure science, so any improvements made by scientists could help other fields. Finally, exoplanet searches are the kind of science projects that can capture the public’s imagination. Much of basic science will seem terribly dull and esoteric to the layperson, but the kinds of projects that attract a lot of attention help to make the case to the public for supporting basic science.
Note that I haven’t even addressed the creationist part of Ham’s argument. When his entire argument is based on a false assumption I don’t have to. These kinds of articles show that people like Ham really have no place in science – whether in actual research or in science policy. They are so misinformed as to potentially cause harm to scientific research – if people read their writings and assume that they might actually be experts. In short, creationists: not just wrong about biology.