On the “right” to challenge a medical or scientific consensus

Mar 23, 2015

By David Gorski

The major theme of the Science-Based Medicine blog is that the application of good science to medicine is the best way to maintain and improve the quality of patient care. Consequently, we spend considerable time dissecting medical treatments based on pseudoscience, bad science, and no science and trying to prevent their contaminating existing medicine with unscientific claims and treatments. Often these claims and treatments are represented as “challenging” the scientific consensus and end up being presented in the media—or, sadly, sometimes even in the scientific literature—as valid alternatives to existing medicine. Think homeopathy. Think antivaccine views. Think various alternative cancer treatments. When such pseudoscientific medicine is criticized, frequently the reaction from its proponents is to attack “consensus science.” Indeed, I’ve argued that one red flag identifying of a crank or a quack is a hostility towards the very concept of a scientific consensus.

Indeed, I even cited as an example of this attitude a Tweet by Jane Orient, MD, executive director of the American Association of Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS). This is an organization of physicians that values “mavericky-ness” above all else, in the process rejecting the scientific consensus that vaccines are safe and effective and do not cause autism or sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), that HIV causes AIDS, and that abortion doesn’t doesn’t cause breast cancer, to name a few. Along the way the AAPS embraces some seriously wacky far right wing viewpoints such as that Medicare is unconstitutional and that doctors should not be bound by evidence-based practice guidelines because they are an affront to the primacy of the doctor-patient relationship and—or so it seems to me—the “freedom” of a doctor to do pretty much damned well anything he pleases to treat a patient.

I’ll repost Dr. Orient’s Tweet:

As I said at the time (a great example can be found here), on the surface this seems quite reasonable, but, as I’ve discussed on many occasions, science is all about coming to provisional consensuses about how the universe works. Such consensuses are challenged all the time by scientists. Sometimes they are shown to be incorrect and require revision; sometimes they are reinforced. That’s how science works.

The reason I brought up this issue again is because I came across a couple of articles relevant to this topic. The first is one by John Horgan, who blogs over at Scientific American, entitled, Everyone, Even Jenny McCarthy, Has the Right to Challenge “Scientific Experts”. Having a tendency towards snarkiness, my first thought was to simply dismiss this as a straw man argument (at least the title), because I know of no strong defender of science (least of all I) saying that non-experts—yes, even Jenny McCarthy—don’t have the right to challenge experts. When we complain about “false balance,” it’s not because we think that, for example, antivaccine activists don’t have the “right” to challenge the experts supporting the scientific consensus. Rather, it’s because we argue—correctly, I believe—that media outlets all too often present such challenges as falsely equivalent to the actual consensus science being challenged, in essence, putting someone like Jenny McCarthy on or near the same plane as actual scientists. Examples abound and have been discussed on this very blog, embracing many relevant topics, such as influenza, dubious cancer cures, homeopathy, vaccine safety and efficacy, fear mongering about food by Vani Hari (a.k.a. The Food Babe) and many other topics.


Read the full article by clicking the name of the source located below.

22 comments on “On the “right” to challenge a medical or scientific consensus

  • People like McArthy, and Wakefield, who spread misinformation only get scorn from me. Meanwhile infectious diseases like measles spread, and is that a good thing for humanity ?



    Report abuse

  • Skepticism is the essence of science; consensus is its death.

    There’s a not-at-all-fine line between healthy skepticism and idiotic denial of empirical evidence. The latter is the death of science.



    Report abuse

  • @OP – The first is one by John Horgan, who blogs over at Scientific American, entitled, Everyone, Even Jenny McCarthy, Has the Right to Challenge “Scientific Experts”.

    They may have a right to challenge, but when the village idiot challenges a pro, they also have aright to be stamped on!

    Having a tendency towards snarkiness, my first thought was to simply dismiss this as a straw man argument (at least the title), because I know of no strong defender of science (least of all I) saying that non-experts—yes, even Jenny McCarthy—don’t have the right to challenge experts. When we complain about “false balance,” it’s not because we think that, for example, antivaccine activists don’t have the “right” to challenge the experts supporting the scientific consensus.

    True – The false balance, is media muppets requiring the village idiot’s views to be treated with “respect”, or as equivalent to expert opinion, rather than with the contempt they deserve.



    Report abuse

  • People who make medical claims do so without evidence. They should be charged with practicing medicine without a licence. My mother got caught up in one of these schemes. She knew nothing about medicine. She simply liked the doctor.



    Report abuse

  • Often I sadly find that if people don’t like something enough they’ll invent a justification they want everyone to embrace to make more valid their insipid claims. Indeed, anyone can question science and many do (including scientists). It is when we choose to push unproven or indeed unprovable claims that are expected to be taken as seriously as science that we cross over from challenging science to attempting to unseat the whole purpose of science.

    Simply put, you can’t ever arrive at the truth about something while willfully misinforming yourself and others. It never works.



    Report abuse

  • Everyone, Even Jenny McCarthy, Has the Right to Challenge “Scientific Experts”.

    Agree. The evidence that Jenny McCarthy puts up in support of that challenge will be weighed by the rational jury, and if it overturns the “Scientific Experts” she will win a Nobel Prize. She has put up her evidence, and has been found wanting.

    Anyone can challenge science. It is the bedrock foundation of science. The Challenge. The proof that the orthodoxy is wrong. Science is a self weeding field. Science is constantly trying to prove science wrong. Einstein over turned Newton. Hubble and a Steady State Universe. Buried after a successful Big Bang challenge.

    But the challenger has to make a sound evidentiary case in support of their claim. And the media needs to do what journalists should do, and that is the check the story. Corroborate the facts, and report the weight of evidence in an issue. For a media company to make money it must induce people to watch them so they can sell advertising time. This is a conflict of interest. To make more money the media company has to scam the viewers into watching. The more confrontational, sensational, and shocking, the more the sheeple watch. Put Jenny McCarthy on. Some eye candy will always gain TV ratings. People will turn you off if you destroy the pretty women with rational evidence based questions. The media has abandoned it’s role as the fourth estate, so vital to a healthy world, in favour of short term profits and a media spin cycle now measured in hours and minutes, not weeks and months.

    Equal time for equal evidence. Journalists, do you job properly.



    Report abuse

  • I agree about the media, at least mostly. In countries which demand responsible balance from even commercial stations, the opposite can be the case. Often broadcasters say that due to the requirement of balance, they have to troll for some loonie to advance the arguments against, even when they are obviously rubbish. If they do not do so, then there is the likleyhood of complaints of bias to the regulator.

    On the whole, I think I would rather put up with the odd loonie in broadcasting, than to have no regulation, and open slather for fascists, the delusional and naked untruth, as with the Internet or Fox News.



    Report abuse

  • Hi David,

    The evidence that [enter name of wingnut here] puts up in support of [their] challenge will be weighed by the rational jury …

    I’m not clear on who the Rational Jury are? If the consensus is scientific then it will, of course, be scientists. If it is reporting on international trade, or non-government aid (such as disaster relief), or military matters who make up the Rational Squad?

    …and if it overturns the “Scientific Experts” she will win a Nobel Prize. She has put up her evidence, and has been found wanting.

    Anyone can challenge science. [challenging the orthodoxy] is the bedrock foundation of science. Science is constantly trying to prove science wrong. Einstein overturned Newton, Hubble and a Steady State Universe. [etc.]

    Yes; anyone can challenge science if they have new evidence, or if they can conceive a new theory that better explains the existing evidence.

    This is both a scientific and a democratic norm.

    But the Challenger has to make a sound evidentiary case in support of their claim, and the media needs to do what journalists should do, and that is the check the story: Corroborate the facts, and report the weight of evidence in an issue.

    That is great political theory. It is not connected to reality.

    For a media company to make money it must induce people to watch them so they can sell advertising time. This is a conflict of interest.

    Yes, this the reality of commercial media that must feed itself. It describes the majority of media in the Western World, and the vast majority of media in the English-speaking World. It is worth remembering that we know of three other working models for media. The independent, public, institution (PBS, the BBC, etc.) the independent organisation (sometimes a charity) sustained by a commercial arm (Reuters, The Guardian, The Economist, etc.) and the title sustained by a mix of income streams giving a basis for greater editorial independence – being owned by a Professional Body, or a separate income stream through subscriptions are examples.

    To make more money the media company has to scam the viewers into watching. The more confrontational, sensational, and shocking, the more the sheeple watch.

    I am no friend to Commercial Media, but even I think that “scam” is a bit strong. Otherwise this comment is on the money.

    Your comment on sheeple is particularly important. Skeptical reception of media is very important if democracy is to function properly because voter-citizens need to be informed and because it is not possible to report without some bias.

    Some eye candy will always gain TV ratings. People will turn you off if you destroy the pretty women with rational evidence based questions.

    I’m not convinced that’s true. I for one am more likely to tune in again if an idiot is shot down by rational analysis – pretty or not.

    The media has abandoned it’s role as the fourth estate, so vital to a healthy world, in favour of short term profits and a media spin cycle now measured in hours and minutes, not weeks and months.

    Agreed.

    Equal time for equal evidence. Journalists, do you job properly.

    As eejit and Reckless Monkey point out, below, calling for balance simply drives all media into the area of Commercial Media’s expertise – driving ratings using controversy in place of a debate, and endlessly recycling sound bites to meet the needs of the powerful unelected politicians we call publishers.

    Call for an end to balance. That way people are forced to say why they think a particular report is biased. In parallel, call for more education on media watching. On the face of it, it sounds bonkers; what teach kids how to watch TV? I thought they were the experts! But all forms of critical thinking require training, and reading a newspaper or listening to a podcast are no different.

    Peace.



    Report abuse

  • Reckless Monkey Mar 24, 2015 at 5:13 am

    It ain’t about consensus, it’s about the confluence of data that leads to consensus. If there isn’t a confluence of data then there should be no consensus.

    Very much so!

    But when those who are too mentally lazy to look for the data, and too scientifically illiterate to read it simply, choose what they would like to believe, and then challenge expert opinion on this basis, they should not be too surprised when their ignorant opinions are trodden on, laughed at, as they are humiliated and treated as fools suffering from illusory superiority when in front of audiences they are trying to impress and mislead!

    people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.



    Report abuse

  • Yea, spoiled people.. take all of these blond bimbos with their kids and put them in Africa..tell them there are no vaccines and no big Pharma chemistry..let them go all natural see how they will feel about it…



    Report abuse

  • are we really to take this as journalism? Personally, I think it is simply to put a pair of boobs under a headline and generate some click driven ad revenue. if the boobs has something to say, submit the scientific data for peer review…this is simply the new journalism. we don’t want to pay for it and this is where it ends up. so sad



    Report abuse

  • Unfortunately the boobs where appearing in headlines long before the decline of newspapers. In fact boobs were appearing in crappy papers long before the Internet. I agree that much of new media is not what is was cracked up to be, where I would respectfully disagree is in the fact that I believe newspapers have only been so easily subsumed by the new media because they have been so crappy for so long – as I said before long before the internet. So my choice is watch crappy news on TV for free, buy a crappy newspaper that makes me feel like I’ve lost a few IQ points every time I read an issue or get my crappy news from the Internet for free. If they are my choices I chose free crap over paid crap or worse paid crap behind a pay wall. You see the quality of journalistic integrity in situations like Charlie Hebdo how many of these respected papers (who ask me to subscribe or only let me see content behind a pay wall had the balls to publish the cartoons in question? Very few. Where did I see them, on the net, for all it’s faults, its relative anonymity does allow for a certain level of bravado if you’re intelligent enough to sieve through mounds of crap to get there, not much better than crap but there you have it.

    Personally however I make another choice, I pay taxes towards my National Broadcasting Networks the ABC (in Australia) and SBS and watch quality programming for a very low cost with excellent journalistic integrity which did by the way show some of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons with a warning for sensitive Muslim eyes. It has excellent shows (4 Corners) including Media Watch which bashes all the media (including the ABC when appropriate). What’s more they lead the world with excellent podcasts (Late Night Live, The Science Show, Okhams Razor), great Vodcasts (Catalyst, Q&A) and much more. Rupert might just as well be the bear for all the attention I’m going to give him.



    Report abuse

  • “Unfortunately the boobs [were] appearing in headlines long before the decline of newspapers. In fact boobs were appearing in crappy papers long before the Internet.”

    As I recall from my visits to fair London town, the boobs actually appeared on page 3.

    From Wikipedia: Page 3 was a feature found in the British tabloid newspaper The Sun. The phrase originates with the publication of a large photograph of a topless, bare-breasted female glamour model usually published on the print edition’s third page.



    Report abuse

  • Personally however I make another choice, I pay taxes towards my National Broadcasting Networks the ABC (in Australia) and SBS and watch quality programming…

    This is truly the salvation of viewing media in Australia. Highly professional journalist reporting without fear or favour. The last bastion of the 4th estate here in Australia. We are fighting a battle with the far right conservative government who wants to stop funding these gold standard Australian institutions and force them to become commercial stations. The philosophy that everything except the army should be subject to the market and even the army is being outsourced. That way we can all watch episodes of the Biggest Loser on all channels simultaneously.

    (An Aside. Do you remember that MacDonalds got the contract to feed American troops in Iraq. Imagine going to war on a Big Mac meal deal with a glycemic index so high that you would be hungry again in an hour. Free enterprise. Rich today. Extinct tomorrow )

    The ABC Science show has been going for 40 years, bringing cutting edge science to the general public for free.

    Media Watch takes no prisoners. It is constantly and annoyingly looking up the skirt of shock jocks and exposing their claims as ludicrous. You can view a sample of their work here.

    http://www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/transcripts/s4198886.htm



    Report abuse

  • The philosophy that everything except the army should be subject to
    the market and even the army is being outsourced.

    I know a guy who works for CASA the people who are responsible for among other things stopping jet airliners from colliding with each other and the ground when it comes to calibrating the automated landing systems so in poor visibility weather the aircraft doesn’t try to land 10 meters under or over the runway. In it’s infinite wisdom the federal government decided to make it a public enterprise, hence having to run a profit. So how do you make a profit? Why you tender out your staffs time to anyone who has a job for you to do. So instead of working on the radar systems, you’re fixing the local police’s radios or some other business unrelated to the business of stopping aircraft from colliding with each other. The politicians who made that decision should have to driven at race speed around Bathurst during the Bathurst 1000 (without a seatbelt) while the driver works out tax returns.

    The ABC Science show has been going for 40 years, bringing cutting edge science to the general public for free.

    I’m not a believer in royal institutions and when our PM recently bestowed a knighthood on Prince Phillip, it smacked to me not so much as inappropriate that he did so to Prince Phillip, but that it highlighted the extreme ridiculousness of royalty itself. But if I were to give some state sanctioned honour to anyone it would be to Robin Williams (host for those 40 years). I’ve grown up with that man gently filling me with the wonder of science.



    Report abuse

  • @OP – science is all about coming to provisional consensuses about how the universe works. Such consensuses are challenged all the time by scientists. Sometimes they are shown to be incorrect and require revision; sometimes they are reinforced. That’s how science works.

    That is the key issue!
    A scientific consensus can be challenged by people competent in scientific methodology before a jury of honest peers competent in scientific methodology, to identify errors or needed adjustments.

    This has no equivalence with whimsical scientific illiterates challenging a scientific consensus in front of a jury of ignoramuses, sensationalist journalists, or biased fellow anti-science conspiracy theorists, who simply dislike what the science is telling them for ideological or emotional reasons.



    Report abuse

  • On the “right” to challenge a medical or scientific consensus

    It looks like Australians exercising this “right”, will have to pay for their neglect of responsibility – unless they play the religion card!!!!

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-australia-32274107

    Australia to stop welfare cash of anti-vaccine parents

    The “no jab, no pay” policy may cost parents more than A$11,000 a year per child in lost benefit payments.

    Families with children not immunised have been able to receive childcare cash if they have a philosophical or religious objection to vaccines.

    PM Tony Abbott said that the rules would soon be substantially tightened.

    He said that there would only be a small number of religious and medical exceptions to the new rules – supported by the Labor opposition and due to come into effect in early 2016.



    Report abuse

Leave a Reply

View our comment policy.