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Healthy Scepticism

My first duty this week is to draw your attention to something genuinely shocking that is taking place before our very eyes, and yet often goes unseen.  You need to be aware of the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO), which is a colourless, tasteless liquid found in acid rain, nuclear waste and human diseases.  It causes major environmental damage and erosion, killing more than 350,000 people each year, and it is potent enough to corrode metal.  It is in your homes, your place of work and here in your child’s school.

Despite everything it can do, this substance is frequently found in our food supply and in the environment around us in abundant concentrations – not least in the last few weeks.  Consequently, there have been numerous petitions to ban it or to try to control it in city chambers and parliaments the world over.  One survey in Finland, conducted in 2011, found that 49 per cent of all respondents were in favour of restricting DHMO. 

But before everyone goes into meltdown at such traumatic news, I suggest we all take a breath and think a bit more carefully about what is going on.  If we have another look at this substance and rearrange the way we describe it, we can see that dihydrogen monoxide is made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.  Even my limited recall of O Level chemistry lessons tells me that this is H2O, more commonly known as water. 

However, by selectively curating the negative aspects of water and stripping them of context, it is possible to create a crisis where one does not exist, as highlighted by David Robert Grimes in his book ‘The Irrational Ape’, which I referenced last week as being a thought-provoking read.  As the author explains, this DHMO parody exposes the problems that emerge not only from a lack of scientific literacy, but from the exaggeration of carefully selected information – and the same cherry-picking of facts is often employed for more sinister reasons. 

For example, he tells us, the claim that climate has always changed is frequently voiced by those wishing to deny climate-change, with the implication that global warming is overstated.  But the fact that climate has forever been in flux is not contentious at all; what is alarming is the current rate – hugely in excess of anything natural – at which this change is occurring.  The rate matters because there is a huge difference between bringing a car to a halt by the gentle application of the brake and running the same car full tilt into a brick wall.  By presenting facts in isolation and devoid of context, we can be led to an impression completely at odds with reality.

As Grimes points out, the greatest myths spring from seeds of truth, contorted into warped conclusions, which is why conspiracy theories can take such a firm hold in people’s imaginations.  And once people come to believe an idea, even if it is later shown to them to be false, it can be very difficult to persuade them to change their minds.  Rather than admit that we have been wrong, it is often easier to try to find evidence to support us in our misguided thinking than to admit an error – as I have highlighted many times over the years in these blogs.

It was hard to disagree with Grimes when he pointed out that to answer the difficult questions we are faced with we need to make use of the concept of scientific scepticism.  At its core, this means asking the relevant questions to determine whether what we are presented with is reasonable or not.  The word ‘scepticism’ apparently comes from the Greek skeptomai – to consider carefully – and the philosopher Paul Kurtz has defined a sceptic as one who is willing to question any claim to truth, asking for clarity in definition, consistency in logic and adequacy of evidence.  The use of scepticism, says Grimes, is thus an essential part of objective scientific inquiry and the search for reliable knowledge.

Scepticism, he continues, is implicit in the scientific method, the very lens we use to interrogate the universe.  But it is every bit as fundamental to our political and societal health too.  Without it, we cannot hope to question the assertions of those in power or those seeking power.  If we do not know how to ask for evidence or what constitutes reliable information, we are powerless against the whims of the demagogues, dictators and charlatans who would seek to exploit us.  Without healthy scepticism, we are malleable to manipulation, weaponised to dire ends.  Bereft of the protection against fanaticism that analytical thought brings, we are vulnerable to those who would deceive us.  Our history is littered with reminders of just how terrible the consequences of this can be.

The author highlights that we live in an era where pseudoscientific pronouncements frequently overwhelm us with an ocean of nonsense.  In a storm of half-truths, it is understandable that many of us are driven to inertia.  But to disengage is to sleepwalk into disaster.  We cannot hope to face down the looming spectre of climate change, nor the myriad other challenges ahead, if we are overtaken by apathy.  Carl Sagan’s lament – ‘We have arranged a global civilisation in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology.  We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology.  This is a prescription for disaster.’ – was percipient but not an inevitability.  Learning to sift the pseudoscientific is vital if we are to protect ourselves from charlatans and fools.

The journalist and broadcaster Tim Harford is a good touchstone for this, with his strong grasp of statistics and ability to see the wood for the trees.  In his book ‘How to Make the World Add Up’, he tells us that our emotions, our preconceptions and our political affiliations are capable of badly warping the way we interpret the evidence.  Political decisions shape what statistics we gather and share, and what gets ignored or concealed, but statistics show us things we cannot see in any other way.  He is adamant that they are not just a decoration for a newspaper article or a weapon in a political argument.  The difference between robust statistics and faulty or missing data can be the difference between life and death.

The statistics for a huge range of important issues that predate the coronavirus pandemic have been painstakingly assembled over the years by diligent statisticians, and often made available to download, free of charge, anywhere in the world.  Yet we are spoilt by such luxury, often casually dismissing ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’ and the value of experts.  The case of Covid-19 reminds us how desperate the situation can become when the statistics are not there and when those charged with making the key decisions are simply incapable of doing so.

Harford asserts that we seem to have lost our sense that statistics might help us make the world add up.  It is not that we feel every statistic is a lie, but that we feel helpless to pick out the truths.  So we believe whatever we want to believe, and the rest we just shrug off.  This statistical cynicism is not just a shame, Harford says, it is a tragedy.  If we give in to a sense that we no longer have the power to figure out what is true, we have abandoned a vital tool.  If we lapse into a reflexive dismissal of any unwanted statistical claim, this tool is useless as well.  We should not be credulous, he wisely advises, but the antidote to credulity is not to believe nothing; rather it is to have the confidence to assess information with curiosity and a healthy scepticism.

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