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I generally thought that these examples are rare and that I just had bad luck.

The first time I met with pseudoscience mumblings from academicians was by a statistic professor in my junior year (even though he is a reputable math modeling researcher). He was in a television talk show, debating spiral conscience (see picture).

spiral conceus

Not to mention a famous neurosurgeon doctor and distinguished professor who claim depleted uranium is the cause of environmental pollution that leads to a non-existent "epidemic" of cancer (which is factually and scientifically incorrect).

Plus fear-mongering and scare of foreign-produced vaccines.

In my graduate school, researchers from quantum chemistry division shared on social media some obscure alternative medicine stuff and remedies. I'm still shocked.

When I went to Australia for a joint workshop in Global Warming, GIS, and Environmental Science, I was surprised that an esteemed and senior professor tried hard to push discourse that there is not enough and sufficient evidence that climate change is man-made.

Usually, I focus more on publishing work and I cannot devote time and energy to debunk or write opposition letters. I also see many questionable research practices in the domain of chemistry, the so-called replication crisis. However, I am not so much concern with that as I am with the spreading of pseudoscience and misinformation.

In the part of the world where I live, academics have a public duty and role in the community. However, I see more and more people from academia take an anti-abortion stance, nationalism, conservatism, and against some scientific knowledge. Should I be passive toward an anti-intellectualism rise in my surrounding?

closed as off-topic by user3209815, Brian Tompsett - 汤莱恩, penelope, J-Kun, Enthusiastic Engineer Jul 26 '18 at 20:51

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    Well, I'd say anyone who claims experts (in a field he or she has no expertise in) are wrong is pretty close to a crank. This applies even if he or she is an expert in another field. So the neurosurgeon making claims about depleted uranium is probably a crank. Someone in a field making non-standard claims about it though should probably be taken seriously, at least at first. – Allure Jul 26 '18 at 6:26
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    What a strange question. You start off with an example of pseudo-science, namely spiral conscience (I will take your word for it being pseudo-science, I have never heard of it). Then you talk of people who are anti-abortion, nationalistic, or conservative which are political views, not scientific views. Then in a comment below you talk "preventing misuse of dialog" of the likes of conversatives like Ben Shapiro. So what is the question truly about? Is your question about pseudo-science, or is it about people who have values and beliefs that are different from yours? – Eff Jul 26 '18 at 7:37
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    @Eff "pseudo-science": what you don't agree with. (Not Bierce, probably.) – Kris Jul 26 '18 at 8:37
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    Having "opposing views from mainstream science" is an avenue for ground-breaking discoveries, correct? Admittedly high-risk, but correspondingly high reward – rath Jul 26 '18 at 9:28
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    @SSimon I'm sure it helps; but there are a lot of pathways to "success" in every field. Also, someone who reached acclaim through critical thinking doesn't necessarily have to apply that same critical thinking to everything, or apply it at all anymore. – JMac Jul 26 '18 at 11:01
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I will not address any of the particular topics you cite and I do not intend to wade through those topics to argue which are "anti-science". However, as a general observation, it is worth noting that academics tend to be very knowledgeable within their own specialty areas, but beyond this narrow scope, they may be no more well informed than other citizens. Outside their areas of specialist knowledge academics are roughly as prone to error and irrationality as other people.

This observation has been made many times by many eminent thinkers, and there is a mountain of historical evidence backing it up. The philosopher Jean-François Revel has argued that academics have a long history of poor judgments and irresponsible anti-scientific behaviours on topics outside their specialty areas (see his chapter "The Betrayal of the Profs." in his book The Flight from Truth). Similar observations have been made by economists Friedrich Hayek and Thomas Sowell in their books. If you can find a hideously irrational doctrine or movement, there is a good chance that it was spearheaded by prominent academics.

Having said this, it is valuable to have a good degree of heterodoxy in academia, and to allow it to be a place where unpopular ideas may be investigated and promulgated. One reason for this is that it allows people to be exposed to arguments for opposing ideas, and acts as a countervailing effect to confirmation bias. It appears from your post that you would like to rule certain topics out of bounds in academia, such as arguments against abortion, arguments in favour of nationalism or conservatism, and so on. Labelling such views "anti-science" or "anti-intellectualism" is false and lazy, and it does not do justice to genuine arguments on these topics. The notion that there should be monolithic adherence to your preferred views in academia is ---um, how to put this delicately--- problematic.


Update: Unsurprisingly, there is quite a bit of negative commentary towards the views of the OP in the comments section of the original post, and also this answer. In regard to the OP's attitude towards contrary opinions, it is worth noting that the OP has now accepted this answer, which is one that contains some pretty blunt criticisms of his/her views. This demonstrates the ability of the OP to see merit/value in a viewpoint that is critical of him/her, and proceed with a reward to that viewpoint. (It is also a somewhat delicious irony that the OP has accepted an answer from an academic who has also been a fairly regular writer/speaker for 'right-wing' think-tanks.) That gives me a lot of hope that the OP is not far away from appreciating the value of having some heterodoxy in academia, and approaching questions by allowing adversarial viewpoints. I think it speaks pretty highly of the OP to have the fortitude for that.

  • thank you very much for the answer, how to prevent misusing of dialog and free speech as it happens currently in media and academia. Especially by some individual as BenShapiro, PregerU and other right wing thinktanks? – SSimon Jul 26 '18 at 6:00
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    See the last sentence of his answer. ;) – nick012000 Jul 26 '18 at 7:35
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    +1 for the reference to heterodoxy in academia, both the concept as well as the cited reference. – Kris Jul 26 '18 at 8:34
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    @SSimon The very concept of "misuse of free speech" is assuming that there is an objectively correct position and that any dissent should be suppressed. You're explicitly stating that people on the "right wing" should not be able to have differing opinions. – chrylis Jul 26 '18 at 9:01
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    @SSimon And nothing is fully understood. It's a lot harder to come to strong conclusions if you're unwilling to try to see the other viewpoints. The best points are made by understanding what every side is saying; and using that to make a point. You also have to consider that people aren't science. People are biological creatures controlled by extremely complicated processes (unless you don't believe that). Saying "This is correct so it should be the narrative." does not mix with how humans work. You're trying to control complex biological signals with vibrations of air. – JMac Jul 26 '18 at 11:13
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First of all: Science is not a democracy. The majority/mainstream is not always right, the minority (or even an individual) not always wrong (case in point: Dan Schechtman).

Now, having an "exotic" opinion does not make it right. Hence, one principle which I found useful to apply when considering an exotic opinion is whether it is a genuine opinion of whoever expresses it. I distinguish this from just parroting someone else's opinion - examples for the latter are conspiracy theories; furthermore, there are other expressions of opinions, such as conjuring of structure, or rhetorics.

Genuine Opinion

If the opinion is genuine, you can learn from it. You do not have to agree, but I found it fun to learn from this. In fact, I had some of my most enjoyable discussions with people like that and in several cases managed to turn their own thought complex around and convince them why the scientific method is actually the right thing to do - it worked because their thought complex was genuine, and expressed an - even if unorthodox - intellectual honesty. People like that can be brought to appreciate (even if not always agree) with "classical" science. On the other hand, they can be very inspiring discussion partners from which one can learn alternative (even if possibly incorrect) perceptions on the world. One needs patience - and only spend that time if you like that type of discussion, but it can be rewarding.

Reproduced Opinions

Then there are the others: the ones who reproduce scientific conspiracy theories. These people are not interested in science or an approximation of "truth". Rather, this is - in my experience - driven by contrarianism to the "scientific elite", distrust of scientists due to regular reports on scandals, the inherent doubt of science, or political agendas (about these more below). This cannot be addressed by purely scientific means, although you will need to know your facts extremely well. However, much more important is to address the agenda that these people have or inner contradictions. It can help to operate with their own thinking.

I'll invent a synthetic example: say, somebody believes the moon landing was faked. There are of course a lot of down-to-earth arguments trying to establish why this belief is wrong. However, a true believer may not be swayed by them. Rather, here one could address the question of whether they believed that humans built the pyramids. If they say yes, then the question would be why they believe that 4000 years ago people were able to build pyramids and in the time of rocket, atom and transistor they should not be able to send a human to the moon, when satellite communication is almost standard. If they say no, e.g., they were helped by aliens in building the pyramids, then one could play the ironic game and ask why they think those aliens couldn't have helped NASA, after all they can always consult them in Area 51 - make sure you wear a smirk to avoid being mistaken for taking this belief serious, of course. The point is not to convince them, but play a "Xanatos Gambit" where they have a choice of going for the boring down-to-earth explanation that conventional people accept, or pushing their own far-fetched belief to absurd conclusions. This method works surprisingly often when appropriately used. It corresponds to a proof by contradiction in math.

Conjuration of Structure

The example OP shows probably falls into this category - self-enamoured conjuration of structure; it is trying to bring order into a chaotic field. It recalls the way alchemists tried to structure the world, or, to name a more concrete example, Keplerian's Harmonices Mundi. While there is no real evidence to it, it is a mental exercise - sometimes to be taken more, sometimes less serious - to put things into their rightful place.

It fails to deliver scientifically because it has no predictive (and often no really postdictive or even descriptive) power. Sometimes, such as in Kepler's case, it was a serious attempt. Many mystical/kabbalistical practices have a significant element of conjuring symmetry or proto-mathematical structures, but in other cases, the structuring may well be purely verbal (as in OP's case).

The most ironic thing is that the theory modern elementary particle physics (think: the "Eight-Fold Way") ended up looking (superficially) quite similar to those mystical diagrams; of course, there is much more mathematical structure below the surface to make it work, but it seems that the need for patterns is very strong in humans.

If you have a conversation like that, one way to productively handle it can be to ask/discuss why the structure was chosen the particular way it is presented and not differently. If a serious attempt to explain is undertaken, the conversation can be productive. Otherwise, treat them like the guy that monopolises the piano at a party to tinkle some tunes: enjoy it or leave it. In that case, they may not have found truth, but perhaps a glimpse of beauty, at least for themselves.

Rhetorics

This group of people is interested in being right. Not making a scientific argument, not approaching the truth, not beauty, not even propagating a political agenda, but being right. Unless you like eristics, in which case, you should study the relevant methods and their defences (check e.g. Schopenhauer for this), this is not a good investment of one's time.

Bonus point: Political Agendas

Whenever science is not anymore about pure facts or operational successes (making a radio or airplane fly), but has an effect on society (point in case: "climate change"), science is prone to become a tool in the political argument. Here agendas are imposed on the facts one focuses on (a form of "consciousness forms the being"). Since in societal dynamics there are strong agendas, and since the feedback for outcomes of actions can be delayed by decades, it is not easy to link scientific claims about the future to current action. Furthermore, over such intervals, even scientifically honest predictions can be significantly wrong.

In this case, it is wise to understand one's own limitations in understanding and deciphering the world around us and try - in a Socratic manner - to discuss with one's peers the potential routes of what might actually be happening. In such complex systems, no-one is in possession of the full truth and getting the process right is here probably more valuable than trying to tell somebody that they are wrong. In this context, it is more productive and one gets better results if one can move the discussion away from the emotional dimension - this is sometimes hard, but it is the best way of making the conversation productive.

Note that this means also being less self-confident about what constitutes the politically appropriate process to shape the future. People, even people disagreeing with us, think a particular way for a reason - and that reason is what needs to be taken into account in a political argument and reconciled with the reality which is the same for all of us and does not depend on our particular opinion. One does not have to agree with the reason, but one must understand it if one wishes to communicate.

  • Very nice answer. Can I reuse it? – SSimon Jul 28 at 15:34
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    @SSimon Thanks! Of course, just include a link/citation to here if possible. – Captain Emacs Jul 28 at 20:44
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Successful scientists use Karl Popper's idea that a scientifically useful hypothesis must be falsifiable by observation or experiment.

For example: the statement the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is rising over time is falsifiable. If measurements are done correctly, the statement, or its opposite, is a fact. Skeptics must attempt to falsify the result by challenging the measurement methodology, or some other aspect of the result. Scientists doing science don't get away with saying "no, that's wrong" without observations to back them up. You know this.

The statement the far side of the moon is populated by undetectable spirit beings is not falsifiable. So it lies outside the realm of science.

A responsible scientist (such as yourself) sticks to Popper-style hypotheses and results in public discourse.

But everybody is human. All people have beliefs that aren't scientific (in the Popper way). It's wrong for a doctor in a white coat to tell a mother something like the flu vaccine will kill your baby because it contains poison. It's wrong because it is a misuse of authority in a profession that relies on science. The doctor may hold that opinion if he wishes. But it's irresponsible to wrap it in a scientific mantle and present it to the public.

Your training gives you the tools to evaluate such statements and ignore them if they're wrong. Your personal authority right now is low. If you were the director of medicine, you could intervene. You could tell that doctor to practice medicine responsibly, and sack him if he doesn't. But your only power right now is over yourself. (That mostly remains true for a lifetime.)

The best you can do is be a responsible scientist yourself. You can't change other peoples' behavior or goofy opinions. If the discourse is polite, you can point out the scientific flaws in their arguments.

If the discourse is not polite and the conversation lies outside science and annoys you, why waste your time?

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    you are right, most thing I can disprove, some of them I cannot, like how consciousness work, or data gathered that biotic factors realize more CO2 than anthropogenic causes. I m caught in these findings. I didn't know about Karl Popper I really appreaciate your pointing out of him. – SSimon Jul 26 '18 at 11:18
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Don't take action against them, because it may be illegal.

While there's nothing wrong with promoting scientific literacy, your comments tend to suggest going well past that mark, with the goal of driving non-conformers out of the field.

While I'm not sure from this question where you are from, just about every first-world country has equal opportunity legislation that protects individuals from discrimination by employers on the grounds of their religious or political beliefs. These laws often cover things like targeted harassment or the creation of a hostile workplace, and can leave your employer open to legal action if they fail to police their employees to ensure that these sorts of things do not occur. As universities are employers, they will almost certainly be covered by such laws, and as such, attempts at "de-platforming" people because of their religious or political views are almost definitely illegal.

Once you get away from the views that they hold that are less explicitly religious or political, things might get a bit more of a grey area, but it would likely depend on the laws in your location and whether general New Age-style "spiritual" beliefs (e.g. the spiral conscience thing pictured in your question) count as being sufficiently religious or political to be protected.

  • It “may” be illegal. So what? Lots of things “may” be illegal but there are tons of things you can do legally (including pushing back against pseudoscience in your field). – Konrad Rudolph Jul 26 '18 at 10:02
  • Let me phrase it another way: would you want a scientist to exclude someone from their field because of their sexuality or skin color? The same legislation that protects against those would also protect against discrimination due to political or religious beliefs. The only reason I said "may" be illegal is because I don't know where the OP lives, so I can't look up the laws in question and quote them at them. – nick012000 Jul 26 '18 at 10:23
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    Actually there’s no legal protection against discrimination due to political belief (at least in the UK but very similar rules apply elsewhere). But nobody (except you) is talking about anything resembling illegal discrimination anyway. Notably, there’s nothing wrong with telling somebody they are wrong, or debating them. – Konrad Rudolph Jul 26 '18 at 10:33
  • I put a tag in order to make it more specific. – SSimon Jul 26 '18 at 11:00
  • @KonradRudolph Like I said, the exact protected classes vary from location to location, so I can't speak definitively with regard to the OP's case, but as an Australian, I'm most familiar with Australia's laws on the subject, where both of those are protected classes, along with a number of other things like trade union activity or pregnancy status. – nick012000 Jul 28 '18 at 9:39

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