Monday, February 9, 2015

Scott Adams' Biggest Fail

In a recent blog post, titled "Science's Biggest Fail", Scott Adams (of Dilbert cartoon fame) writes:

"What’s is science’s biggest fail of all time? I nominate everything about diet and fitness."

The problem is, he goes on:

"The pattern science serves up, thanks to its winged monkeys in the media, is something like this:
 Step One: We are totally sure the answer is X.
 Step Two: Oops. X is wrong. But Y is totally right. Trust us this time."

Here in lies one of Adams' problems - his understanding of science appears to come from the media, whom he views as science's winged monkeys. This is unfortunately not the case - the media don't do science at all well, as Ben Goldacre has so ably demonstrated on many an occasion.

This is a shame as he continues:

"Science isn’t about being right every time, or even most of the time. It is about being more right over time and fixing what it got wrong. So how is a common citizen supposed to know when science is “done” and when it is halfway to done which is the same as being wrong?
 You can’t tell. And if any scientist says you should be able to tell when science is “done” on a topic, please show me the data indicating that people have psychic powers."

He obviously sees science as a cumulative process, but digests it from sources that don't - the mainstream media. This is something Adams has form for - in 2007 he posted about his pretty poor understanding of evolution after reading a Newsweek article, and it appears despite criticism at the time, he has not learned from this. In this post, he references a MotherJones article, and not the actual original research itself, for example.

Adams asks "So how is a common citizen supposed to know when science is “done” and when it is halfway to done which is the same as being wrong?" (As an aside, half way to done is not the same as being wrong. Newton's work on gravity could be described as half way to done. It was incomplete, but it certainly wasn't wrong when it comes to describe the general mechanics of our day to day living). So how is a common citizen supposed to know when science is "done"? Well it's not hard, you just need to do a bit of digging. It's not always possible to get the original research, as much of academia is behind a pay wall, and even if you do have access to it, it may not be the easiest to understand, because science is confusing and counter intuitive at times, and it helps to have someone who can put the complexities into layman's terms. The Cochrane Library offer the best analysis of our current understanding of research into health. These reviews come with a plain language summary.

It's not just academic institutions though - we live in the information age. Behind the HeadlinesMargaret McCartney's blog or Science Based Medicine are just three examples of critical commentary that's freely available to help get the truth behind the often poor medical science reporting in the press. 

Indeed, blog networks like Phenomena from National Geographic, Why Evolution Is True or Sean Carroll's are all places to find out good commentary on the science news of the day.

This is to say nothing of the works of Professors Alice Roberts, Jim Al-Khalili or Brian Cox in their works efforts to increase the public understanding of science.

These references barely scratch the surface of the wealth of decent scientific information that's available to us if we're willing to look.

In 8 years he seems not to have learnt to base his views on science from what scientists actually say, but what they are reported to have said. I wonder if in the same time he still bases his ideas on his "bullshit filter":

"I’ve been trying for years to reconcile my usually-excellent  bullshit filter with the idea that evolution is considered a scientific fact. Why does a well-established scientific fact set off my usually-excellent bullshit filter like a five-alarm fire?"

The above was written in 2007 - The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins was published in 1976, and was followed up by The Extended Phenotype in 1982, and much more; Darwin's Dangerous Idea by Daniel C Dennet (the best book on evolution I've ever read) was written in the 1995 and in 2002 Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen released Evolving the Alien. All these wonderful books (and many more), just one book a decade since his twenties, could easily have defused the five-alarm bullshit filter, especially as he has been struggling with it for years. 

The impression I get from Scott Adams is that he knows he's right, and that's enough. Of course, I could be wrong, but given his history of things like sock puppetry, and his responses to it, I think Adams' biggest fail is his arrogance, which in places looks a lot like the Dunning-Kruger effect. David Dunning, it's co-discoverer, describes it thus: “What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.”

Fortunately, Scott Adams can resolve this issue by doing a little research and educating himself beyond what he thinks he knows.

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