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ETpro's avatar

Are Americans losing the ability to distinguish junk science and junk thought from real science and logical thought?

Asked by ETpro (34503points) December 8th, 2010

We have large elements of American society today that seem unable to distinguish between coincidence and causality. Take the vaccination debate, for instance. Before we developed vaccines for childhood diseases, thousands of children per year suffered severe reactions such as deafness, blindness, mental retardation and death due to diseases that are virtually unheard of now that we routinely vaccinate. Ignoring the benefit of vaccinations, there are a plethora of junk science websites today that trot out two facts, vaccinations are up and autism diagnosis is up; and make the great leap that obviously those two facts are directly, causally related. Pay for professional athletes is also drastically up over the same period. Perhaps paying athletes lots of money causes autism.

The fact is that a whole host of behavioral and learning disorders that were once diagnosed as laziness, rebelliousness or simple stupidity are now diagnosed as part of the spectrum of autism. It is also a fact that every scientific study using double-blind methods to look for a link between vaccinating and autism has shown that there is absolutely no relationship. But facts are not relevant to junk thinkers and junk scientists. They often accuse science of a conspiracy to cover up the facts that only their gurus are able to reveal.

How is the US to continue to lead the world in math and science when our schools are falling so far behind in each, and when so many of our people have no earthly concept of what the scientific method even is—and are led astray by every new snake-oil salesman who takes to the national stage?

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50 Answers

Nullo's avatar

The problem is the philosophy behind the education. I believe that we’ve gone over this before.

jaytkay's avatar

“The United States came in 23rd or 24th in most subjects. We can quibble, or we can face the brutal truth that we’re being out-educated.” – US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan – NY Times – December 7, 2010

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

Did we ever have it?

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

“Are Americans losing…”


Smashley's avatar

I was going to write something clever and slightly critical of the lovable dolts in the United States, but I realized that even my razor wit couldn’t fully encompass the reasons. There are a variety of reasons that stupid-pride seems so prevalent today. Some is nostalgia and that ever present concept that “back in my day things were different.” Some of it is just greater exposure to the teachings of the stupid, since the explosion of media in the past 15 years, which may also encourage the spread of stupid ideas.

Here’s a novel idea I’ve been tossing around, though. None of my grandparents’ generation I’ve met seem to have a proper concept of the scientific method, or skepticism and how these concepts apply to their lives. From my understanding, they grew up in an era where you didn’t question the “experts” too much, you trusted to their authority. None of them are afraid of vaccinations, not because they understood the science, but because they trusted doctors. Since vaccines are very safe for the vast majority of the population, and very effective, there was never any call to reject them. (Except from the very stupid, of course)

My parents are baby boomers, and they represent a slightly different take. They trust some “traditional” authority figures, and absolutely reject others. Some rejected government, some rejected their protestant upbringing, some rejected traditional medicine. But at the same time, it appears to me that many more of this generation, though certainly not a majority, are familiar with the scientific method and skepticism and rationality. Whereas their parents had taken more things on faith, they had taken either rejected these ideas or tried to decipher why they should be believed. You see some of the better modern skeptics in this generation, but also some of the better alternative medicine, new age religion wackos too.

To the people that I know from my generation, atheism is almost the default. (Atheism doesn’t require rationality, but the two have got to be correlated) I’ve lived all over the US and met many different people, but I’ve found that my generation is much more understanding of the principles of rationality and critical thought. Sure there are stupid people, like I said, there will always be stupid people, but it seems like we are only able to have these large group discussions about the irrationality of the people, because many more people than ever before have been exposed to the doctrines of critical thinking and have been able to see the focused perfection of evidence-based science.

Of course, these observations are entirely speculative, based upon limited convenience samples, lacking proper documentation, unquantifiable, and irreproducible, but this is the goddamn internet.

ETpro's avatar

@Smashley Great answer. That gives me some comfort. Perhaps I need to wait for your generation to come more into the fore and things will begin to improve.

Smashley's avatar

@ETpro – Possibly: we are also cursed with laziness, ideas of entitlement and dependence issues, but at least we read Dawkins!

ETpro's avatar

@Smashley Ha! Anybody that takes the trouble to read Dawkins can’t be all that lazy.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

Or necessarily as concerned with real science and logical thought as they propose to be.

Smashley's avatar

Boom! I’ve been burned!

True, not necessarily but I find they do tend to be. He’s a little over the top and can hand-pick some of his supporting evidence pretty well, but he makes rationality more eloquent and accessible than ever before, even if he’s not 100% true to it’s principles. In fact, if you believe Dawkins for everything he says, you’re as likely a sheep as someone who believes Deepak Chopra for everything he says.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

Shall we deny that our science of modernity suffers its own hidden dogmas?

ETpro's avatar

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies Like everything else human, science is imprefect. But unlike witchcraft, shamanism, new age theology and conspiracy theories, science is self correcting. The scientific method is the best tool we have available to unlock the truths of the Universe. And even though individual scientists are just humans subject to human whims and hypothesis myopia, there are always young Turks coming behind them to expose their folly. Nothing ensures a new scientists’ fame quicker than shooting down some celebrity theory.

lillycoyote's avatar

@ETpro and @Smashley We should also remember that rational, critical, scientific thinking is not merely reading Dawkins, not about having read him, not about agreeing with everything he says and letting it go at that. That is intellectual laziness of another kind. One must also read Dawkins with a critical eye and decide if he is right or not, or where he is right and where he is wrong. Otherwise you are just trading one dogma for another, I think. He is not right about everything, in my opinion.

ETpro's avatar

@lillycoyote When you say ”...he is not right about everything.” does that mean you think he is wrong on every point he makes, or wrong on some and right on others?

jlelandg's avatar

Junk science? You couldn’t be speaking of how Jenny McCarthy “cured” her child of autism? The people who (let’s go NSFW) put out this SHIT are FUCKING ASSHOLES. Penn and Teller turned me onto this issue and Penn is right: even if vaccinations caused autism (WHICH IT DOESN’T, IT DOESN’T!) the statistics they give would still justify the use of vaccinations. If you want more information and a more compelling argument (with similar words that I borrowed from Penn) youtube “Penn Point Vaccinations”

crisw's avatar

Yes, Americans are losing the ability to distinguish junk science and junk thought from real science and logical thought, if they ever had it.

I think there are several reasons. Teaching of both science and logic in the US is woefully poor to nonexistent, and the situation is not getting any better. Critical thinking is not easy and not something one picks up naturally- left to ourselves our thinking is invariably primitive and superstitious. Logical fallacies abound.

And, frankly, religion plays a part in it. We are the only developed country where such large proportions of the population eschew the most basic facts of biology and astronomy for religious reasons. “The Bible said it, I believe it, and that settles it” is all too common a thought process in America.

We also don’t place primacy on logic. In fact, in most cases, those who demand logic are ridiculed, if not vilified. And people simply don’t understand that personal anecdotes, for example, cannot take the place of the scientific method.

It’s a sorry state indeed, and very depressing.

crisw's avatar


“He is not right about everything, in my opinion.”

And he would probably be the first one to agree with you on that. :>)

lillycoyote's avatar

@ETpro I adore you and I don’t mean to be snarky but what do you think I meant? I said “I don’t think he is right about everything.” To me that in no way means that I “think he is wrong on every point he makes” it seems to me to obviously mean that I think he is “wrong on some and right on others.”

and @crisw We should all remember that too; that Dawkins himself understands that he may not be entirely right and that even he might acknowledge that he is not writing “the gospels.” I think even his fans don’t always get that.

ETpro's avatar

@lillycoyote Just wanted to make sure. I certainly agree, and I further agree with @crisw noting that even Dawkins would agree. No right-minded scientists thinks s/he holds the total truth. Good scientists are painfully aware of the many shortcomings in their current grasp of ’‘Life, the Universe and everything’’

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

You might be interested in my current read @ETpro. Can you believe Kent wrote a book called Psychedelic Information Theory – Shamanism in the Age of Reason… OMG I’m in heaven!

Read the first couple of chapters here and see if you don’t agree with what he says about Shamanism. Specifically, Words of Caution to the Would-Be Shaman.

ratboy's avatar

Science is calling into question our very way of life. The earth cannot sustain the culture we’ve created indefinitely. There are too many people, the composition of the atmosphere like that of the oceans is changing rapidly, resources crucial to current technologies are becoming scarce. Were we to take such things seriously, we’d be obligated to undertake immediate drastic action. Discoveries in human behavior threaten to undermine the foundation of our moral and legal institutions, calling into question the concept of personal accountability, the utility of incarceration, etc. If on the other hand, this is all pseudo-scientific hyperbole and liberal “sky is falling” propaganda, we can relax and continue with business as usual. Of course we prefer to believe the latter.

lillycoyote's avatar

@ETpro Sorry, I hope I wasn’t too snarky and rude there. You know me by now, I just get that way sometimes. I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way and no, I don’t look anything like that, I wish I did!

ETpro's avatar

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies I will definitely read a few chapters, but not tonight. Further to Kent, you might enjoy this.

@ratboy That probably captures the driving force behind anti-rationality pretty well.
@lillycoyote You know I love you too—and you don’t need to look like Jessica Rabbit for me to say that. :-)

cookieman's avatar

And then there’s apathy. I know a lot of average joes who are neither critical thinkers nor religious lemmings – they simply don’t care.

Two sentences into your original question all they’d hear is “wonk wonk, blah blah” and start to think about the upcoming Red Sox game. And this assessment wouldn’t even insult them – they have bigger fish to fry in their day to day lives.

It’s not that they’re lacking basic intelligence or duped by dogma – they simply don’t give a shit. I’ll bet this describes most Americans.

augustlan's avatar

Man, between @Smashley, @ratboy, and @cprevite, the reasons for this state of affairs seem to have been pretty well covered. Brilliant, and depressing, I must say.

@crisw I’m not so sure that critical thinking doesn’t come naturally, at least for some people. I think I’ll ask a question on that topic. Hope you’ll chime in!

sleepdoc's avatar

@cprevite I would have to agree with that statement. It is not that most Americans couldn’t evaluate and proof all of these things, most just don’t care to. If it doesn’t impact their immediate shell of life, the ripples are too far away to get worked up over. Although, I don’t agree with all of the other generalizations that have been made in the thread, I think this one is accurate.

Nullo's avatar

I wouldn’t worry about the autism thing; every age has its pseudoscience fads. This one will pass soon enough.

crazyivan's avatar

@Nullo and how many children will die of whooping cough while we wait patiently?

Nullo's avatar

@crazyivan Not many, I think. The alternative is more state regulation, more laws, more control, more taxes, more incarceration, curtailing of the freedom of speech, the creation of more thought crimes. Anything less (except perhaps a public health campaign) would probably cause the opposite effect.
Frankly, I’m willing to let the fad pass.

crazyivan's avatar

Well, in 2009 it was 196,000 so I’m not sure how many “not many” is, but so long as human health doesn’t interfere with our narrow political ideologies I guess all is good.

Nullo's avatar

@crazyivan So it’s okay for your rights to be trampled on because somebody else thinks that vaccines aren’t any good?

About 4,000,000 children were born in 2009. 196,000 is, by comparison, “not many.” The comparison would be starker if we weren’t aborting so many. Funny how nobody seems to care about the unborn.

crazyivan's avatar

No, but I would say it would be perfectly reasonable for them to “trample” on my “rights” if they could prove through unambiguous science that vaccines aren’t any good. But good to know that you’re cool with 196,000 babies dying of one of the most horrible afflictions known to humankind. Nice to know which side of the fight everybody’s on.

josie's avatar

The Scientific Method got lost in the same politcal correctness purge that eliminated Aristotelian logic. Gone.

ETpro's avatar

@cprevite I am sure that’s pretty accurate.

@Nullo I just offered that one as an example There are tons of others to point to. We’ve always had snake-oil salesmen and hucksters with us. But they used to travel around in county fairs. Now they are the talking heads invited to explain things to us on TV and Cable news and opinion shows, and they are there spreading their anti-rationalism 24 hours a day on 100 channels.

@josie I really don’t think political correctness is the culprit here, although political correctness is often one of the enemies of both the scientific methid and solid logic.

crisw's avatar


“I really don’t think political correctness is the culprit here”

It is to some degree- or rather, postmodernism is.

To again quote my idol Baba Brinkman from his song Creationist Cousins (it’s a long quote but it’s apt)-

And that’s when my sister steps in
To defend a different kind of creationism –
Cultural creationism,
Also known as “social constructivism” or “post-modernism”
She says: “Baba, the Western scientific method Is just as subjective as every other cultural tradition
Except it’s just better at pretending to be objective
Because, like, all behaviour is socially constructed
And mostly, it just promotes injustice
And, like, gender roles have nothing to do with genitals
They’re just a way for men to control women’s goals
And try to turn us all into Playboy centerfolds
Haven’t you heard about that tribe in the Amazon
Where the woman does the man’s jobs and hunts and plants the crops
And brings home the food for the man to wash?
Um, I can’t remember exactly what that clan is called
But I know it’s a published fact
Because I read about it in my Women’s Studies class
And it proves that gender is a socially constructed act
So how does sociobiology explain that?”
And all I can do is come back with more statistics
About the high percentage of indigenous
Societies where polygamy is prolific
And about human sexual dimorphism
And the different reproductive investments between men and women
Which of course then gets my religious cousins offended
Because it doesn’t credit Genesis with our humble beginnings
And, let’s just say, the discussions are endless…

ETpro's avatar

@crisw Perhaps I interpreted @Nullo‘s indictment of political correctness too narrowly. Yes, post modernism and the idea that all thoughts have equal merit is a great part of the problem. It’s patent BS, but there are way too many willing to swallow it if it promotes this or that cause celeb of theirs.

absalom's avatar


How postmodern of you to blame postmodernism.

Nullo's avatar

@crazyivan Congratulations! You have missed the point. Very conveniently, I might add. And in a way that thoroughly ignores my Public Health Campaign option.
Neither case is attractive; I don’t much like the idea of dead children or overbearing government. But since I intend to vaccinate any and all kids that I might one day have, the big issue for me in this debate is the length and weight of the State’s chains.

IchtheosaurusRex's avatar

We need to start with the MSM, who simultaneously sensationalize science and dumb it down. For example, every time I see the Higgs Boson referred to as the “God Particle” I want to put my fist through my monitor. If you can’t get so-called legitimate news outlets to stop promoting gobbledygook, you’ll never stop the spread of nonsense websites.

People believe what they want to believe anyway. The very definition of ignorance is deliberate rejection of the truth, hence “to ignore.”

mattbrowne's avatar

Victims of the ultra-conservative war against science are in fact losing this ability. A good example is Sarah Palin. Every smart kid in 9th grade understands more about real science than she does.

Junk science is about hidden political agendas.

crisw's avatar


“Junk science is about hidden political agendas.”

Not always, unless “making lots of money” is a hidden political agenda. A lot of junk science in the US is used to tout quack medical “treatments.”

crazyivan's avatar

@crisw Agreed, though Matt brings up a good point. All too often people are willing to forego objectivity and evidence provided the result lines up with their political ideals.

ETpro's avatar

@IchtheosaurusRex I know just how you feel, Ichy. But if you were the editor of a media property, and you were charged with constantly building subscriber count and the bottom line, which would you use. The ho-hum headline Higgs Boson or the attention grabbing “God Particle”? If you wanted to still have the job in a week, you know which one you’d have to go with.

@crisw That’s true. Remember the “Recovered memories” craze of the 1990s where some highly credentialed scientists in the field of psychology claimed that under their intensive therapy, women who had supressed memories of childhood sexual abuse for their entire lives could be coaxed (read coached) into recovering those memories. For a time, the Repressed Memory industry was telling us that all little girls were sexually abused. Of course, the whole mess was pure hooey, but to the cottage industry that sprang up to exploit it, spin and junk thought was the tool to a lucrative new business opportunity.

crisw's avatar


Or facilitated communication…

mattbrowne's avatar

@crisw – Alright. Hidden (non-scientific) agendas.

Paradox's avatar

Ironically the greatest scientists and inventors that ever lived were ridiculed by the orthodox factions of their times. I have no problem with “critical thinking” but some people in orthodox science become so obsessed with sticking to certain theories while not listening to certain “fringe” elements that may offer some truth that they become just as “irrational” as the people they are criticising. Some people don’t want to hear potential truths that are very uncomfortable to them regardless of which side of the fence they are on.

Again there is a difference between being an obscurant and a true sceptic. There are many psuedosceptics out there as well. There are alot of hypothesis accepted by many orthodox scientists that I find to be junk science as well. People should have the right to determine for themselves what is “junk science”. The greatest advancments in history have been made by what was considered the “fringe” element of science. There is no greater enemy to progress when decisions are based upon cognitive dissonance.

mattbrowne's avatar

@Paradox – Good scientists know that one of the most important jobs of scientists is refuting existing theories and widely accepted hypotheses. But refutation has to employ scientific method. Thousands of scientists searching for quantum gravity are trying to refute (parts of) Einstein’s and Planck’s widely accepted theories. There are scientists trying to refute Big Bang Theory. There are even a few scientists trying to refute (parts of) evolution, but they have nothing to do with creationism which are views not based on scientific method.

IchtheosaurusRex's avatar

@ETpro , if I had to write dreck, I’d find a different line of work. Misinformation is worse than no information at all.

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