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Dear “Google” Galileo: Five Reasons We Know Why You Are Not A Scientific Genius

Published 07th October 2010 - 3 comments - 1511 views -

Google Galileo: an individual whose knowledge of a scientific discipline is restricted to information sourced from Google, Wikipedia or other online sources (i.e. blogs). Within a period of a few weeks/months they feel confident to not only dismiss an entire discipline of science, but have gained the ability to “practice science” by commenting on online forums and constructing alternative theories using raw data obtained freely from public sources.

When confronted with evidence or arguments that contradict their position, they retreated into the “Galileo was persecuted for his beliefs!” defence, imagining the gales of laughter emanating from the scientific community is a form of persecution.

The online world is awash with hundreds of thousands of individuals, who despite lacking training or experience in a highly technical areas, feel they can confidently dismiss entire disciplines of science after a few weeks of searching Google and consulting a few blogs.

Yes, blame Google. And the Internet.

This is the “dark side” of the information revolution.

Before anyone rushes to accuse of me of attacking the very medium this blog is a product of, I’d like to stress that the Internet has been a wonderful tool for disseminating knowledge. However I think we can all agree it is also conduit for all kinds of misinformation.

Climate change denial is the example par excellence, as it is a movement built on half-truths and fabrications. However the denial movement would not be quite as effective and powerful without blogs such as “What’s up with that”, “Climate Depot” and the websites of think tanks behind climate change denial.

The same is true of creationism, HIV-AIDs denial, 9/11 Truthers and the anti-vaccination movement. They thrive and grow thanks to their online presence, trapping individuals with their “counter knowledge“, sucking them into the vortex of denial and pseudo-science.

Entering and graduating from Google University

“Google U” has many esteemed graduates.

Perhaps one of the more most famous example is Jenny McCarthy, the former Playboy Bunny, actress and self-proclaimed autism expert.

She has been one of the main proponents of the anti-vaccine movement, giving it a higher profile due to her celebrity status (C-List as it is). Her son has autism, and she blames MMR/vaccines. How did she arrive at this conclusion?

When her son started to display signs of autism, she Googled it:

…that night [she]went on Google and typed in “autism.” And on the corner of the screen, in the sponsored links, it said, “Generation Rescue.” And I decided to click on it, because right underneath it, it said, “Autism is reversible.” And I thought to myself, well, this must be a load of crap, because if it was true, why didn’t the best neurologist in the world tell me there’s something I could do to reverse autism?

The tragedy is the McCarthy was lead down the “rabbit hole” of denial because she lacked the critical thinking skills and knowledge to dismiss the claims of the anti-vaccination movement. But just as importantly she wanted to believe it.

This form of denial is easy to understand. Her son has a condition that can be challenging for a parent to come to grips with.

Something was “wrong” with her son. “Someone” must be to “blame”. Age of Autism promised it was “reversible”. Probability and genetics be damned, it’s the fault manufacturers of vaccines. And she could “fix it”.

However in order to support her beliefs, McCarthy must wave away evidence based medicine and maintain there is a massive conspiracy to cover up the truth in order to protect the interests of drug manufacturers.

Sound familiar?

Fragile thinking leads to denial

Of course it does: it is how denial is manufactured and maintained by the individual. But challenging the beliefs of someone like McCarthy only hardens their resolve. The same is true of climate change deniers.

They can’t belive AGW is real, because it clashes with their values and beliefs (i.e. unlimited economic growth, government is corrupt). As a consequence they have to disprove the science via a fantasy of a global conspiracy amongst scientists in collusion with governments and green groups.

The recent New Scientist special on the “Age of Denial” has a series of very good essays, including one the psychology of denial. It explains how the “fragility” of some people’s thinking lead them to go down this intellectual path:

[Seth] Kalichman, [social psychologist] however, feels that everyday reasoning alone is not enough to make someone a denialist. “There is some fragility in their thinking that draws them to believe people who are easily exposed as frauds,” he says. “Most of us don’t believe what they say, even if we want to. Understanding why some do may help us find solutions.”

He believes the instigators of denialist movements have more serious psychological problems than most of their followers. “They display all the features of paranoid personality disorder”, he says, including anger, intolerance of criticism, and what psychiatrists call a grandiose sense of their own importance. “Ultimately, their denialism is a mental health problem. That is why these movements all have the same features, especially the underlying conspiracy theory.”

Neither the ringleaders nor rank-and-file denialists are lying in the conventional sense, Kalichman says: they are trapped in what classic studies of neurosis call “suspicious thinking”. “The cognitive style of the denialist represents a warped sense of reality, which is why arguing with them gets you nowhere,” he says. “All people fit the world into their own sense of reality, but the suspicious person distorts reality with uncommon rigidity.”

In addition to this is the belief that they are “the modern Galileo”, someone whose beliefs challenge the mainstream and will be ultimately vindicated. The sad truth, it’s just fallacious thinking. As noted sceptic Michael Shermer notes:

For every Galileo shown the instruments of torture for advocating scientific truth, there are a thousand (or ten thousand) unknowns whose ‘truths’ never pass scientific muster with other scientists. The scientific community cannot be expected to test every fantastic claim that comes along, especially when so many are logically inconsistent.

It’s often referred to as the “Galileo gambit”, or “Galileo Fallacy“:

The Galileo gambit, or Galileo fallacy, is the idea that if you are widely vilified for your ideas, you must therefore be right. It refers to Galileo Galilei’s famous persecution at the hands of the Catholic church for his defence of heliocentrism in the face of the orthodox Biblical literalism of the day that insisted otherwise. Users will bring it up repeatedly in response to serious criticisms that – more often than not – they just don’t understand.

Again and again from climate change deniers, creationists and other denial movements the chant “Galileo was laughed at and he was right!”

There have been tens of thousands of would be Galileo’s. The reason their names are forgotten is that their theories could never past muster.

Five reasons why “you” are not the modern Galileo

These would be Galileo’s seem to amass a wealth of “facts” about climate science, geology and physics. With their impressive array of factoids, they bludgeon public discussion in online forums and dinner party conversations with seemingly inexhaustible (and exhausting) depth of knowledge of obscure talking points and tidbits.

“They grew grapes in Britain during the Roman occupation, so it was actually hotter than it is today. The climate has always changed…”

But these are meaningless facts.

They have nothing to do climate science. They are facts strung together into a complex, almost impenetrable web of denial. This is a generation of “Google Galileo’s”. Men and woman who’ve “looked into” climate change and found the science “wanting” in their estimation. There sources of information? Bloggers, conspiracy theorists and “sceptical” journalists. This is as far removed from actual science as you can actually get.

There are five common traits of these “wannabe” Galileo’s (and the signs you should look for when you encounter one) :

  1. You lack relevant qualifications or expertise in a highly technical discipline – most would be “Google Galileo’s” (99.99%) lack qualifications in climate science. They may have impressive qualifications in other fields (engineering, finance, economics) but the truth is they lack the decades of training in the field. Just as nobody can become an overcome expert in neurosurgery from reading Wikipedia, so you can’t “Google” the web and become an overnight expert on a highly complex area of science.
  2. Your references are restricted to blogs and Wikipedia (and cherry picked from freely available scientific papers) – most Google Galileo’s can’t make a distinction between genuine scientific research and a post from the well-known denial blog “What’s up with that?”. As far as they are concerned, information that supports their argument is valid. Information that contradicts is – by definition – suspect and tainted by its association with actual scientists.
  3. You think downloading raw data sets and running them through Excel constitutes “science” – this is perhaps the most tragic, and fruitless, exercise committed by the more committed Google Galileo’s. There are literally hundreds of blogs out there in which their authors have downloaded data from NASA’s Goddard Centre or Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) and run it through Excel. Of course they find “stunning errors” and evidence of “tricks”. They are hunting for anomalies (another logical fallacy). Having enormous gaps in your understanding of the science ensures your results are flawed.
  4. You repeatedly state “They laughed at Galileo didn’t they! - the fallacy of association is the most common one made by these would be geniuses. The gales of laughter and derision of society have less to with their failure to appreciate your special insights than just how poorly conceived their version of “science” is.
  5. You gravitate towards online communities who welcome your wild (and incorrect) speculations - the Internet is wonderful for finding like-minded individuals. However it means individuals often close themselves off in a world where no facts or contradictory information can reach them. Thus, a person whose only understanding of climate science comes from reading Andrew Bolt and a few other blogs will receive a highly distorted view of the science. Just as likely, their interactions will be mostly confined to individuals with a similar world view. This is epistemic closure: the quarantine of communities in hermetically sealed “information bubbles’.


Category: Climate Reporting, | Tags:


Johan Knols / Editor-in-Chief on 08th October 2010:

Hi Mike,

Does this also not have to do with the fact that we hate to hear (or believe) bad news?

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