At some point, nearly every peddler of pseudoscience, whether it’s their full-time job or they’re just a random troll, will issue a “challenge”. They’ll protest “if the science is true, then do X/Y/Z for me!” Sometimes they’ll offer large cash rewards.
These challenges are as pseudo as their science.
Every one of these challenges is designed to be unwinnable. Even if it looks winnable up front, they’ll renege or change the rules post-hoc.
For example, in November 2011 the German anti-vaccination grifter Stefan Lanka claimed he’d give €100 thousand to someone who could provide a scientific paper proving the existence of the measles virus and measuring the diameter of a single virion. Sounds simple, no?
Then-med-student (now-physician) David Bardens provided six papers (references below): isolating the unique virus from patients with measles, close studies of the effects on tissues of propagation of this virus, and of course the requested measurement of individual virions.
To which Lanka said “I said one paper!” and he refused to pay. Bardens tried suing him, but an appeals court said “sure, yes, this all pretty solidly proves measles is caused by a measurable virus, but technically he did ask for one paper so legally he has to win” (see ruling 12 U 63/15 from the Oberlandesgericht Stuttgart) and this was sadly upheld on appeal (I ZR 62/16 from the Bundesgerichtshof). Quoting the ruling from Oberlandesgericht Stuttgart in February 2016:
Die Beweiswürdigung des Landgerichts dahingehend, dass aufgrund des eingeholten Sachverständigengutachtens bewiesen sei, dass die vom Kläger vorgelegten Publikationen in ihrer Gesamtheit den Nachweis für die Existenz und die Erregereigenschaft des Masernvirus belegten und auch die Bestimmung des Durchmessers in der vom Beklagten verlangten Form gelungen sei, ist im Ergebnis nicht zu beanstanden.
The assessment of the district court to the effect that, on the basis of the expert opinion obtained, it was proven that the publications submitted by the plaintiff in their entirety provided evidence of the existence and causative properties of the measles virus and that the determination of the diameter in the form requested by the defendant was successful the result is not objectionable.
But, Bardens still lost his request for 100 thou. Measles? Proved! Lanka’s challenge? Riddled with technicalities.
You see, measles has been around for thousands of years of human history. It took centuries to slowly unravel how different diseases were spread, and the discovery of microscopic entities like bacteria and viruses helped cement the germ theory of disease.
Measles has been studied for centuries. Mapping out routes of transmission, disease vectors, modes of spread, all in line with how a pathogen would move. Then scientists developed the tools for finding and isolating said pathogens over centuries of meticulous work.
That is to say: Measles being contagious was discovered long before viruses were discovered long before it was easy to isolate individual viruses from sick individuals long before we could study a single virus’e’s impact on tissues at a high resolution in a controlled setting, etc etc.
No one paper is going to contain all of that, that would make no damn sense and also the result would be a rather long book.
The idea that you can turn on a microscope and see a virion holding a sign saying “on my way to cause measles” is so absurd that one starts to suspect Lanka is fully cognizant of his fraud.
A disease is the sum of all the effects a virus has on its host, from the smallest cell level up to the whole organism. Every level is its own publication: A paper showing what the virus does to a cell, a paper showing which genes it co-opts for itself, a paper showing damage to a whole tissue, and on and on.
On top of all that, the German court even noted that the measles vaccine is itself a very strong test of Lanka’s pseudoscientific alternative theory. If measles weren’t the result of a contagious virus, the astonishing efficacy of the vaccine would make no sense.
The “pseudo” part of “pseudoscience” doesn’t just mean “wrong conclusions”. It reflects how pseudoscience is a pale imitation, a shoddy pantomime of real science, right down to methodology. The belief that scientific conclusions are proved once and for all in singular papers, born of a singular experiment, is laughably wrong. Scientific conclusions and community consensus are built up over many experiments, meta-analyses, statistical tests, observations, and discussion. Every paper, no matter how strong its conclusions, stands on the backs of every other paper published before it.
Take gravitational waves. The paper that announced their observation is not, by itself, the proof. Because everything that paper assumes about physics to justify the methods of the LIGO observatory is the result of more than a century of prior papers proving that all works. Everything the paper was testing about the nature of spacetime is the result of a century of experiment and theory in General Relativity.
Whether by accident or design, this “one paper to rule them all” attitude gives hacks an out: They can just deny all the evidence, all of it, because no one paper meets their narrow requirements.
Creationists will demand a single paper with a single experiment showing a multicellular organism evolving new appendages. If you show them a paper on the fossil record of limb evolution, they’ll say there’s no mechanism. If you then show them any of the thousands upon thousands of papers about mutations and gene duplications, they’ll say that’s only the genes, they wanted an organism to change. If you show them an example in practice, like how Antarctic fish have proteins that act as antifreeze, and these proteins are coded by genes which were duplicated and subsequently mutated from genes they share with their cousins without antifreeze proteins, then they’ll say “well it’s not a big change, is it, we wanted something big”. So then if you show them sticklebacks evolving spines in response to changing predator conditions on human time scales, they’ll say “sure but where’s the mechanism” and you can try pointing back to those genetics papers but then we’re right back to “but that’s a different paper, I wanted one!”
Of course, synthesis papers summarise results of many studies, as do academic books, textbooks, sometimes conference proceedings… but that’s not just “one” paper is it.
You cannot win a challenge that was never real.
The other day I saw this infographic on Twitter and Instagram from the Unbiased Science podcast (no idea if they’re good, but Dr Elizabeth Bik and YouTube channel Debunk the Funk follow them on Twitter, that’s a good sign at least)
It’s not bad, but be careful not to give each point the same weight, and make sure every one is contextualised properly. Let’s start with question 1: Science deniers will often scoff and ask “who’s the arbiter of expertise?” and they’re not entirely wrong to do so. Many excellent science writers studied the fields they report on but never actively worked as research scientists, such as Angelai Saini, Carl Zimmer, Rebecca Watson and Ed Yong. All great, all worth reading and trusting. But they’ve also demonstrated their understanding in how they write, carefully citing their sources and explaining methods transparently, while garnering high praise from experts who are active researchers.Continue reading “Pseudoscientists Make Pseudo-Challenges”