Should scientists respond to pseudo-science?

Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him.

Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes. (Proverbs 26:4, 5 NIV)

The editors of this particular list of proverbs were not fools – they knew they appeared contradictory.  Their purpose is to get us chewing over how we decide when we should speak up and when we shouldn’t.  When I heard these proverbs on Sunday my mind wandered (sorry Rev) immediately to my fellow science bloggers and the choices we make to respond or not respond to pseudo-science.  When we respond we do so wth hope.  Hope that the second proverb applies and the fool will recognise their own folly rather than keep on believing in their own wisdom.  A question I have for my fellow bloggers, how often does this actually take place?  I suspect, rarely.  At what point are we casting “pearls before swine”?  How do we know?

Perhaps more importantly, other than wasting our own time, could we be doing more harm than good (the first proverb)? By putting our scientific standing behind our reponses could we be enhancing the reputation of the pseudo-scientist in their own eyes or, worse, the eyes of readers? I think scientists are still paying the price for the over-confidence in science as solution to the world’s problems.  This has lead to some skepticism and a willingness to look at solutions that are not “main-stream” (especially if government funded or big-pharma).  By responding to the obvious nonesense, do we merely spread it further?

Some pseudo-science is addressing issues which also have non-scientific ethical issues that need to be respected.  Furthermore, the pseudo-science proponent may hold similar hopes to their scientist critic – eg hope for improved health.  I’m thinking particularly of issues such as vaccination or additives to food or water in which we need to weigh up the rights individuals with our responsibilites to others. Here, a scientist may express their opinion and their methodology of arriving at that opinion, but they need to tread very carefully not to appeal to Science with a capital “S” as if that is the ultimate standard against which all ethical decisions should be measured.

Here endeth the sermon.  Let us chew.

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