How To Generate Scientific Controversy

1. Pick something that is regarded as true by the vast majority of scientists in the field and claim that it causes something bad.

2. Demand that scientists prove a negative by showing that the good thing doesn’t actually have bad results.

3. When people point out that the facts don’t back up your claim, ignore them. As those people get angry and shouty at you, smugly say, “They’re persecuting me! They’re so closed-minded that they won’t let anyone ask questions!” Bonus points for saying that science is now a religion.

4. If more patient scientists perform studies that undermine your claim, or if you manage to get the government to modify the good thing to fix what you were complaining about, move the goalposts!

Let’s see what we can do with this. I know: child safety seats! Properly used, they dramatically decrease kids’ injuries in car wrecks. They’re hella effective. So let’s claim that they really aren’t. In fact, their five-point harness can kill. See, the chest latch rides up and the two shoulder belts tighten until your kid will choke to death.

More rational types may point to reports from the U.S.’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or the American Academy of Pediatrics describing how much good child safety seats do. It doesn’t matter! They haven’t checked to see if the shoulder belts could strangle your child, or even chop off their heads.

Once I get a celebrity or two behind my cause, I’ll be able to put others on the defensive. The NHTSA will have to perform tests to try to prove that child safety seats don’t strangle babies or chop off their heads. Their test results will probably show no such problem.

That’s okay. We know the real danger is that the car seats don’t install properly. It was nice of the NHTSA to look into the strap-strangulation problem, but our work is far from done.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go shower.

Update: Since people have asked, I’ve laid out a plan to monetize the controversy.

47 thoughts on “How To Generate Scientific Controversy

  1. Haven’t looked into this myself, but according to the Freakonomics folks, car seats don’t actually reduce mortality over just being buckled in. (I know, I know they are currently in great shame.) As I recall from their first book, the NHTSA statistics seemed to suggest that the mortality rates between car seat use and normal seat belt use were negligible.

    Add to that the obvious strangulation hazard and watch out…

  2. As I recall, their objection wasn’t to car seat use by infants and young toddlers, but for older kids. They didn’t claim car seats had no benefit for one and two year olds.

  3. Found this from Pharyngula, better get used to a bunch o’ traffic today! Hilarious, in a slightly frightening manner 😉 You know with a little creativity, you can actually attack multiple perspectives this way: I’m totally against bicycle paths because we haven’t proven how many people are eaten by Sasquatches on said paths. Everyone knows Sasquatches hate car emissions, so we can’t fight global warming or we’ll be overrun by ape-men! NO MORE BIKE PATHS SCIENTISTS!!!!eleventy-one!!! It’s been far too long you’ve denied us respect for our Intelligent Sasquatch Theory. It’s just as good a theory as the non-Sasquatch ones!

  4. I’ll nominate another point: Scour the technical and popular literature for information with the most tenuous relationship to your claim, and use it to support your argument in the strongest terms.

    For example, McClaren just recalled a million strollers because they pose a danger to children when being folded or unfolded–some fingers have been amputated. This is both sad and scandalous, but more importantly, it’s proof positive that child safety seats will kill your children, probably by decapitating them.

  5. I learned from Mary Roach’s entertaining book “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers” that some seatbelt research involves impact tests on cadavers. As far as I recall, nobody would admit to using dead kids, but, you know, if you want to turn the public against the research which contradicts your claims, some wild accusation along those lines would do pretty well.

  6. Also, when the NHTSA does thoroughly debunk your claims, accuse the NHTSA scientists of being paid shills for corporate establishment that wants to make a profit from killing your babies! That should do the trick. 😉

  7. Don’t forget to combine your celebrity endorsement with some somber quotes from people with M.D. or Ph.D. after their name.

  8. It’s the best of both worlds. Did they test the seatbelts on dead kids? If yes, accuse them of being unfeeling hyenas. If no, accuse them of paying less attention to children’s safety than they should.

  9. If your celebrity endorsement comes from a Pretty Young Thing, airheads will fall over themselves to subscribe. Also employ faux patriotism; you’ll have ‘True Patriots’ (TM) shedding real tears for the cause of freedom and your right to spew gibberish. Don’t neglect your local faith heads; you too can move god in mysterious ways – and when they really get behind you, feed them plenty cut n paste fodder they can put through their email networks. That way, other knit browed knuckledraggers will fall in step. See your subscription numbers mushroom overnight. They’ll never understand why, but they’ll do it anyway.

  10. I think the whole Maclaren recall is hilarious (except for the poor babies who have been hurt, of course), I had some b-word tell me I didn’t love my children as much as she loved hers because she spent ten times as much on a Maclaren… I just want to say neener neener neener to her.

    1. You guys are far more inventive than I, clearly. I hadn’t thought of any of these improvements to my child seat plan. The cadaver one especially is a stroke of brilliance.

  11. It’s also important to quote-mine websites that are sarcastically making fun of you as evidence for your position. For example, “Even the blog Live Granades had a post that supports my contention that car seats decapitate kids! They write that ‘In fact, their five-point harness can kill. See, the chest latch rides up and the two shoulder belts tighten until your kid will choke to death.'” But don’t provide a link of course, because we don’t want anyone to actually follow up to see what was originally written.

  12. Don’t forget to do selective research that ‘proves’ the ideological or religious position that you already hold. For example, I’m sure the Catholics are against child safety seats because it will lead to more reckless driving. If you take away the punishment from God of getting in a wreck, then humans will behave and drive in a worse manner. So do some research proving that people without child safety seats drive safer and have fewer wrecks. Then you’ll have an entire irrational group behind you with a few words from the Pope – and yes, you can monetize off them quiet easily.

  13. It’s also very important to link internally from one web site to another all espousing the same wild claims so that anyone googling it will be sure to arrive at any one of your sites, the more the better. And make sure to use lots of eye jarring colour and font combinations, that’s always important, to be sure.

    Finally, don’t forget the celebrity endorsements, even better if they were once playboy bunnies.

  14. This is similar to a the post, Recipie:Pseudoscientific theory in your version is expanded though Stephen. I woud recommend a visit to that wiki to all sane people

  15. I see no one here is aware of that silent but everpresent danger, Gravity. Gravity kills a disproportionate number of our most vulnerable, the very young and the very old. Big Grav has it’s own commercials “I’m fallen and I can’t get up” pushing unnedeed products. We have been brainwashed to think we need it by an unholy conspiricy between Big Education, Big Gravity and Big Government.

    So join our movement. Our slogan is “lighten up”

    The Verbal Serpent

  16. Wow, stephen, your comments are so wise and full of ah, well, stuff. hilarious, car seats and scientific controversy? car seats so 1980’s, your qualifications for science are what? red neck community college, South Carolina? your opinions aren’t worth shit on a stick.

    1. Hey, my first troll on this post! Glad you could make it. Shame about your effort, though — it’s too unfocused to be very good. No spark of true outrage? No funny put-downs? This is the tapioca pudding of trolling.

  17. Once thing to be on the lookout for, though, is drawing the wrong conclusions from studies – where what the study actually discovered in a limited environment about a few specific variables gets generalized to the real-world in a way that does not necessarily lead to the conclusion claimed:

    Example 1 – Hands-free cellphone driving impairment studies:
    For example, I’ve read a number of studies that attempt to show that hands-free cellphones are just as imparing as hands-on cellphones and all the ones (that I’ve seen anyway) made the mistake of setting up scenarios crafted in such a way in which they were measuring things where the use of hands didn’t matter (for example, measuring how fast you can hit the brakes, or measuring whether or not you remember billboards you saw in the simulator as a measure of whether or not your brain was paying attention to what your eyes were seeing). Sure, if you deliberately craft the study such that all you are measuring is the drivers’ attention deficit then it’s a foregone conclusion that the dexterity impairment of having a hand tied up is irrelevant to what you are studying. But why did nobody test a scenario in which one reacts to an emergency by steering? If we lived in a world where you never have to steer your car as an emergency measure THEN you could conclude from those studies that hands-free and hands-on cellphones are equally detrimental to driving. But include the factor of steering and it seems intuitive to me that a hands-on phone has mental distractions equal to that of a hands-free phone, PLUS on top of that it impairs your ability to physically manipulate the wheel, so I’d be very surprised if the results still came out the same in such a test. I don’t know for sure if they would, though, because they didn’t do a proper job of testing this scenario. It would be an easy test to do, too – just set up a course of orange cones and see how well people do driving the course while on the two types of cellphones.

    My complaint isn’t that the tests they performed aren’t useful – just that it’s wrong to claim the conclusion they claimed from them. They proved that when you isolate the mental distraction factor and measure just it alone, the results are the same for hands-on and hands-free phones. That is an interesting and useful conclusion. That is NOT the same thing as claiming that overall driving is equally impaired by both because overall driving also includes things they didn’t test – like the use of the hands to steer.

    Example 2: Pschological experiment “proving” that violent video games cause violent behavior in kids.

    This one is simpler to explain – the error here was in the difficulty of finding a way to measure “violent behavior” in a manner that is both quantitatively measurable, and ethically acceptable to carry out. What they settled on was this: After the child is done playing the video games, the child is provided with a teddy bear and an adult orders the child to punch a teddy bear. The demand is repeated several times. The number of times it is repeated before being obeyed is the measurement. The more reluctant the child is to commit violence, the more times the request needs to be repeated, it was surmised. Thus the more willing to commit violence the child is, the fewer repetitions of the demand to punch the teddy bear will be needed before the child obeys.
    The error here is that the test actually measured video games’ effect on child willingness to commit a fake act of violence against a facsimile of a living thing – not an actual animal, but a teddy bear. While it is certainly true that tendency toward violence might be a factor in such a thing, it’s hardly the only factor. Another very important factor is whether or not the child’s sense of reality is grounded enough to rationally look at the fake-ness of the situation and realize that a teddy bear is an inanimate object that has no feelings. In reality, punching a teddy bear doesn’t really hurt anybody. A child who’s tendency toward violence hasn’t changed at all, but who’s ability to distinguish fact from fantasy has increased, would also be more willing to punch the teddy bear.

    Therefore I could just as easily claim, from the same results, that playing violent video games makes kids more able to distinguish fact from fantasy. I have no idea if this is true or not, but the point is that the test taken does not necessarily lead to the conclusion drawn from it when there are alternate explanations that are just as simple and fit the facts just as well.

  18. re Steven Mading:

    Complaining about the conclusion that hands free is just as dangerous as non-hands free cell phone use is like complaining about the conclusion that driving after 6 drinks is just as bad as 5 drinks. Sure, 6 may be worse, but they are both DUI.

  19. re: SteveM:

    Complaining about the conclusion that hands free is just as dangerous as non-hands free cell phone use is like complaining about the conclusion that driving after 6 drinks is just as bad as 5 drinks. Sure, 6 may be worse, but they are both DUI.

    No, your analogy fails because the only difference between 5 drinks and 6 drinks is in magnitude of the imparing factor, but there’s still only one impairing factor, whereas what I’m talking about is the difference between a situation with one kind of impairment versus a situation with that type of impairment plus another one.

    A better analogy would be if someone tried to claim that driving while being drunk versus driving while being both drunk and handcuffed are identically impairing, and to “prove” this point they created a study in which they only tested the use of the feet on the pedals and deliberately avoided testing the ability to steer.

    The tests they performed actually only proved that the factor of mental distraction is the same – not that the overall effect on all factors and thus then entire ability to drive well is the same between the two.

    The reason I care is that people make the logical error of observing how annoyed they are and hands-on-phone drivers and presume that since hands-free-phone drivers are exactly as bad (which these studies did not prove at all, but CLAIMED they proved it anyway) at driving, that it’s okay to paint the two with the same wide brush when enacting laws. If you want to prove to me that hands-free phones should be treated as exactly equal to hands-on phones in laws, then test how much of the bad driving of a hands-on-phone driver is due to the mental distraction (that it shares with hands-free phone use) versus how much is due to the dexterity hindrance (that it does not share with hands-free phone use), then that’s what the tests should have been testing, but they weren’t.

    I’ve seen cases of reckless hands-on-phone driving where it intuitively seems that the dexterity hindrance was a bigger factor than the mental hindrance – things that mostly involve steering errors like oversteering for a lane change so the car “misses” the target lane and has to veer back again – or the cellphone driver turning too wide on a multi-lane lefthand turn so the inner lane car drifts into the outer lane and forces the outer lane driver to respond with an emergency measure like slamming the brakes.

    I’ve seen plenty of steering errors from cellphone users – enough so that I’d like to see THAT effect studied.

    And there’s another factor these studies failed to check – what happens when the cellphone user has to use the interface on the phone and isn’t just talking – i.e. having to push buttons to do things. These studies all presumed the phone call was already in progress when the effects they were testing for occurred and thus this is another way they deliberately crafted the test to avoid dealing with the difference between having to use your hands to operate the phone versus not having to.

    I would expect that when the test avoids testing any of the tasks for which you have to use your hands, that a hands-free phone wouldn’t make any difference. But that’s hardly a good test then.

  20. They* always say that something is better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. But have they test this hypothesis? How many tests have been made about how good or bad (possibly on a scale of 1 to 10) pokes in eyes with sharp sticks are? Give us the base measurements and then we can decide how to rate something compared to a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.

    *”They” being “them.”

  21. I’m not saying that child safety seats strangle babies. I’m just putting that question out there so we can have a dialogue.

  22. And if studies do not confirm your ideas demand new studies (hey, this works for alternative medicine!)

  23. I actually brought this up in the comments on Amy Tuteur’s blog last month for the post “A modest proposal: no insurance for vaccine rejectionists.” To educate a vaccine rejecting commenter, Amy pointed out that “it would be unethical to do [a car seat/no car seat study] because children would die from being unbelted.” She went on to say that we still know car seats offer protection because “large studies comparing children in carseats to those who are unbuckled has shown that the risk of death is much higher in the unbelted group. We know that vaccines work because of similar studies. ” The vaccine rejectionist complained that this was a weak analogy to the vaccine thing because “There could never be a severe adverse event from being in a car seat.” I followed that comment by pointing out ways in which a car seat could be as supposedly “risky” as a vaccine.

    Love comment #18 about gravity. It’s a serious and very real environmental danger. We all know NASA is in the pocket of Big Gravity, and we also know about the millions of government dollars spent so support “Project Mercury.” Um, hello? Gravity? Mercury? Vaccines? Autism? Robert Kennedy Jr. can explain the massive conspiracy and coverup if you can be bothered to listen.

  24. Fantastic. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to debunk this post point by point 🙂

    “1. Pick something that is regarded as true by the vast majority of scientists in the field and claim that it causes something bad.”
    Your first step is to oversimplify the approach of your imagined adversaries. Perhaps there are chronic nay-sayers out there, but most scientific controversy emerges when someone within the scientific community dares to propose a theory that goes against the general consensus – think Rupert Sheldrake and Morphogenetic Fields.

    You’ll probably find that the remainder of scientific controversy is generated when individuals and their relatives experience the negative effects of supposedly safe and proven scientific advances. Think the family of a child who developed Guillian Barre syndrome after recieving a vaccine. The controversy therefore happens when actual results in the real world contradict limited or fudged studies conducted by scientists (we’ll get back to this in a bit).

    2. Demand that scientists prove a negative by showing that the good thing doesn’t actually have bad results.
    Well, this depends on how you frame the question. Scientists appear to be quite happy to prove negatives when it suits them (take Dorkins interminable droning about evolutionary biology proving that there’s no god. He’s essentially claiming to have proved a negative – this goes on all the time and is roundly applauded by the majority of the scientific community.)

    Your little word play could also be more accurately framed as ‘demand that scientists prove that a ‘good thing’ is safe – i.e. in positive terms. Stay with me here. They are basically taking the extraordinarily radical step of asking for safety testing. Asking for this is perfectly legitimate when their are incidents in the field which indicate that the ‘good thing’ is in fact not really actually such a ‘good thing’.

    3. When people point out that the facts don’t back up your claim, ignore them. As those people get angry and shouty at you, smugly say, “They’re persecuting me! They’re so closed-minded that they won’t let anyone ask questions!” Bonus points for saying that science is now a religion.

    Let’s re-frame this ludicrous statement. When the people whose salaries are paid by special interests produce another round of result fudging and improper testing to protect the profit margins of their employers, those who are victims of this process get angry. They then witness how the scientific community persecutes the minority whose research produces conflicting results and get more angry and therefore start feeling like information is being suppressed. Once again, nothing very strange here .

    They then say that science is a religion. Well, in purely philosophical terms science is increasingly becoming a religion. Instead of being an epistemology, seeking to determine the most effective ways to understand reality, it is becoming an ontology – a field of knowledge that makes declarations about the nature of reality. Therefore it is becoming a religion which is generally being referred to as scientism.

    Going back to Rupert Sheldrake – when he published his book on Morphogenetic Fields Nature magazine suggested that his books be burnt. Not at all like a religion. No sirree.

    4. If more patient scientists perform studies that undermine your claim, or if you manage to get the government to modify the good thing to fix what you were complaining about, move the goalposts!

    Re-framed: If the best experts money can buy are trotted out to prove that pigs fly, and succeed in tarring and feathering all dissidents and shutting down debate on the subject and convincing the public that pigs do, indeed, fly, go to the next malignant scientific artefact in your environment and attempt to have that removed.

    By making this final point you allow me to address a fundamental naivete in your argument. You make the implicit assumption that being a scientist automatically confers on an individual the highest levels of integrity, honesty and incorruptibility (in other words you regard scientists in much the same way that parishioners regard priests).

    In reality, scientists are, of course, human. They are therefore as corruptible, prone to error, groupthink and inflexible assumptions as anyone else, Max Planck noted that an entire generation of scientists are often required to die out to permit a paradigm shift to take place in science. It gets better. Your argument assumes that scientists are somehow allowed to pursue honest research without external interference.

    This is demonstrably false. Scientists require funding to put bread on their families’ tables. They are therefore under duress to secure grants and funding at virtually all times. An extraordinary degree of naivete is required to believe that those funding research do not attempt to meddle with its findings.

    In reality deriving desirable conclusions from research is something of an industry in science – just look at the pharmaceutical companies and how adept they are at proving their concoctions are safe for human consumption, and how frequently they turn out to be the opposite. You even have special interest groups funding major journals, making sure the ‘right’ peers are involved in peer research.

    Finally, you keep coming back to ‘most scientists’. Allow me to introduce you to a logical fallacy known as the argument from consensus. Several hundred years ago clergy occupied much the same position in society as scientists do today. They believed the sun rotated around the earth. There was general consensus on this subject. Then some two-bit astronomer stood up to this perspective and suggested that it was false.

    If you’d been alive at the time, you’d have penned a vitriolic response to Galileo’s findings, sounding out that vast consensus that opposed his findings. This is because it’s not really truth that interests you. It’s the security of being folded in the soft warm arms of an establishment narrative that you find so appealing.

    Perhaps a little more integrity and humility are in order? (Yeah, I know, that’s not how most adepts of the school of scientism roll.)

  25. Sven:

    Your first problem is that you’ve taken an essay that’s mostly prescriptivist and claimed that I want it to be a general description of scientific controversies. There are scientific controversies that follow these broad strokes, most notably elements of the anti-vaccination movement, but nowhere did I say that this is the one true description of scientific controversies.

    Continuing your bad habit of reading things that aren’t there, your second problem is that you appear to be arguing with someone besides me. You’ve assumed facts not in evidence about what I think of scientists (“scientist automatically confers on an individual the highest levels of integrity, honesty and incorruptibility”), about how science in general is performed (“[y]our argument assumes that scientists are somehow allowed to pursue honest research without external interference”), and about my view of truth versus authoritarianism (“it’s not really truth that interests you”). Your “debunking” appears to be a continuation of some argument you’ve been having with people other than me.

    Your third problem is a misapprehension of logic. Saying “prove that it’s safe” is a meaningless statement. What do you mean by safe? That something helps more than it hurts? That it has zero bad side-effects? There are potentially all kinds of negative-proving hidden behind your supposedly simple request. You also trot out argument by consensus because I refer to “most scientists”. There’s data behind those beliefs, not just sheer numbers of people.

    I appreciate you lecturing me on humility and integrity when you’re so busy arguing against some weird version of me you’ve constructed in your head.

  26. If you’ll pardon the vast overgeneralization, Americans of our day suck at math and science. They don’t really understand the concept of relative risk (mathematical probabilities), nor do they understand the difference between association and cause-and-effect (science.) If it’s raining, and you hear frogs, it ain’t necessarily raining frogs.
    Sven reveals confusion of the latter here: “…the remainder of scientific controversy is generated when individuals and their relatives experience the negative effects of supposedly safe and proven scientific advances. Think the family of a child who developed Guillian Barre syndrome after recieving a vaccine. ”
    And that’s exactly it — a child (or an adult) developing GBS after a vaccine doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s been a negative side effect of the vaccine. The kid may have eaten a peanut butter and banana sandwich hours before developing the first paresthesia, but I don’t see anybody vilifying Jif and Dole. The plural of anecdote is not data.
    Stephen – don’t forget #5, “Promote individual choice. Encourage all right-thinking individuals to evaluate the issue for themselves.” The thing that slays me is that vaccine refusers have no concept of the public health implications of their decisions. If you don’t buckle up your kids in car seats, I’ll have to support your bad decision with my healthcare dollars as your kids get lifelong therapies for their TBI. But other than that, your decision impacts me very little. But failure to immunize your kids against highly contagious diseases like measles, pertussis, and influenza affects everybody at Wal-Mart. Hence the worst mumps epidemic in several years currently playing out in New York state.

  27. Kate:

    To be fair, humans overall are bad at risk assessment. We overemphasize rare risks and downplay common ones. Decoupling correlation from causation is also hard for us — we’re pattern-matching machines. That serves us well in some cases, and not so well in others (hi there, face on Mars!).

  28. Stephen, thanks for not going the ad-hominem abusive route – the person whose link I followed to this site off facebook wasn’t able to resist. You’re right, I am continuing an argument I have had with others, most notably on the vaccine issue, since I thought this post would most likely refer to actual concrete controversy rather than scientists arguing over the real reasons why they can’t get their toy particle accelerator to fire up.

    To Kate, I have studied scientific research methodology at postgraduate level. I understand how science works, but as someone who also has a background in social research I also have an appreciation of how ‘truth’ (scientific or otherwise) is increasingly becoming something that is sold to the highest bidder.

    If you don’t understand the vested interest pharmaceutical companies have in selling their products (with vaccines a particularly profitable pursuit) then you are the one demonstrating the most common way Americans fail to understand their reality – that almost everything around them has been subverted or co-opted by commercial interests. I suggest you go have a look at the links between pharma investors, the mass media, the FDA and the government.

  29. Sven,

    My approach was certainly based on a concrete controversy: do vaccines cause autism? It was to a large degree set off by a man who was paid by barristers looking to sue MMR vaccine manufacturers, and Wakefield cherry-picked his data to arrive at the vaccines-and-autism link. Thimerosal was fingered as the likely culprit, though follow-up studies failed to show the link, inasmuch as you can prove a negative. As these studies have been published, those looking for the link between autism and vaccines have moved to new causes, with some such as Jenny McCarthy saying, in effect, it was never about the thimerosal.

    Part of my frustration is that there needs to be a good debate about vaccines. Every vaccine carries with it a risk, and it’s hard enough sorting through the data and factoring in that companies producing vaccines have money riding on us using them without a lot of chaff thrown into the mix. Arguments such as those produced by the most vocal of the anti-vaccine crowd do little but polarize, so that those who might have been willing to have a thoughtful discussion of vaccines and their dangers feel they have no choice but to support vaccines completely in hopes of keeping the population above the herd immunity limit.

  30. I grant you that vaccine manufacturers cannot be excused from the unpardonable capitalistic iniquity of wanting to turn a profit.
    [List of companies that DON’T want to turn a profit] … Umm…. [/list]
    And I fully agree would be disingenuous to assert that corporations don’t vie to control public awareness.
    [List of nonprofits, celebrities, universities, celebrities, and human beings who NEVER angle for spin] ….cricket, cricket… [/list]
    So… I’m not sure how this makes vaccine manufacturers any different than Ugg -Australia, Amnesty International, Carol Channing, Duke University, or the crazy cat lady who lives up the street from me.

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