The Lower Quote, As If You Didn't Know, Is By Richard Dawkins, Son.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

How We Choose Who To Listen To

As a person who isn't a specialist in, well, anything, really, it's difficult to decide who to listen to on technical issues. This goes for anything - is cold fusion possible? Can a person make a perpetual motion machine? What's the real age of the Earth? The universe? Are vaccines safe? Why do I have ear hair?

Nowadays it's different from the past because of the internet; there is so much information out there that it can be extremely confusing for a lay-person to have a well-informed opinion. Let's go through an example to see what the best way is to evaluate what you're seeing.

Take the age of the Earth, for instance. If you look at a variety of sources, you'll see that the general consensus is about 4.54 or 4.55 billion years (ref. 1, ref. 2). These dates are fairly specific and dependent upon dating according to the radioactive decay of lead isotopes, among other ways. If you want to learn about radioactive decay, you can do so at your leisure.

Now, we get to the criticism and alternate views. These are mostly religious, such as this one and this one. The former, from All About Creation, doesn't give an age, but tries to discredit the scientific methods. If you know anything (literally, the first thing) about the scientific Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, you'll know that it says nothing about the origins of the universe or Earth, but these folks say, "Evolution is essentially the atheistic explanation of origins." Well, no, actually. Evolution is how species change over time by mutation and natural selection - it says nothing about the age of the Earth. This, by itself, doesn't discredit their point, but it's certainly not a good start.

The other site, Answers in Genesis, take a more direct route and says that the Earth is 6000 years old and most (all?) of the geologic features and fossils are accounted for by Noah's Flood. The flood from the bible. This website offers no evidence whatsoever apart from appeals to the bible and uninformed critiques of geology like:
As they looked at the thousands of feet of rock layers and fossils worldwide, many early geologists, both Christian and non-Christian, simply assumed that the Flood could not have produced them. Based on this and other antibiblical assumptions, they invented theories that those rock layers and fossils had formed long before man came into existence.
There are no answers here to the obvious point that geologists didn't just "invent" theories, they formulated a hypothesis based on their observations, designed a test (in this case, a long-term test that consisted of waiting to see if there was ever to be found a fossil where it shouldn't be - J.B.S. Haldane's "rabbit in the pre-cambrian"), then awaited the results. Those results have been rolling in ever since and there hasn't been any out of place. In fact, there was at least one that was found where it was predicted to be (ref.).

Back to Answers in Genesis for their reply - here - which is sadly lacking in any logic or reason.

Claims on the geology side are answered with evidence you can learn about, techniques that you can study, and rebuttals that leave you satisfied. The creationist claims are based on accepting the bible as a historical document, pointing out false "truths" (i.e. Both creationists and evolutionists interpret the evidence in light of their presuppositions. - no, they don't. "Evolutionists" -read here "geologists" - observe, make hypothesis, test, get results, interpret, and get peer know, the scientific method), and appealing to emotion & flawed "logic".

In this case, it would do you good to think along the lines of the general scientific consensus. Great, what about something like vaccines?

Well, same process. The general medical consensus is that they're safe with only mild side effects in a very small percentage of people (ref.). The anti-vaccine people say that there are dangerous side effects like autism and that these effect many people, plus the components of the vaccines in and of themselves are dangerous. They cite mercury (thimerasol), aluminium, formaldehyde, antifreeze, and ether among others as culprits (I'm not linking to any of the wack-job antivax sites - they suck and are ignorant and dangerous. If you want to investigate them, do so).

When you check back with the medical sites and sources, they have answers to all these charges (ref. 1, ref. 2), - thimerasol isn't dangerous in the doses given and no testing has found otherwise; aluminium is also safe at the doses given, is well-tested, and actually is an adjuvant making less vaccine necessary to give out; you get more formaldehyde sitting in traffic for a couple hours than in your vaccines; and there's no antifreeze or ether in vaccines. Those last two are just a confusion of basic chemistry between ethylene glycol and polyethylene glycol pisooctylphenyl ether (ref.). The name is similar but the difference is important, as it turns out. One's anti-freeze, the other is a detergent that helps to make cell walls permeable. Easy to confuse.

All this information is out there for you to source and do your own fact checking and research. It's not easy, but if it makes the difference between being as correct as you can be and sounding like a complete dolt, it might just be worth the effort.

A decent rule of thumb is: if the side you're thinking of throwing in with depends on some sort of conspiracy theory (think the 9/11 "truthers", the anti-vaxers and their "big pharma" fear, or David Icke and his shape-shifting reptilian overlords - who I, for one, welcome), you're likely on the side of irrationality. Maybe time to re-evaluate and talk to some scientists.

1 Barbaric Yawps:

At 15/10/09 8:09 am, Blogger Sean the Blogonaut F.C.D. said...

Some good points Mike. There's a quote by Bertie Russell on experts. That fits here.


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