In the scary land of irrational discourse

A chemistry researcher published a paper in Science with two junior collaborators and, a few months later, found flaws and retracted the article.

She commented “I am totally bummed to announce that we have retracted last year’s paper on enzymatic synthesis of beta-lactams” and “it is painful to admit, but important to do so” and “the work has not been reproducible” and I apologize to all” and  “I was a bit busy when this was submitted, and did not do my job well”.

Not very unusual news; this kind of thing happens all the time as part of the normal process of research and publication. (This just in! Scientists are human! They make mistakes once in a while! Full story at 11!)

Perhaps this one is slightly more worthy of notice because the lead author is a Nobel prize winner. Time for some rejoicing (Schadenfreude as it is called in good English)  for anyone who is not a Nobel prize winner: haha, you think you are so smart but you mess up too. It never hurts to have an occasional reminder that we should not deify anyone. But hardly prime-time news.

Well, it is  prime-time news for Fox News, which devotes a whole article to the matter. OK, I know, Fox News. And yes, it does pain me to include a hyperlink to a foxnews.com page in this otherwise perfectly decent, civilized, family-safe blog. But in fact that particular article is not by itself outrageous. Suspicious, yes: why such a sudden focus on a minor scientific episode in a news source not particularly famous (I hope you admire my gift for euphemism) for its extensive coverage of the frontlines of scientific research? But whatever its ultimate agenda the article itself is  factual, not judgmental.

What is striking is the avalanche of reader comments on that page. If you go and take a look at them, be prepared; put on your parka. Reading these comments will be, for many of us, a peek into a completely different world. A world that we vaguely know exists, but do not actually visit.

It is not a nice world to venture into: full of bile, frustration, resentment, jealousy, conspiracy theories, slander, attacks on anyone trying to take a rational approach to issues, with hardly a pleasant or optimistic note ever. It is not a world one wants to visit often, but reading such a page is an eye-opener for anyone who accepts the premises of rational thinking and might believe that they are universally accepted.

“Striking”, I wrote. Scary is a more apposite word. With the kind of nonsense-spouting and science-bashing that appears in countless messages in the comments section of the page, one can fear the worst regarding questions that face our society, for which rational, science-based advice is critical. (Yes, coronavirus, I am looking at you!)

Very few of the comments on the page says the obvious: it is not good to make errors, but errors will occur, and the scientist should be commended for checking further and coming out with the admission that her study had flaws. As far as we know the initiative came from her, spontaneously. It is one of the signs of the healthiness of science that we always question results. We question those of other people (there are plenty of sites, such as pubpeer and forbetterscience, entirely devoted to tracking and debunking flawed research). We also question our own: partly to avoid the humiliation of having someone else report one of our mistakes before we do; but also because of the good scientist’s natural search for intellectual honesty.

Most of the article commenters do not mention this key lesson of the incident; the Nobel prize winner’s integrity. For them, the article retraction demonstrates that… the entire edifice of science is flawed! For example:

She’s a liberal… I thought her being wrong was understood.

Now we need to find an honest Climate Change researcher to admit that their computer models are faulty and much of their “data” is fake.

Integrity! Now if the “scientists” who have fabricated Global Warming/ Climate Change, whatever, “research” would come forward with admissions about their flawed, fallacious “research” we would be golden.

Now if we could get the climate change “scientists” to do the same maybe some credibility could be restored to the field.

and so on ad nauseam. (Not a figure of style — reading these comments is truly nauseating.) In reality the retraction demonstrates, or rather illustrates (one example is not a demonstration), the reverse of these assertions: that the scientific process includes its own correction mechanisms. To use a computer scientist’s terminology, it is not fault-free (no scientist ever claimed anything like that) but fault-tolerant.

Of course the reason the Fox News crowd is suddenly so interested in science is not (one imagines) science per se but the science of climate change. Comment after comment uses the article, as illustrated by the above examples, to dismiss the scientific consensus on the reports of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In other words: the retraction of one three-author paper on beta-lactams proves that the the work of hundreds of scientists producing thousands of articles on climatology over several decades is flawed? The logic of such a deduction is… shaky.

The modern world is based, through technology, on science. To post on the Web their absurd rejections of scientifically established facts, the Fox News readers couldn’t do without relying on mobile phones, mobile networks, software systems, computers and other extraordinary achievements of human intelligence, the result of centuries of patient cumulative application of the same scientific principles and techniques that these posts ridicule. They are stuck in a pre-scientific mindset, dominated by the kind of magical thinking that the founders of modern thought had to overcome between the 16th and 18th century, as brilliantly analyzed by Gaston Bachelard’s Formation of the Scientific Mind.

Somehow they skipped what the rest of us learn in grade school (that two plus two equals four, cause precedes effect and so on). They are many, they vote, they  think they are right and the rest of the world is wrong, hold these beliefs very strongly (Dunning-Kruger effect), and put the world at risk.

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