Developing Your Own Bogus-Science Detector

First in a Four-Part Series: Authority or Evidence?

By Brandon Aldinger Published on April 3, 2024

First in a four-part series.

As a lowly teaching assistant in graduate school, I worked for an eccentric but wise lecturer who oversaw the chemical analysis courses for undergraduates. We taught juniors and seniors how to separate chlorophyll, identify the components of paint stripper, and measure the heat released by burning pellets of benzoic acid. The lecturer had a saying he was particularly fond of: “My job is not just to teach you to use the instruments, but to know when they are lying to you.”

The broader principle — not just understanding science, but knowing when it is lying to you — has become increasingly important for laymen. In decades past, the scientific establishment more often exercised restraint in their pronouncements and tried to keep science separate from political concerns. Yes, big mistakes were sometimes made, and the occasional huckster was exposed. Overall, though, the safeguard of dissenting voices eventually steered science back onto the straight and narrow.

A Culture of “Experts”

In our current culture, we have entered a dangerous phase where science and politics are intermingled to the point that it is difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. Several factors are to blame, including the takeover of Big Science by woke ideology, the rise of censorship, increased delegation of authority to bureaucratic “experts,” and the incentive structure created by government funding.

Perversely, scientists are in the public eye more than ever, with some being elevated to celebrity status. With respect for our institutions rapidly eroding, media and government often turn to lab coat-clad academics to support their favored positions. They hope to tap into John Q. Public’s subconscious deference to doctors and scientists.

Developing Wisdom

Many of these science-inspired opinions touch upon key issues of public policy, health choices, metaphysics, or even morality. Thus, Christians who desire to discern between wisdom and foolishness, truth and falsehood, right and wrong, need to learn how to evaluate scientific claims — even if their last science class was in high school.

In this four-part series, we’ll look at seven principles to help you judge whether you are hearing objective science or bogus science from that expert on TV. These principles can serve as a handy vetting algorithm to determine the truth of scientific claims. We’ll start with the issue of authority.

Respect My Authority?

Principle number one: Don’t be “blinded by the white” — the white lab coat, that is.

The opinion of an expert, with numerous letters after his or her name, carries substantial weight. In the modern Information Age, disciplines have become increasingly specialized, so we rely on experts to help us make decisions. These experts guide everything from nuclear energy policy to how many trout to stock in local waterways.

Scientists who oppose our views can be especially intimidating with their advanced Ivy League degrees, their top-tier journal publications, their dozens of patents, and their billion-dollar research institutes. Scientists favored by news networks exude great confidence and authority as they dispense their analyses, nearly always appearing in a crisp white lab coat as a badge of office.

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But in determining truth, none of these trappings matter. The letters after a person’s name are irrelevant. It’s the evidence that counts.

In his book Tactics, apologist Greg Koukl at Stand to Reason dubs this the “Rhodes Scholar” approach. “Regardless of a scholar’s credentials, don’t settle for opinions,” he writes. “Instead always ask for reasons.” In other words, what an expert says isn’t automatically true — it needs to be backed up by evidence. It’s okay to question his opinion, even if you’re a layman.

“Expert Overreach”

Be especially wary when scientists speak outside of their field of expertise. Everyone has opinions, and there’s nothing wrong with opinionated scientists. (I have, after all, written this article.) The problem is when experts want you to accord them authority on nonscientific topics based on their status as science experts. An expert may quickly transition from scientific theory to policy recommendations, and then to the ethics of that policy. The average scientist may not be any more qualified to opine on the latter two areas than you are.

This “expert overreach” is especially prominent when scientists dabble in philosophy. Michael Jordan might as well think his basketball mastery makes him a chess master. The God Delusion, by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, is one infamous example of a good scientist doing bad philosophy. The late Stephen Hawking, a brilliant physicist, coauthored the book The Grand Design, wherein he brashly claimed that “philosophy is dead.” Philosophers disagreed, and with good reason. You can find critiques of both books with a simple internet search.

Guarding Against the White Lab Coat Effect

In short, scientific experts can be indispensable for explaining complex subjects. Ultimately, however their authority must rest on the evidence they bring, not on the lab coats they wear, or even the credentials they carry. Listeners should be less interested in their pedigrees and more focused on the evidence the bring. It’s always wise to ask, “Did I just hear an assertion based on how impressed I’m supposed to be with the person? Or did I hear a case put forward with evidence supporting it?”

In the second installment of this series, we’ll look at the next two principles: (2) distinguishing facts from interpretations and (3) the effect of worldviews. Then tune back in tomorrow as we work toward building our own internal Geiger counters tuned to detecting scientific quackery.

 

Brandon Aldinger is a chemist with a doctoral degree who works in an industrial research laboratory. He’s had lifelong interest in issues of science and faith, and he is passionate about training fellow Christians to think clearly about and stand firm on their beliefs within a hostile culture.

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