One of the Internet’s less noble qualities is its ability to help people get up-in-arms about things that are non-issues. If you use Facebook or other social media, you’re probably hit with it on a daily basis—forced hyperbole that translates to simple clickbait.
I heard about the so-called sunscreen controversy some years ago when my kids were small. According to people who got their PhDs from Google, the use of sunscreen has not slowed the rise of skin cancer—it has caused a rise in skin cancer. [Read this article to understand the argument and then this article to understand why the argument is based on faulty reasoning, shifty argumentation, and sleight of hand.]
This non-controversy rests on a treasure trove of examples how people misunderstand science, and how people with preformed agendas (e.g. “everything natural is good“) misread scientific data to serve their own purposes.
These non-controversies almost always rest on the same set of fallacies, including:
Playing on your fears
We live in a pretty scary world, I’ll admit. A few hundred years ago, most people lived in villages and only knew what was happening nearby. Now, when a non-custodial dad grabs his child in Sacramento, we read about it in lights over the highway across the state. In our villages, we ate what we grew, wore clothing we made, and lived in houses we built. Now we are all depending on strangers around the world to care for our health and well-being. We trust a factory worker in Vietnam not to put contaminated food into our frozen meals. We trust a medical technician in Israel to formulate our kids’ inhalers correctly. We trust a flooring company that sources materials from China not to allow hazardous chemicals that will poison us while we sleep.
This is all pretty scary, and non-controversies play on those fears.
Vilifying science and scientists
When did it happen that the scientist went from pathetic geek to evil genius baby killer? People in general have never trusted science that much, but it’s only been recently that our culture has been placing evil intent at the heart of science. We’re told that “scientists who speak out” feel threatened. We’re told that the reason you haven’t heard about this life-saving idea is that corporations and the scientists they employ are out to sell things that they know are killing us.
The fact is that scientists argue with each other all the time—it’s at the heart of what they do—so scientists disagreeing on any issue is hardly news. And yes, of course scientists have biases and sometimes the ideas that end up being proven to be correct are ignored for some time. However, the aim of scientists is certainly not to silence dissent and make us all sicker. Arguments that rest on that premise are false from the get-go.
One of the most maddening things about science is that it’s hardly ever conclusive. When it comes to something as complex as the healthy functioning of the human body, science may never be able to be conclusive enough to convince a jury of uneducated citizens. So when an article trying to fan the flames of a non-controversy cites science, it does so with a careful process of ignoring the subtleties of scientific research.
No single study proves a hypothesis—scientists pretty much agree on this. But they also agree that science advances by following the advance of knowledge, not by ignoring what doesn’t fit your agenda. Looking at the history of scientific research, you can find studies that validate pretty much any idea—and then you can find the avalanche of studies that followed showing that the preceding study was flawed or inconclusive. Cherry-picking allows disingenuous Internet fakers to grab your attention without requiring them to face the subtler reality of conflicting scientific data.
Confusing correlation and causation
This is probably the most common confusion that non-controversy articles play on. For a good laugh, look at a few of the charts at Spurious Correlations. My favorite is how “murders by steam, hot vapors, and hot objects” correlates well with the age of the reigning Miss America.
So in the sunscreen non-controversy, a big deal is made of rising skin cancer rates that correlate with rising sunscreen use. It seems so tempting to come to the obvious conclusion that sunscreen use is causing cancer, but scientists who have attempted to prove that relationship simply haven’t been able to do it. This is not to say that no relationship exists, but rather that so far no one has been able to prove it. For some people, that lack of certainty is maddening. It leads them to prefer manufactured non-controversies because they are so simple and direct.
Blinding us with numbers, facts, and statistics
“She blinded me with science!” the scientist exclaims in Thomas Dolby’s song. And that’s what these non-controversies attempt to do. They cite fact after fact, number after number, name after name, and they seem so believable. But a preponderance of numbers doesn’t create fact; it simply creates confusion in the minds of people who aren’t trained to understand the numbers. And confusion leads to fear, which leads to… see above.
There are people who are trained to understand all the numbers, facts, and statistics, and they’re called scientists. And yes, scientists are human, all of them have biases, and some of them even have agendas. But who should we trust: someone who has dedicated his/her life to learning, investigation, and improving the human condition, or someone who has dedicated his/her life to fanning the flames of non-controversies in order to get more clicks?
I’ll trust the scientists.
What science “knows” will always be flawed and incomplete, and it will always be subject to bias and preconceived notions, but a skeptical trust in science is an improvement over living in a village that tries to solve its epidemic of bubonic plague by drowning all the cats.
Getting through this complex modern life we’ve been born into involves a lot of trust that we can’t avoid. The big question is how you’re going to make informed decisions about all the details that face us daily. Listening to the manufacturers of non-controversies might be appealing, but it’s not going to make you any healthier or safer.