Due to the covid-19 pandemic, some technical terms have become widely used, many of medicines, which have not always been used with knowledge of the facts. The same thing happened with terms from philosophy, especially epistemology. There are three that have been particularly helpful and about which, however, there is still a great deal of inaccuracy in their use: denial, anti-science, and pseudoscience.

These are three very related concepts and in fact they tend to overlap at times. Consequently, the attitudes of some people may be embedded in more than one of them. It is important to use them accurately, because, as we see today, an abuse of any of them ultimately dilutes the meaning.

Not everyone is a denier

In academia, the term denial It takes time to crystallize. It is not so broad that it includes all criticism of scientific results, as it would absurdly make a denier of any scientist who, with a good argumentative or factual basis, questions a widely accepted hypothesis. Nor is it so narrow that it refers only to those who reject the historical evidence about the Holocaust (even if it was its origin).

The most widespread denials today refer to climate change, the existence of the AIDS virus or covid-19, and the effectiveness of vaccines in general.

Deniers usually defend themselves by saying that they represent the healthy skepticism and critical attitude that should prevail in science. However, this is a distraction maneuver. Denial should not be confused with organized skepticism, which, as sociologist Robert K. Merton pointed out decades ago, is a hallmark of science.

Unlike this, it does not seek to question unsubstantiated scientific hypotheses, but rather promotes a dogmatic rejection and little reasoning, often for emotional and ideological reasons, of well-established scientific theses on certain phenomena.

One of the best characterizations given so far of denial is in a short article 2009 by Pascal Diethelm, a health economist, and Martin McKee, a public health physician.

According to them, negationism would consist of a rejection of the scientific consensus with arguments that are foreign to science itself, or at all without any argument. This creates the impression that there is debate where it really is not. It is linked to five characteristics:

  1. resort to conspiracy ideas.

  2. recourse to false experts and contempt for true experts

  3. convenient data selection and analysis.

  4. the formation of impossible expectations about what science can really provide.

  5. the use of logical errors.

Anti-science for the flat earth or against evolution

Also in the anti-science we find the refutation of scientific hypotheses or of facts well established by science, but there is an attitude with a more general character in it.

It does not limit itself to the denial of a specific aspect or a specific explanation of certain natural mechanisms, but rejects an entire theory or even fundamental scientific progress.

Two very clear examples would be flat earthism and the rejection of the theory of evolution by the creationist radical. Obviously, to the extent that negation almost always involves, at least indirectly, an opposition to theories or facts well established by scientific practice, they adopt an anti-scientific attitude, although this is not always the case.

There may be cases of people who deny these facts or theories and do so who are convinced that good science is what necessarily leads to such denial.

This would be the case, for example, with deniers of climate change who cling to that small percentage of climatologists who simply deny that climate change is caused by human activity.

In the same way, an anti-vaccine person who rejects RNA vaccines because he believes they can cause changes in the vaccinated person’s genome will maintain an anti-scientific attitude, as that belief conflicts with what science tells us. .

A person who mistrusts covid-19 vaccines because they believe that possible long-term side effects are not yet known will not necessarily be linked to anti-scientific attitudes, although one may wonder if they might not have their carry concerns beyond what is prudent.

One of the pioneers in the study of anti-science was the historian of science Gerald Holton. Already in the early 90’s of the last century he warned us against the danger that “that animal that lurks in the underground of our civilization” would wake up. It seems that the animal has woken up, as anti-scientific attitudes are starting to become more conspicuous even in countries with a relatively high level of education.

Several studies have shown that denial and anti-scientific attitudes are usually linked to the acceptance of conspiracy theories and the so-called “alternative facts”. It is a euphemism to refer to events that have never really taken place, but are accepted for convenience.

If someone opposes the consensus of science without having real scientific arguments or reliable data, they need to articulate some kind of conspiracy explanation to justify why that consensus exists.

The easiest way out is to think that scientists are being bought by the big pharmaceutical companies, or by the biotechnology industries, or by political or military power.

These conspiracy theories have been taken to paroxysm by movements such as QAnon, whose belief is that a satanic and pedophile elite wants to control us all and prevent Donald Trump from triumphing, and in doing so they use any means at their disposal, including vaccines, let’s define man as a rational animal reconsider.

Pseudoscience: falsehoods disguised as science

The pseudoscience it is disciplines or theories that claim to be scientific without actually being so. This inevitably leads them to clash with accepted scientific theories.

Popular examples today would be astrology, homeopathy, parapsychology and “quantum medicine” (although they have different names and have several consequences).

It should be made clear that, as much as homeopathy is sometimes confused with naturopathic medicine and with herbs, it is not the same thing. In the latter, the patient receives at least substances that have a chemical effect on his body. The problem here would be the control of the doses.

Homeopathy, on the other hand, is based on the idea that the healing power of a substance is given, among other things, by the extreme dilution with which it is administered. But the dilutions are so extreme that it is impossible for the patient to receive a single molecule of the active ingredient.

To justify this, the defenders of homeopathy resort to a theory that is completely devoid of scientific basis, not to say merely contrary to science, such as the “memory of water”. According to this theory, the water that has been in contact with the active ingredient holds a reminder of its chemical properties and that “information” is stored in the homeopathic preparation and cures the patient.

The strange thing is that, in most cases, what the patient receives is not a pot of water, but a sugar pill.

Contrary to many people’s beliefs, relying too much on Popper, pseudosciences are not infallible. That is, their theses can be tested by empirical testing. In fact, many of the claims of the pseudosciences are false, since science has shown them to be false. Pseudosciences can and do claim to have many “confirmations” (in the sense of fulfilled predictions) to their credit, which may be true, but that of course does not make them scientific.

Let us illustrate everything we have just said with the example of the pandemic:

  • Whoever denies that the pandemic or the virus that causes it exists is a denier.

  • Anyone who rejects vaccines in general and therefore also these vaccines against covid-19, and believes that they were made to harm or control people, is someone who maintains anti-scientific attitudes.

  • The various remedies that have been proposed against infection as if supported by science without actually being so, like homeopathic remedies, are pseudoscience.

Antonio Dieguez Lucena, professor of logic and philosophy of science, Malaga University

This article was originally published on The conversation. read the original.


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