Why science isn't a buffet

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It's been an interesting couple of weeks for science and belief on the Internet. Let's start with the John Oliver clip that made a clever hash of climate change deniers. Oliver called out the key fallacy about folks with fringe ideas about global warming. He mocked the notion, embraced by mainstream media, that the unsupported ideas of a slim minority actually balance a mountain of scientific evidence against the claims. And, in a clarion call for common sense, he told news outlets who carry out polls on opinions about climate change: "Who gives a shit? You don't need people's opinion on a fact. You might as well have a poll asking: 'Which number is bigger, 15 or 5?' or 'Do owls exist?' or 'Are there hats?'"

Millions of people, sick of the Fox-News-fuelled, right-wing talking points, viewed and shared the clip gleefully. It was heartening to see so many people passing around a clear, evidence-based counter to a common media-borne notion. And, it was a guerrilla propaganda masterpiece for the skeptics movement. Why? Because one of the most important lessons you can learn about the process of science is that evidence trumps opinion -- and the rantings of a few don't balance the scale against the careful, repeatable research and experimentation of the many. So, Oliver not only called bullshit on he-said/she-said journalism and the lazy notion of false balance, he also called out the conceit that opinion trumps data. Nearly three million people got the message, or, at least, amplified it on social media.

But then something odd happened. Peter Gibson, a professor of gastroenterology at Monash University has done work on gluten sensitivity. In fact, his 2011 research helped strap a jetpack to the back of the gluten-free movement. But, last year Gibson carried out a more rigorous, further study. The results? He determined that he was probably wrong about gluten sensitivity.

He could find no evidence of gluten intolerance in his 35 test subjects, which he screened to make certain they did not suffer from celiac disease. The subjects were blind-fed a series of diets and Gibson could not associate any of their reported symptoms with the presence or absence of gluten. In short, the idea of gluten-sensitivity in folks without celiac disease is probably a myth, or a social construct. This is a big deal, given that gluten-free diet products are a multi-billion-dollar industry and that about 30 per cent of the population thinks reducing gluten is good for their health. The reality seems to be, it's not. News of Gibson's freshly published research broke just after the John Oliver clip went viral.

So, you would think that the folks who shared the global warming clip would be equally as keen to embrace this remarkable news. Because, you know, lesson learned, your opinion about gluten sensitivity, isn't equal to the results of a carefully done experiment.

But, no. The buzz about the study was the opposite. A lot of the online chatter in my corner of the web claimed the study was wrong or flawed. One of the most interesting responses was: "a study of 35 people really doesn't conclude anything  … People know their own bodies." That's a strange, but common response. Strange, because you know what a really small study is? You reporting on yourself. That's just a lousy experiment with a cohort of one. So, if that's the counter to a rigorous, double-blind, control group experiment conducted by a gastroenterologist, you lose.

So, scorecard time: lesson learned about climate change, ignored about gluten.

So, what's going on? Why would millions of people share a video that demonstrates the illogic of being opinionated about a fact and shows the false balance of lining up fringe opinion against overwhelming countervailing evidence? Then, within two weeks, that same demographic fall for those same things like lemmings off a cliff?

I think part of the answer is, of course, global warming fits with their ecological paradigm, so they're more apt to approve of, and share, a parody that mocks the right. But when the same lessons are applied to something more personal and challenges the rationality of their beliefs, it's a whole new game.

But, it is also true that most people treat science like the steam tables at the Mandarin -- picking and choosing the choicest, tastiest bits. But, here's the thing. You can't just pig out on a giant delicious plate of global warming and ignore the less appealing side dish of imagined gluten sensitivity. Science isn't a buffet. You either apply its principles consistently or you don't. And, when you don't, then you're just passing on belief and opinion. And, three million of us shared what we think of opinion. Right?

Listen to an audio version of this column, read by the author, below.


Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for rabble.ca on technology and the Internet.

Photo: Matt Hintsa/flickr

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