The truth–or it’s approximation–begins at a natural disadvantage. There are only a handful of ways to correctly characterize data and studies. But there are thousands of ways of misrepresenting, distorting, and misunderstanding data and studies. And so, those who wish to mislead have a fairly significant advantage over those who do not.
Let’s look a two kinds of cases…
Category 1: Denying Risk/Harm
Suppose you are a company or industry group. A growing trend in independent scientific literature indicates that your product/industry poses health or environmental risks/harms. What do you do? You could fund research to show that your product is actually safe. Suppose you do this internally but the results are inconclusive or perhaps even contrary to what you want. You bury the study. You could manufacture or distort data to make a positive study. But if that gets discovered there could be serious consequences. You need another plan. Something easier.
Recall, it’s much easier to misrepresent and distort data/studies than it is to correctly characterize or produce (legitimate) studies that support your position. So here’s the smart plan: create doubt about the existing science that opposes you rather than produce your own positive science. Hire people to mischaracterize existing data and studies that go against you. In a moment we’ll talk specifics. Let’s move to the second kind of case.
Category 2: Claiming Risk/Harm, Denying Safety/Efficacy
Suppose you oppose a technology or product. You believe that it’s unsafe and/or unnatural. You could conduct studies to show that these products are inherently harmful/risky (relative to existing products) but you probably can’t without fudging the data or poor study design. There’s a large independent literature contradicting your position. Your best bet is to cast doubt on the existing science rather than to produce your own science.
To summarize so far, if you find yourself on the wrong side of a trend in a scientific literature, your best strategy is to create doubt in the existing science rather than produce your own. And this is exactly what we see from anti-science propaganda. Once again, it’s no coincidence since they can’t produce their own legitimate studies to support their own positions.
Here are the main strategies for casting doubt on a trend in scientific literature. I describe them in more detail on other pages:
- Genetic fallacy: The genetic fallacy is when a claim or evidence is dismissed merely because of its source. We need to be careful here since the source of a study can be a reason to be skeptical (e.g., when there is a conflict of interest). However, at the end of the day, it’s the quality and content of a study that determine its weight and value.
- Focusing on the limitations of individual studies: Different kinds of studies are intended to demonstrate different kinds of relations. And different kinds of studies play different roles when considering the totality of evidence. What denialists will do is pick a single study and show how it doesn’t prove X with 100% certainty. The problem is that no single study can conclusively prove anything 100%. This is why any study must be evaluated within the context of the existing literature. And this is why denialists lean on this strategy. Evaluating a study properly requires familiarity with existing literature. The general public usually doesn’t have this information. And so, pointing to the limitations on a single study gives the appearance of undermining the entire case.