The Tricks Used By Anti-Science Trolls

I often like to discuss science online and I'm also rather partial to topics that promote lively discussion, such as climate change, crime statistics and (perhaps surprisingly) the big bang. This inevitably brings out the trolls.

Picture: Kenny Louie

"Don't feed the trolls" is sound advice, but I've ignored it on occasion -- including on The Conversation and Twitter -- and I've been rewarded. Not that I've changed the minds of any trolls, nor have I expected to.

But I have received an education in the tactics many trolls use. These tactics are common not just to trolls but to bloggers, journalists and politicians who attack science, from climate to cancer research.

Some techniques are comically simple. Emotionally charged, yet evidence free, accusations of scams, fraud and cover-ups are common. While they mostly lack credibility, such accusations may be effective at polarising debate and reducing understanding.

And I wish I had a dollar each time a scientifically incompetent ideologue claimed science is a religion. The chairman of the Prime Minister's Business Advisory Council, Maurice Newman, trotted out that old chestnut in The Australian last week. Australia's Chief Scientist, Ian Chubb, was less than impressed by Newman's use of that tactic.

Unfortunately there are too many tactics to discuss in just one article (sorry Gish Gallop and Strawman), so I will focus on just a few that I've encountered online and in the media recently.

"Experts"

Internet trolls know who their experts are. There are thousands of professors scattered across academia, so it isn't surprising that a few contrarians can be found. In online discussions I've been told of the contrarian views of "respected" professors from Harvard, MIT and Princeton.

Back in The Conversation's early days I even copped abuse for not being at Princeton, by someone who was clearly unfamiliar with both science and my employment history. It was a useful lesson that vitriol is often disconnected from knowledge and expertise.

At times expert opinion is totally misrepresented, often with remarkable confidence.

Responding to one of my Conversation articles, the Australian Financial Review's Mark Lawson distorted the findings of CSIRO's John Church on sea levels.

Even after I confirmed with Church that Lawson had got the science wrong, Lawson wouldn't back down.

Such distortions aren't limited to online debates. In the Australian, Maurice Newman warned about imminent global cooling and cited Professor Mike Lockwood's research as evidence.

But Lockwood himself stated last year that Solar variability this century may reduce warming by "between 0.06 and 0.1 degrees Celsius, a very small fraction of the warming we're due to experience as a result of human activity".

Newman's claims were debunked, by his expert, before he even wrote his article.

Sometimes experts are quoted correctly, but they happen to disagree with the vast majority of their equally qualified (or more qualified) colleagues. How do the scientifically illiterate select this minority of experts?

I've asked trolls this question a few times and, funnily enough, they cannot provide good answers. To be blunt, they are choosing experts based on agreeable conclusions rather than scientific rigour, and this problem extends well beyond online debates.

Earlier this month, Senator Eric Abetz controversially seemed to link abortions with breast cancer on The Project.

While Abetz distanced himself from these claims, his media statement doesn't dispute them and talks up the expertise of Dr Angela Lanfranchi, who does link abortions with breast cancer.

Abetz does not have expertise in medical research, so why did he give Dr Lanfranchi's views similar or more weight than those of most doctors, including the Australian Medical Association's president Brian Owler, who say there is no clear link between abortion and breast cancer?

If Abetz cannot evaluate the medical research data and methods, is his choice largely based on Dr Lanfranchi's conclusions? Why won't he accept the views of most medical professionals, who can evaluate the relevant evidence?

Abetz may be doctor shopping, not for a desired diagnosis or drug, but for an desired expert opinion. And just as doctor shopping can result in the wrong diagnosis, doctor shopping for opinions gives you misleading conclusions.

Broken logic

Often attacks on science employ logic so flawed that it would be laughable in everyday life. If I said my car was blue, and thus no cars are red, you would be unimpressed. And yet when non-experts discuss science, such flawed logic is often employed.

Carbon dioxide emissions are leading to rapid climate change now, and gradual natural climate change has also taken place over aeons. There's no reason for natural and anthropogenic climate change to be mutually exclusive, and yet climate change deniers frequently use natural climate change in an attempt to disprove anthropogenic global warming.

Global temperatures (measured by Marcott et al. in dark blue, and HadCRUT4 in red) have changed as a result of both natural and anthropogenic climate change. There has been a dramatic rise in global temperatures over the past century.

Unfortunately our Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, employed similar broken logic after the 2013 bushfires:

Australia has had fires and floods since the beginning of time. We've had much bigger floods and fires than the ones we've recently experienced. You can hardly say they were the result of anthropic [sic] global warming.

Bushfires are a natural part of the Australian environment but that does not exclude climate change altering the frequency and intensity of those fires. Indeed, the Forest Fire Danger Index has been increasing across Australia since the 1970s.

Why the Prime Minister would employ such flawed logic, and contradict scientific research, is puzzling.

Galileo

The Italian scientist and astronomer Galileo Galilei was infamously persecuted by the politically powerful Catholic Church because of his promotion of the sun-centred solar system.

While Galileo suffered house arrest, his views ultimately triumphed because they were supported by observation, while the Church's stance relied on theology.

The Galileo Gambit is a debating technique that perverts this history to defend nonsense. Criticisms by the vast majority of scientists are equated with the opinions of 17th Century clergy, while a minority promoting pseudoscience are equated with Galileo.

Ironically the Galileo Gambit is often employed by those who have no scientific expertise and strong ideological reasons for attacking science. And its use isn't restricted to online debates.

Bizarrely, even the politically powerful and well connected are partial to the Galileo Gambit. Maurice Newman (once again) rejects the consensus view of climate scientists and, when questioned on his rejection of the science, his (perhaps predictable) response was:

Well, Galileo was virtually on his own.

Newman's use of a tactic of trolls and cranks is worthy of criticism. The triumph of Galileo's views were a result of his capacity to develop scientific ideas and test them via observation. Newman, and many of those who attack science, notably lack this ability.The Conversation

Michael J. I. Brown is ARC Future Fellow and Senior Lecturer at Monash University. He receives research funding from the Australian Research Council and Monash University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Comments

    That is a great article. I'm glad Galileo rated a mention - his persecution was a blight on history.

    Why do trolls ignore good science in favour of science that matches their own beliefs? Well, how does the average person choose between papers? Does the average person read all scientific papers, or do they rely on journalism and gut feel for their own preference? You won't stop this sort of bias.

    People's bias extends much further than just science - not just science. A few topics that are off the top of my head (science and otherwise) include Evolution, Nuclear Power, Solar Power, Electric Vehicles, NAPLAN, political parties etc.

    As an example, the media reported a few days ago (at least in South Australia) that NAPLAN caused South Australian results to go backwards - and that taking away an "across the board" measurement system would magically fix South Australia's lagging performance. I think the rationale was that schools were teaching to NAPLAN tests ... if this were true, then NAPLAN marks should have gone up, not down. It also didn't mention how SA was going against the trend of other the other states in Australia. My point is that the article was illogical and devoid of fact. This is an example of biased journalism - the same sort of journalism that shapes people's view of moon landings, climate change, evolution and any number of other topics.

      I found in the detail of the NAPLAN reporting, an education professor was suggesting NAPLAN be scrapped so it could be replaced by a more detailed testing system.
      The media then only reported the first part in the headline, that suggested NAPLAN be scrapped.

    Perhaps the "trolls" would be more likely to listen to Michael if he softened his condescending tone a tad.

    Last edited 19/08/14 10:12 am

      Perhaps if he didn't confuse correlation with scientific rigour.

    No, it doesn't matter how you talk to trolls. They are stuck in the land of denial. Just look at the anti vaccination idiots.

      They are no longer known as the 'anti vaccination' idiots.

      They are now known as the 'Pro Polio' idiots.

    Ah that old Galileo myth again. If you go back to the original history and look at the facts instead of relying on stories made up a couple of hundred years later you may get a better idea.
    Galileo's ideas did not upset the catholic church, but rather the scientific orthodoxy of his day, whose ideas went back to Aristotle. Those whose careers and reputations were threatened by these new ideas managed to persuade the political authority of the day (which just happened to be the catholic church in Italy at the time) to silence Galileo

      so nothing much has changed then

        A classic troll tactic of the confidently told falsehood.

        Look at a history of the persecution of Galileo and you will find it involves clergy, not scientists. For example, Dominican friar Tommaso Caccini. "The interpretation of the bible was certainly one of the principal contributing factors to the controversy", as discussed at

        http://vaticanobservatory.org/research/history-of-astronomy/54-history-of-astronomy/the-galileo-affair/370-the-galileo-affair

      Hurrah! Someone who's actually done some research into the thing they're talking about.

      I agree with much of what Michael Brown wrote, but his point is undermined when he uses this minority and misguided account. I can't help but feel that his own understanding of what happened to Galileo is coloured by internal biases - especially seeing the uncritical, straw-manning, ad hominem remark regarding 'science as religion.' If this is the case, then Michael may have the same cognitive weaknesses as his opponents.

      Of course, please remember that hypocrisy does not disprove a point: even if Michael has a log in his eye, his opponents are no less incorrect.

        So if they acted correctly, why did the church apologise?

          My limited understanding is that in Galileo's published findings, he (perhaps unwittingly) implied the Pope of the day was intellectually challenged.

          From Wikipedia, font of knowledge:

          "Whether unknowingly or deliberately, Simplicio, the defender of the Aristotelian geocentric view in Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, was often caught in his own errors and sometimes came across as a fool. Indeed, although Galileo states in the preface of his book that the character is named after a famous Aristotelian philosopher (Simplicius in Latin, Simplicio in Italian), the name "Simplicio" in Italian also has the connotation of "simpleton".[63] This portrayal of Simplicio made Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems appear as an advocacy book: an attack on Aristotelian geocentrism and defence of the Copernican theory. Unfortunately for his relationship with the Pope, Galileo put the words of Urban VIII into the mouth of Simplicio."

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galileo_Galilei

            Simplicio appears in "A Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems", which was published in 1632, but the first trial was in 1615-1616.

            Galileo definitely had a confrontational style, but the heliocentric system was definitely central to his trials.

      It would be great if you could point out a reputable (e.g. academic paper or book) source on the true story, because I've seen quite a few variants (as have you, obviously) and would quite like to be able to read and point to an authoritative source.

        Perhaps an interesting place to start is the Vatican Observatory - http://vaticanobservatory.org/research/history-of-astronomy/54-history-of-astronomy/the-galileo-affair/370-the-galileo-affair

        "The Essential Galileo" by Maurice Finocchiaro has translations of many of the relevant documents and the "Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo" by Stillman Drake is also popular.

          Thanks. That stands in direct contradiction to @bandds and @kozuki6 though right? I have no particular problem with that, mind you, since they haven't provided any reputable sources for their version of events either.

            Yes, it does contradict @bandds' claim that "Galileo's ideas did not upset the catholic church", which is clearly inconsistent with the account provided by the Vatican Observatory and other document.

            Galileo was in contact with other scientists before and after his trials, including Kepler. An interesting aside is Kepler was initially amused by Galileo's apparently redundant name ("Galileus Galileus").

            http://books.google.com.au/books?id=KrPZXO55D10C&pg=PA112&lpg=PA112

              Indeed, the account on Vatican Observatory (and other sources I've read) are inconsistent with bandds's claims, too. The main problem is just one of having trustworthy sources - although it looks like that book you just pointed to is not a bad source if you want *all* the details (based on the reviews criticising it as too detailed and dry).

      Your post counters an argument that the author simply didn't make (by definition, a straw-man).

      Let's look at the author's actual text:

      "Galileo Galilei was infamously persecuted by the politically powerful Catholic Church because of his promotion of the sun-centred solar system."

      Which is 100% true.
      1: The persecution was initiated because of his celestial model.
      2: The church implemented the persecution.
      3: 1 & 2 were causally linked, thus the word 'because'.

      "While Galileo suffered house arrest, his views ultimately triumphed because they were supported by observation, while the Church’s stance relied on theology."

      Again, 100% true.
      1: Observations supported his model, which led to its acceptance.
      2: Theology was used to support the church's stance.

    I love how humans actually think they matter. Humans have been around 200k years best estimate , the Earth 4.6 Billion. That makes us relevant for just 1/2300th of the Earths years. And the earth is just 1 in 10 trillion planets.

    Yes science keep telling us about how the globe is warming and what it will do to us. But just remember it really doesnt mean anything in the grand scheme of things , your work is fruitless.

      How a person can be this deluded is baffling.

      A cursory glance at the Keeling Curve would put you on the right track.

        Again , I seriously dont get why humans think they are so important. Regardless of global warming humans and all life as we currently know wont be around in a few hundred million years. New life will be there , the world evolves constantly. To think that we do actually matters is deluded. it doesnt , we are just a spec of sand in the desert of this planets lifecycle.

          I don't understand from what perspective you're assessing what 'matters'.

          I matter to my friends and family.
          The fact that I matter to my friends and family matters to me.
          I don't matter at all to the Andromeda galaxy.
          The fact that I don't matter at all to the Andromeda galaxy doesn't matter at all to me.

          You seem to think that I should (or even could) use a frame of reference other than my own to assess what matters.

    Few things push my rage button like ignorant, scientifically illiterate fools who think that reading a few websites puts their views on par with career scientists who have spent their entire working life in their field of expertise.
    If I could change a single thing about modern society, it would be to greatly increase the level of scientific literacy in the general public. This would have dramatic flow-on effects in virtually every facet of society and culture. The importance of having a solid scientific foundation to your world view is just as important as basic literacy and numeracy.

      I know, make the effective teaching of scientific rigor a naplan subject!

    The whole post was great until this digression about climate change, then you got into religious mode and get the scientific method out of the window, consensuuuuuuuuus. LOL

    ignoring the whole notion that ice gas measurements are far from bias free ( could understate CO2 quite a bit), that CO2 which has been release massively the last 15 years ( 25% of all emission since 1750) did fuck all ( and at the same time Oceans did not warm ( as per Argo floats ( the only accurate measurements), even cooled a bit), too bad for the supposition that this ghost warming is hiding in the oceans ).

    We need much more CO2, it s a photosynthesis limiting factor and as the CSIRO found out, thanks to the recent CO2 emissions, the planet is greening fast.We need it so bad, the optimal is around 700ppm.This anti-CO2 propaganda is ridiculous ( but hey it was so easy to explain/measure, was good marketing).

      Classic troll tactics.

      Emotional escalation (LOL!), selective use of the literature (greening world) and a claim that 700ppm is optimal without evidence (perhaps sourced from a blog).

      Don't go talking science - that's when the Ignorant Friends of the Climate Scientists go all Inquisition on your ass...

      Is this a joke? For all your 'science', you missed a surprising number of factually incorrect statements. But as always, any climate change article brings out the guest accounts in droves.

    Science is not a religion, but certain topics in mainstream science have all the hallmarks of religion

    Disagreeing with certain scientific positions is not anti science
    It is part of the open debate that science is supposed to use to build its knowledge base

    Side note: Disagreement doesn't make someone a 'troll', unless they benefit in some way like seeing you get mad

    Too often what happens it is that if you disagree on one mainstream view, then it is assumed that I must reject all science
    If I disagree on mainstream climate science, that does not mean I reject newtonian physics,
    Shouting down dissenters when they don't agree with a certain premise, or bring up contrary evidence or ask questions is religious

    And this groupthink bullying happens within science, not just to 'scientifically illiterate trolls', studies get barred from print, researchers get harassed, credentials stripped because they did not agree with the mainstream view
    It seems to happen whenever that field is financially/politically connected and there is a lot at stake like the nuclear industry, pharmacueticals, climate policy, GMOs (funny how all studies that showed health risks were barred from publication, allowing everyone in the biotech field to say there is no evidence that GMOs have any health risks, oh and if you try to do a study on it you lose your tenure, and then the USA actively targeted countries against GMOs)

    Another thing so called 'experts' do when confronted with explicit evidence that clearly undermine their position is, they will ignore the evidence, continue to restate the current mainstream position and back it up with consensus as if it means anything when you're all wrong

    "The boat is sinking, but we've got a lot of people on this boat who think it won't sink, so it won't!"
    That is belief, not science

      Classic troll tactics.

      Partially agree "does not mean I reject newtonian physics" then goes on to reject science.

      Why does the Scientific Method work for EVERY branch of science except Climate Science? Or that Scientists are lying about it? The same Scientific Method that has doubled life expectancy through medicine and vaccinations, bought computers, the internet, smartphones, airplanes, cars, clean tap water, the clothes that you wear, toilets, electricity.

      You are surrounded by science, but YOU think science and the scientific method is somehow wrong for climate science.

      The science is not wrong, you are being played by the fossil fuel industry using the same tactics as the tobacco lobby before them.

        You totally missed the point already in the 2nd sentence
        It's funny how bad reading comprehension is for so called defenders of science and reason

        The same scientists and same standards are not employed in every field of science
        It's funny you list a whole bunch of engineering/health benefits, and somehow climate science is related or comparable? It's like saying: if you don't like mice, you must hate all animals

        Climate science has only been around for a few decades, do you know how many hundreds of years were spent before medicine gave you a better chance of living? For a long time, it was better to take your chances with whatever disease you had than to visit a doctor.

        Oh by the way, airplanes?
        The wright brothers weren't scientists nor did they have any credentials of any kind and yet they managed to beat out all the well funded academics at the time, you want to know why?
        They weren't indoctrinated to think a certain way, they were free to explore, to tinker

        The problem with mainstream climate science is precisely because it does not follow the scientific method, open debate is discouraged because 'the science is settled' and 'consensus'
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_xfi940PyCo

        The science is so settled that 99% of climate model predictions have been wrong, and yet they continue to insist they know how the climate works
        http://c3headlines.typepad.com/.a/6a010536b58035970c017d42dfdbb4970c-pi

        And if anyone finds data that pokes holes in their assumptions, then obviously they work for big oil and coal, how unoriginal, maybe they can just see through the BS propaganda.

        There is no secret that climate research groups get lots of funding from government, environmental groups, nuclear/solar lobby, they all stand to benefit a lot from controlling how you live. Nobody ever talks about that side of corruption.

        Reality doesn't care about your computer models, whitepapers or consensus
        But that won't change your mind because you're a zealot

          1) Climate science has been around as long as people have been measuring air temperature.
          2) The validity of a scientific field is not related to how long you say it has been in existence. Nice straw man with medicine there.
          ..and the remainder is just conjecture. And rubbish.

          How anyone can claim a model predicting the future is wrong is beyond me.

          "Oh by the way, airplanes? The wright brothers weren't scientists"

          You are confusing a 'Scientist' with the Scientific Method. You do not think the Wright brothers used the Scientific Method to fly? They built gliders, a wind tunnel and conducted tests. The had a theory, tested the idea and refined it until it worked.

          And even if you do not believe that inventors do not use the scientific method and they invented flying by accident, the Scientific Method has refined the plane from something that only travel 400m to fighter jets that break the sound barrier.

          I did get your 2nd paragraph. Disagreeing with an agreed scientific position is anti-science. It is a ridiculous position to take. Here is a quote from a comment on the original article:
          And that's why amateurs arguing about scientific questions is so ridiculous. I am not a climate scientist. That means I don't get to have a view on the reality or otherwise of AGW. I am both practically and rationally required to accept the scientific consensus, as there is no other reliable knowledge-generating mechanism to fall back on here. There's no magical faculty of 'common sense' that overrides scientific findings here, there's no position outside of science from which to invalidate scientific claims *scientifically*. So I can either become a scientist, or rely on scientists.

    blah, blah, blah, only scientists can debate science, blah, blah, I know more than you, blah, blah, your the troll buddy.

      Typical Troll behaviour. Also notice the extremely bad grammer and immaturity. I classic internet Troll. Dumb but vocal.

      PS.
      your the troll
      That would be "you're" or "you are"

      Anyone can debate science, but unless you have the relevant expertise, your opinion on scientific matters don't mean anything. Don't confuse the right to have an opinion with the right to have that opinion taken seriously.

      Only scientists should debate science, and only doctors should practice medicine. I'm really not seeing your point...

    As a scientist its nice knowing that:

    The general public who haven't spent the time reading up on the details of a particular mainstream scientific position defend that position against people who haven't spent the time reading up the details of a particular fringe position. So in the end both sides just sling generalisations at each other nitpicking on the other sides' inaccuracies and reinstating the same points over and over again....

    Its also nice knowing that the media tend to summarise thousands of hours of scientific research into 2 sentences so the general public can sling them at each other with words like "99% of the scientific field believe in A" and not bother to explain how we came to that conclusion or how we disproved specific counter arguments and conflicting data models....

    Though as a internet surfer, its nice knowing that:

    I can feed the trolls just to watch the world burn, even if its only digitally...

    Science falls into two areas, that which is proven and that which remains a theory. Proven means you have an equation that can calculate the result every time or in biological/medical terms can be proven by double blind tests. Unfortunately weather isn't easily described by an equation or double blind test so its really a best guess.
    The interesting thing is that rainfall charts developed 100s of years ago when the world was exploring new continents, detail how often you should expect minor and major rainfall variations. Where I grew up rainfall charts detail you should expect a major shift in rainfall every 100 years. So we really shouldn't be surprised by change, scientists tell us the Sahara used to be forrested, its not like humans changed the weather 2000 years ago.

    What's clear is if its not proven and there's a beat up in the media, don't expect the average person to trust what is being said.

    Last edited 20/08/14 4:25 am

      As noted in the article, climate scientists are well aware of gradual natural climate change.

      Many sciences cannot use analytic mathematical proofs and/or have predictions that are probabilistic, which is far better than a single "best guess".

        And the climate can change rapidly too as it does when going in/out of ice ages
        How do you think they found a frozen baby mammoth in russia with fresh grass in its mouth

        But scientists like to average everything out, eliminating any 'anomalies', ignoring anything that doesn't fit into their theories and models

        And there are many cycles, imagine what the climate was like during those drops and it looks like we're supposed to have another like... now
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Vostok_Petit_data.svg

          Not sure which mammoth ogre is referring to, but if it froze to death poor weather and/or accident is more likely than climate.

          There is quite a literature on anomalies between models and climate, which is an active area of research (see http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nclimate2310.html and https://theconversation.com/study-vindicates-climate-models-accused-of-missing-the-pause-29477).

          Claims that rapid cooling is around the corner are not credible, as discussed in my article (see quote from Lockwood).

      Hmm, kinda, but not really. Science does not use the word "proven" in the same way you do. In science, something "proven" is more akin to "the thing we have deemed to be most correct via repeated testing".

      This is a large part of the problem - terminology. The remainder of the problem is that it's far too difficult for people to think, so they simply swallow whatever best suits their world view, and regurgitate as often as possible whilst sounding like they know what they are talking about.

      Troll tactic (this is a favourite one of the anti-Evolution crowd) "Science falls into two areas, that which is proven and that which remains a theory"

      Nope, science is never 'proven'. We just have equations that fit our observed world. You do not understand the scientific definition of a theory. And I think you are mixing up theory with law (theory is the explanation, law is the equation.) Gravity is still 'only' a theory, but I presume you don't jump of tall buildings.

    Unfortunately, checking facts is something that doesn't seem to be very important nowadays, despite the fact that people are constantly being mislead by online posts (including those from prominent outlets).
    1: Readers need to care enough about 'truth' to do what is necessary to find it (rather than accept that there is a miracle pill for slimming)
    2: Media outlets need to care about and seek to demonstrate journalistic integrity and balanced reporting.

    Unfortunately neither of these seem to be a priority, which means having a truthful and considered argument will not necessarily give you any points in online discussion

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