In this video, Rohin Francis, MBBS, discusses the nuances of scientific information.
The following is a partial transcript of this video; note that errors are possible.
Francis: I talk about the different cognitive biases on this channel fairly frequently that we all exhibit. And what’s interesting about them is that everybody is affected, from a medfluencer fresh out of med school trying to build their wellness brand, to a supplement-hawking podcaster whose only medical training is watching a celebrity chiropractor’s Instagram, to a credentialed professor of medicine in full-time academia. We’re all susceptible — things like confirmation bias, where you ignore evidence that contradicts your belief and place more value on evidence that supports it.
I believe that shining infrared light at my scrotum increases my testosterone level. There is this very compelling study in the Journal of Infrared Scrotal Studies demonstrating this cutting-edge science. Yes, I am aware that there are multiple studies contradicting this, but frankly a lot of them had funding from the visible light spectrum industry and big UV.
Then there is misattributing causation between two events that simply happened consecutively. My 93-year-old great-aunt got a COVID jab and then died 3 weeks later. And 93-year-olds don’t just die.
Or there is novelty bias where a treatment or a device is thought to be better, simply because it’s new. Not now, Elizabeth. Please, can you just go away and just come back a bit later? Maybe in 11 years. Sorry, she has got a thing for Indian guys. Who am I to kink-shame?
But today I want to tell you about one bias that I have observed, especially during the pandemic, which I don’t think has a snappy name that I’m aware of, but flies under the radar. I don’t think it gets the attention that it deserves and I see it everywhere, especially among health influencers and lifestyle medics who think differently to other doctors and “aren’t in the pocket of big pharma.”
Or those who are in the pocket of big pharma and make a career out of being cheerleaders for the latest medications and gizmos from multinational pharmaceutical or device corporations. You probably don’t see that second category as much because their target audience isn’t the general public, but other medical professionals, and so they maybe don’t get the same level of scrutiny.
But perhaps most interestingly, I have seen this bias demonstrated by both sides of the gaping chasm that has opened up in society during the pandemic, as both the it’s-just-a-cold-bro, carnivore, ice-bath, testosterone crew and the close-the-schools, mask-the-babies, booster-shots-in-perpetuity, don’t-question-anything, Pfizer-say crew. Both make the exact same mental mistake.
I enjoy this topic because it involves two of my favorite things, the philosophy of science and epistemology, which is really the study of knowledge. Hey, I see you reaching to choose a different video. If those sound a bit obtuse to you, you’re right. They can be, so let me see if I can convey what I mean in an interesting way. I’m only going to spend the first couple of minutes on this anyway.
If you get to the end of the video and think that I did a bad job, sincerely do let me know that this was boring. But if you really want to make that observation in a scientific way, you really need to watch the video in its entirety several times to show your responses are reproducible from several different devices to correct for confounding, and ideally watch it again free of adverts over on Nebula to ensure that you’re not conflicted with any financial conflicts of interest. That’s just science.
Now, allow me to start with a little preface to the video. The “demarcation problem” is the name given to a question that philosophers have asked for thousands of years. How do you differentiate between science and non-science? You can imagine through history this was challenging. A holy man staring at the heavens, plotting the trajectories of bodies moving across the sky was doing early science. But he undoubtedly held unscientific beliefs that the handful of stars that were moving independently were gods or spirits.
Or consider the Alchemist dedicating her life to the ancient practice of trying to purify or convert materials such as gold. Although she was mistaken in her beliefs, her field would grow into chemistry centuries after her death.
So fast-forward to the modern era of science with the scientific method firmly established and it should be easier, right? Well, enter famous 20th-century philosopher of science, Karl Popper, whose illustrious and prolific career I don’t hope to summarize here, but he is perhaps most famous for one thing.
Popper proposed that science isn’t about what you can prove because many things can have supporting evidence without being science. The classic example given in this context is swans. I may tell you that swans are always white and I can produce a thousand white swans to support my theory, but you simply need to find one black swan to show that I was wrong. No, Popper is not talking about what is false or true, but the claim that I made was falsifiable. There is evidence that can be produced to negate it. That’s how science moves forwards, by making claims that are falsifiable.
Let’s assume you’re one of those whack-job fruit-loops, who believes that the world is round, and I believe it’s flat. I can show you the flat horizon to prove my point, but you can simply take me into space to show me a round Earth and I will accept your evidence. Please, somebody take me into space.
However, believing in God, for example, is not falsifiable. You can produce evidence that God exists, like somebody asked something in their prayers and their prayers were answered. But there’s nothing that I can do, there’s nothing I can produce, to disprove the existence of God, so that’s not science. So far, so good. We have science and non-science.
But it’s not as easy as that. In fact, there are many criticisms of Popper’s work, which I’m not going to go into here. Instead I’ll present a simplified version to introduce to you the area that I want to explore with you today, which is pseudoscience.
Of course you’ve heard this term before many times, especially on Twitter, where people allege that anything they don’t believe in is pseudoscience. But, in fact, it has a specific meaning, and as we’ve already said, making an exact prediction that can be disproven or falsified is science. If I drop a hammer, then it will fall to the ground. No if’s. No but’s. If the hammer floats off to the side, I can’t wave the result away and say, “Oh, it’s challenging to read the gravity cards and you should definitely still trust me.”
But of course, that’s what people like psychics do. They make vague predictions to give themselves wiggle room. A shaman may make an outlandish claim like, “If I do a dance, my crops will grow.” Or someone may say if you sign up to a new age, goopy ayahuasca retreat, your life will improve and your husband will stop cheating on you. None of those things can be tested. They are not falsifiable. That’s not science, and nobody thinks that’s science. They are not pretending to be scientific. They are not invoking the language of science or claiming a logical process. But in the middle of these two obvious examples of science and non-science is a huge area of all manner of thought processes and belief systems, which wear the clothes of science.
Rohin Francis, MBBS, is an interventional cardiologist, internal medicine doctor, and university researcher who makes science videos and bad jokes. Offbeat topics you won’t find elsewhere, enriched with a government-mandated dose of humor. Trained in Cambridge; now PhD-ing in London.