Is the first rule of science communication “Be mealy-mouthed”?

Hot on the heels of The Sun, here comes Newsweek, touting that drivel about cephalopods from space by Steele et al.. I have dispensed enough scorn for that paper lately, so now I’m going to snarl at a few other targets: some of the critics.

Outside experts are unconvinced by the findings. Avi Loeb, the Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard University, told Newsweek the paper raised “an interesting but controversial possibility.”

Oh, fuck that noise. That’s the polite reservation of a privileged professor who would rather not offend a peer. It was not “interesting”. There is nothing interesting about the hypothesis. This is antique bullshit biology by a dead astronomer who knew nothing of the subject, and it’s been kicked around for years by his (ma)lingering acolytes. It is not compatible with any of the evidence, and it doesn’t even make sense: it contradicts all the available evidence.

It is also not “controversial”. It is fucking wrong. I know it goes against years of science training, which tells everyone to fudge and hem and haw and avoid saying anything that might someday be used to say you were wrong about something, but get over it. Learn to speak plainly and honestly. This kind of dim politesse is exactly what allows science denialists to misquote you.

However, it offers no “indisputable proof” that the Cambrian explosion is the result of panspermia, he said.

Aaargh. First day of my introductory biology course, where I talk about the basic principles of science, the first thing I tell them is that THERE IS NO PROOF IN SCIENCE. We deal in probabilities, in consilience, in building an evidential case to strongly support a hypothesis, and everything is provisional.

The problem with the squid panspermia hypothesis isn’t that there is no proof, it’s that there is no evidence. None. The dithering pontifications in the paper in question are all evidence-free speculations based on wishful misinterpretations of inappropriately collected and interpreted data.

I bet that Harvard professor would say exactly the same thing over a beer at the local bar with his colleagues, but put ’em in front of a journalist and suddenly all of their well-earned confidence turns into cautious cowardice.

And thus do all the phony hucksters and pseudoscientists thrive in the loamy fertilizer of tepid, timid compost dribbling from the jaws of hesitant academics.


  1. bcwebb says

    wiki: “Abraham Loeb is an Israeli American theoretical physicist who works on astrophysics and cosmology.”
    He studies black holes and advocates using laser-driven spacecraft to go to the stars.

    So the reporter chose a non-biologist with an axe to grind selling space exploration for a quote.
    I wonder if the preceding parts of the quote were “I’m not a biologist.”
    I wonder how many people the reporter had to call before finding someone who didn’t say, “this is silly and waste of time.”

  2. KG says

    the first thing I tell them is that THERE IS NO PROOF IN SCIENCE.

    And you’re WRONG. It has been proved that the universe and the earth are billions of years old, it’s been proved that humans evolved from non-human ancestors, its been proved that human activities are changing the climate. To pretend otherwise is just another example of the same pusillanimity you are rightly denouncing! The logico-mathematical meaning of “proof” is not the only valid one: “established beyond reasonable doubt” is a perfectly good meaning of “proof”, and its done in science all the time. Maybe this absurd inability to admit that THERE IS PROOF IN SCIENCE is down to unthinking parroting of Karl Popper, who unfortunately though that all science is about universal generalizations – which genuinely cannot be proved. But it isn’t: much of it is about establishing the truth of existential statements, or specific, singular facts – and this is aprticularly so in a historical science like evolutionary biology.

  3. microraptor says

    I figured that after reading a few of these idiotic articles, you feel the need for some proof in your science. Maybe a bottle of 150 proof.

  4. Susan Montgomery says

    “The Greeks introduced the notion of latitude and longitude, for instance, and made reasonable maps of the Mediterranean basin even without taking sphericity into account, and we still use latitude and longitude today.

    The Sumerians were probably the first to establish the principle that planetary movements in the sky exhibit regularity and can be predicted, and they proceeded to work out ways of doing so even though they assumed the earth to be the center of the universe. Their measurements have been enormously refined but the principle remains.

    Naturally, the theories we now have might be considered wrong in the simplistic sense of my English Lit correspondent, but in a much truer and subtler sense, they need only be considered incomplete.”

    Isaac Asimov – The Relativity of Wrong

  5. Rob Grigjanis says

    It is also not “controversial”. It is fucking wrong.

    Once again, something is controversial if there is significant disagreement about it. It can be both controversial and wrong.

  6. robert79 says

    @blf #1

    As a mathematician, I’m going to have to disagree. But then, I teach statistics…

    I just posed the following question on an exam: “True/False — I use a t-test to test the difference between two means. I get p < 0.01. I have just proved the null-hypothesis to be wrong."

    Looking at the answers I think it's definitively proven I suck at my job…

  7. microraptor says

    Rob Grigjanis@6:

    Having a couple of crackpots pushing a ridiculous idea doesn’t make it controversial.

  8. geoffarnold says

    Will someone give KG a dictionary, so they can understand that we don’t use the word “proof” in empirical science because of the inevitable equivocations and misunderstandings that arise, especially with the concepts of mathematical proof and legal proof?

  9. Owlmirror says

    The problem with the squid panspermia hypothesis isn’t that there is no proof, it’s that there is no evidence.

    Since I was just taking about rhetoric in the other thread — “no evidence” is a phrase that strikes me as being too weak. It’s not just that there’s no evidence; it’s also that the evidence we have contradicts the hypothesis.

    That is, there is plenty of evidence from embryology, molecular biology, and genetics, that cephalopods are indeed molluscs, phylogenetically connected to gastropods and bivalves and so on.

    No space aliens need apply, as much as some people might want them to.

  10. anthrosciguy says

    Rob Grigjanis does not exist. This is a controversial position, but… okay, it’s nonsense. But his statement is correct if you ignore the context; silly if you don’t ignore it. The word “significant” is doing an incredible amount of work in his statement, again, if you don’t ignore the context. The context is that we’re talking about this crackpot squid bullshit, which does not provide any degree of “significant disagreement” with regular old evolutionary science.

    Don’t ignore the context.

  11. anthrosciguy says

    I’m sure folks know this, but we do have two definitions of “proof” going on. One is the science one, which strictly speaking is that there is no proof possible. The other is the pop or folk one, where you don’t mean absolute proof but instead a massive preponderance of evidence to the point where denying the idea is perverse. We use them both in talking about science, but naturally this can make for confusion.

  12. nomdeplume says

    This kind of mealy-mouthed nonsense has contributed greatly to climate change denial. Scientists have to be more willing to call out bullshit when they see it, and to claim near certainty when they know it.

  13. consciousness razor says

    I’m fairly happy with this simple formulation from wikipedia:

    A proof is sufficient evidence or a sufficient argument for the truth of a proposition.

    Science involves lots of that. I always get the feeling that there’s some kind of Kantian epistemology at work, when people say otherwise. But maybe it’s just Popper all the way down. Hard to tell what it is, really, other than a lot of mush.

    What is “indisputable”? I don’t know. But we do have sufficient evidence that people with fringe theories about squids from outer space* can and do dispute that they originated on Earth. Oh, did you mean to say “rational people” are (or are not) capable of disputing it? Which people are those, and since when did other people not count?

    I guess some might like to think math is safe from cranks … if only. There are people out there who will reject all kinds of widely-accepted theorems. (For many others, they’re so ignorant of the subject that doing so wouldn’t even occur to them, which I guess is fortunate in a way.) The fact that it deals in proofs, which perhaps you hoped made it all “indisputable” somehow, does not appear to help. Maybe in your deepest wishes and your most precious dreams, but not in reality it doesn’t.

    *I don’t think anyone disputes (yet) that they are all “from space.” Even if it can’t be proven to everyone’s satisfaction, I’m still pretty sure that there are no abstract, non-spatial squid. I will go so far as to say that I will never have a good reason to change my mind about this, and I’ll bet [*checks wallet*] five whole dollars on it.

  14. anbheal says

    Vey, the controversial versus wrong thing is a pestilential boil on the taint of our modern media. Creationism is controversial, okay, when it comes to school boards insisting it be taught. But it’s not controversial otherwise, it’s just wrong. Hillary Clinton’s lesbian lover Nancy Pelosi strangling Vince Foster with her fishnet stockings isn’t controversial, it’s just wrong. There’s no “controversy” over whether Egyptians versus Alien overlords built the pyramids. The only controversy would be if the Tulsa schoolboard decided that children must watch the History Channel Ancient Aliens Built The Pyramids episode in order to graduate. Ay ay ay.

  15. Rob Grigjanis says

    anthrosciguy @11:

    Rob Grigjanis does not exist. This is a controversial position…

    Of course it’s not, because of…context! If a bunch of scientists published a paper claiming I don’t exist; if then other scientists felt it necessary to respond negatively to their paper; if then a major magazine ran a story with a positive slant on the paper; if then other prominent folk felt it necessary to respond to the magazine article: If all of that, then

    a) I’d be very embarrassed
    b) My existence would be controversial. Cuz, you know, I’d call all that stuff significant.

    Again, controversy has nothing to do with the quality of argument on either side. The “significant disagreement” is between people, not theories.

  16. blf says

    I’m sure folks know this, but we do have two definitions of “proof” going on. One is the science one, which strictly speaking is that there is no proof possible. The other is the pop or folk one, where you don’t mean absolute proof but instead a massive preponderance of evidence to the point where denying the idea is perverse.

    Misleading — there is the third definition used in Mathematics. A proof is possible, using logic, and does not depend on the preponderance of evidence. Statistics (see @7) may be a defective area of mathematics, but is neither the only area nor is its usage as bullshite a counter-proof.

    All poopyhead had to do was say something like “except for mathematical theorems, THERE IS NO PROOF IN SCIENCE”. What poopyhead said is the rough equivalent of evolution is not a part of science. Obviously it is (in biology), and so is proof (in mathematics).

  17. blf says

    I guess some might like to think math is safe from cranks

    I suspect that hypothesis would be news to many(? most?) mathematicians. Mathematical cranks, along with physics cranks, seem to be “a dime a dozen”. The slight difference might be the mathematical variety are, broadly speaking, beating against a solidly-closed door: You cannot square the circle (proven), Fremont’s “last theorem” (now proven), and so on… I um unclear on what sets off the cranks nowadays.

    As something of an aside, the crank(-ish) I am currently dealing with seems to be a vedic time crank (it’s not entirely clear, the person is somewhat incoherent and has, to-date, failed the “if you cannot explain it, you don’t understand it” crude plausibly test) — the individual is close to insisting that if physics used verdic(?) time then various mysteries would vanish. At this point it gets not only quite fuzzy, but also simplistic (popular science type simplifications).

  18. chrislawson says

    I definitely side with PZ on this one. Proofs are available to mathematicians. To scientists the best you can come up with is evidence.

    While “proof” is used informally to mean overwhelming evidence, I think it’s important to avoid confusing popular definitions when discussing science or maths (or any technical field). Otherwise you end up having to accept creationist misunderstandings of entropy.

  19. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    You know what’s really funny?

    In that zombie thread “How to handle a Michael Shermer attack” or some such? I think it went on as long as it did because I was being too mealy mouthed, and I gave it what is probably my last statement just a few hours before this post.

    I know, you’re thinking, “Crip Dyke was mealy-mouthed?” but it’s true. In the context of this particular discussion, I asked for evidence knowing that billyjoe almost certainly couldn’t produce any. I should never have taken seriously his assertion that Allison Smith’s e-mail organizing a conference panel could be used as actual evidence to decide the accuracy of Smith’s account of Shermer’s assaultive behavior.

    So, yeah: let’s not be mealy-mouthed at all when ludicrous, unevidenced bullshit crops up in science reporting … or even on blogs.

  20. consciousness razor says

    It would be pretty incredible if someone thought that the natural sciences just are math, or that they consist purely of logical or mathematical derivations, independent of all physical phenomena. Maybe there are a few very wacky people out there who think this, but they must be extremely rare. I doubt anyone needed to be told that science pertains to and depends on empirical evidence gathered about the physical world. That’s just fucking obvious, to practically everybody, and that’s not what the issue is here.

    The Newsweek article provides a remark from Loeb about the paper, that “it offers no “indisputable proof.”” Yes, that is a gratuitously pointless and mealy-mouthed thing to say. The dispute is obvious and unremarkable, and the problems with the paper go far beyond a mere lack of indisputable proof.

    However, if you understood this to statement mean that the paper does not provide mathematical proofs, independent of physical phenomena, as absolutely no one has any reason to expect from a scientific paper, then I think you’re badly misreading it. Perhaps you’re doing it deliberately, perhaps it’s just confusion…. But it really comes off as a mindless slogan that you may churn out whenever it’s convenient, rather than a coherent argument. I mean, seriously, did you hear it from a youtube atheist, or where did it even come from anyway?

    It’s not as if normal readers have it stuck firmly in their heads that this would be a potential problem for a “controversial” or “disputed” scientific paper: that some faction of the scientific establishment believes it isn’t sufficiently unaffected by empirical evidence, because they insist on “mathematical proof.” People understand well enough that this isn’t the kind of complaint scientists actually raise, that they believe it would be preferable that empirical evidence isn’t used to support conclusions, that papers should consist entirely of mathematical or logical formulas, or what have you.

    It’s just bizarre. You know people. You’ve met a lot of them. They don’t think this about science or scientists. So you don’t have to yell at them about it, as if that were really the lesson that needs to be drilled into their heads one more time. They just need to know about the kind of evidence you can muster against the claims of the paper. We’re not all scientists after all and may not understand how thoroughly stupid it is, so this could be helpful. Then, at no cost, Loeb’s statement will look like the load of bullshit it really is.

  21. jrkrideau says

    @21 consciousness razor
    It would be pretty incredible if someone thought that the natural sciences just are math

    Watch out for drive-by physicists.

  22. says

    Avi Loeb said that the paper “raised an interesting possibility.” What did he mean by “interesting”? Bohr, and later Wigner, would use the word “interesting” in comments in order to be polite – they used it where less polite people would use, for example, “stupid.” (Of course eventually it became part of the lore of physics that that is how they used “interesting,” so they might as well have just said “stupid” – everybody understood that was what they meant.) Since Loeb is a theoretical physicist he would have been aware of this usage, and perhaps decided to make use of it himself.

    On a very different matter, KG is quite correct in suggesting that people too unthinkingly accept Popper’s notions.

  23. methuseus says

    I don’t understand why people think squid and octopi are different from other terrestrial organisms. The fossil record is very clear that they are just part of the lineage of all other mollusks. PBS Eons had a wonderful video explaining just that:

    As for the greater idea of panspermia: there’s, again, no real evidence for it and it’s only “interesting” in the stupid definition of the word. Well, I guess it’s a nice philosophical question, but as PZ said in another post, there’s still the ultimate question of where that life came from again.

  24. leerudolph says

    blf: You keep saying (not in so many words, but unmistakably) that mathematics is (a) science. That is a controversial claim that few (if any) present-day mathematicians (are you one? like robert79, I am, and I’ve been observing them in the wild for 55 years at this point) agree with. In any case, except for a few cranks (in my opinion), essentially no mathematicians and no “physical scientists” would (nowadays) say that mathematics is a physical science (in the broadest sense of “physical”, including biology); and the “THERE IS NO PROOF IN SCIENCE” mantra is about physical sciences.

  25. petesh says

    Quibbles about “proof” aside, please note: This Is Great PZ. From “fuck that noise” down to the magnificent final paragraph, this is the PZ the world needs. And any small segments of such world as might disagree can go perform anatomical impossibilities, with to without the aid of rusty implements.

  26. Dunc says

    No, the first rule of science communication is “You do not talk about science communication!”

    Oh, wait, sorry, wrong meeting…

    blf, @ #18:

    I um unclear on what sets off the cranks nowadays.

    I believe Cantor’s Diagonalization is a perennial favourite, at least according to Mark Chu-Carrol…