Last week, I heard about two boring revelations.
The first is that the Shroud of Turin has finally been proven to be fake. Finally? Again. After all the dating evidence and the historical record show that it was ginned up in the 14th century, long after this story has been put to bed, people still thrash about with this crap. The ‘new’ evidence isn’t even that good — they did a blood spatter analysis. Big whoop.
Next week, news agencies will be shocked to learn that chupacabra is a coyote with mange, because they had a vet look at an old photo.
The second oh-god-my-eyes-have-rolled-back-so-far-they-turned-inside-out story comes from a usually reputable source, the Guardian. They ran a garbage article about cell phones causing cancer, full of distortions of the scientific evidence and conspiracy theories. My god, people, there is no brain cancer epidemic. Practically everyone in the country has a mobile phone now, they’re using them constantly to the point where it’s a standard comedic trope about teenagers and housewives and pedestrians and commuters going through their day with phones clamped to their faces, a gigantic shift in human behavior and reliance on these devices that occurred in only about a decade, and you’d think that if they were causally linked to any kind of cancer there’d be a corresponding surge readily detectable in the epidemiological data. There isn’t. This is a causal agent with people casting about absurdly looking for a problem it might be causing, and not finding one. So they invent an epidemic.
Fortunately, David Robert Grimes comes through with a rebuttal to the Guardian bullshit (he’s very polite. He doesn’t use the word “bullshit” or even anything poetically analogous.) He goes through all the basic, obvious evidence — cell phone radiation is low energy, non-ionizing, and multiple papers have shown a lack of correlation between cell phone use and glioma — and shows how the authors distorted in a dishonest way (he doesn’t even call them liars!) the conclusions of major research studies.
There are signs he’s losing patience with them, though.
The authors conclude by stating a “lack of definitive proof that a technology is harmful does not mean the technology is safe, yet the wireless industry has succeeded in selling this logical fallacy to the world”. Such a statement raises questions regarding their grasp of the term “logical fallacy”. The onus here is on the authors to prove their assertion – it is sheer logical contortion to present a lack of evidence as a superficial supporting argument. That the authors attribute this lack of evidence for their claims to the machinations of a nebulous big telecoms is indicative of a mindset more conspiratorial than sceptical.
This is a problem with what I call sinecure skepticism. There is a self-perpetuating market for glib, contrarian nonsense like cell phones causing cancer, or fluoridation as a communist plot, or ghosts, or the Loch Ness monster, or evolutionary psychology, and the skeptical movement has bred a group of shallow thinkers who lurch at the bait and sell cheap articles that ‘debunk’ the most superficial phenomenology (or in the worst case, write in support of garbage, like EP). In fact, the mission of many skeptics is to focus entirely on the easy crap and to neglect the big issues, because they’re too complex. I’m sure Hertsgaard and Dowie, the authors of the original article, consider themselves to be good skeptics, because skepticism has become nothing but criticism of the obvious using very little knowledge or deep expertise.
Hertsgaard and Dowie are well-regarded journalists, writing in the field of environmental journalism. They are not experts on cell biology, or cancer, or epidemiology, or medicine, or any of the fields that would be relevant to their analysis, so it was an easy leap for them to find fault with a ubiquitous technology, and to uncritically promote another round of this nonsense. David Robert Grimes is a physicist and cancer researcher who actually knows his stuff and can see right through the gross errors.
I like skeptics who actually know something — see also David Gorski or Jen Gunter or Jennifer Raff for examples — and who have actually done the hard work of acquiring deep expertise. Otherwise we get endless cycles of lightweight puffery over trivial inanity, which is exactly what the purveyors of trivial inanity want.
Ask yourself, do we really need more analyses of the Shroud of Turin?