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The Cost of Skepticism?

on January 10, 2009
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Los Angeles Times: “Christine Maggiore and the Price of Skepticism” “Questioning theories is usually a healthy pursuit”—except when life and death are concerned, or when the “theory” in question is evolution.

The recent death of HIV/AIDS skeptic Christine Maggiore was fodder for a Los Angeles Times editorial last weekend on when one should question the prevailing scientific consensus, and then took a swipe at our supposedly unscientific Creation Museum.

When it comes to history, documents take precedent over experiments—and evidence is interpreted through what one already believes.

Maggoire, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1992, founded an organization that disputed the connection between HIV and AIDS. Maggoire and her followers refused to take the recommended anti-HIV medication; Maggoire’s breast-fed daughter died at the age of three for what the coroner determined were AIDS-related causes, though Maggoire refused to believe it. The Times opines:

Her challenge, however, continues, as Maggiore’s argument—that scientific consensus, no matter how established, remains subject to objection—runs through debates with profound public policy implications. Does smoking cause cancer? Do human activities contribute to climate change? . . . In some instances, these debates are interesting but not terribly consequential. But sometimes they are of staggering significance.

Okay, we agree so far; challenging the laws of physics would matter a lot more for someone walking a tightrope than for someone sitting in theoretical physics class. The Times also declares:

Still, science is a discipline of questions, and rarely is a fact established so firmly that it will silence all critics. At the Creation Museum near Cincinnati, the exhibit guides visitors “to the dawn of time”—just 6,000 years ago. That makes for some startling conclusions, not the least of which is that dinosaurs and humans were created by God on the sixth day and lived side by side. Call it the Flintstones theory.

The Times kindly abstains from outright ridicule, for they’re asking a serious question: “How . . . to judge when a theory becomes fact, when it slips beyond legitimate objection?” The editors conclude that “[t]hose who contest [the preponderance of] evidence must demonstrate the plausibility of alternatives and produce evidence to support them.”

We agree, actually, though something else that the Times fails to recognize matters a great deal: what type of science we’re talking about. When it comes to operations science, valid experiments will yield objective support for one hypothesis or another. One scientist declares that water always boils at 100˚C; another contends that atmospheric pressure plays a role in determining what temperature boils water. The two scientists could then conduct a carefully controlled experiment to validate one hypothesis and invalidate the other; this experiment could be repeated and tweaked for other hypotheses. The same goes for questions about, e.g., whether the earth revolves around the sun, or the role of viruses in causing disease (though only when scientists can create a valid, controlled experiment).

Determining what happened in the past “scientifically” is a whole ’nother story. What objective experiment can prove that dinosaurs didn’t live alongside mankind—without first making untestable assumptions about, e.g., the fossil record? That’s why, when it comes to history, documents take precedent over experiments—and evidence is interpreted through what one already believes.


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