In the 1920s, Albert Einstein admitted he made a mistake in his great theory of relativity. He admitted another error in 1938.
In 2013, Stephen Hawking admitted an error in his formulation of the big bang theory.
In 2010, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which tracks science on climate change for the United Nations, admitted it had made a mistake about the melt rate of Himalayan glaciers.
Scientists admit their mistakes all the time.
Pop figures who engage in combat about science, on the other hand, do not. They have to keep reshaping information to prove their original belief, cherry-picking information that fits their preconception and excluding information that does not.
Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey and Robert Kennedy Jr., for instance, have never admitted that they were wrong about vaccines causing autism. In Kennedy’s case, an article he wrote for Slate and Rolling Stone that made the argument for a link between vaccines and autism was shot through with so many errors that both publications — after watching the corrections pile up next to the article — finally removed it from their websites.
McCarthy, when faced with actual physicians on “Larry King Live,” was unable to dispute their knowledge, so she cursed them on the air with an obscenity I will spare our readers.
In Nevada, former U.S. House member Jim Gibbons once put his name to a paper that cherry-picked the science to describe mercury as more or less harmless.
When she was a member of the Nevada Legislature, Sharron Angle introduced an unsuccessful measure that would have required physicians to repeat to their patients a dubious claim about abortion causing breast cancer. To support the bill, she cherry-picked the science to cite the few studies in support and ignored the more numerous studies that undercut the claim. In one case, she cited the initial 1994 phase of a study (which supported her position) and ignored the final 1996 conclusion of that study (which did not).
Scientists let evidence lead them to a conclusion. Dogmatists start with a conclusion and seek out evidence to support it, excluding any evidence that doesn’t fit.
Last week, two new scientific studies suggested that undersea volcanic activity could affect climate change. Note that word: “could.” Scientists around the world now will absorb the new information and do their own studies. That’s how science moves — slowly.
But critics of the science of climate change, who reject the massive science in support of the scientific consensus, embraced the two new studies to try, again, to challenge that consensus. Within hours, they were citing it as evidence against man-made climate change.
For instance, at a site called The Pirate’s Cover, an unsigned essay went up: “Wait, the models may be wrong? The hell you say! This is certainly not the first bit of research regarding undersea volcanoes, and it won’t be the last. The reality of climate change is that most is caused by nature, just like has always occurred.”
The problem is, the two volcano studies said no such thing. That same anonymous essay was then lifted by a site called beforeitsnews.com and will surely find its way to others in the Internet’s now well-known dance of misinformation.
Scientists are treating the volcano studies with respect. Partisans in the climate change battles are treating them as ammunition, by misrepresenting them.
When two presidential candidates recently pandered to the antiscience fringe, it spoke volumes about their character. Chris Christie and Rand Paul either really believe there is doubt about the science and are ignorant or they know the truth and are cynical.
Cherry-picking science, misrepresenting the views of scientists, rejecting information that conflicts with a preconceived notion are all dishonest. And when, as in the current vaccination debate, they endanger children, it’s more — and less — than just a debate.
Dennis Myers is a veteran Nevada journalist.