The Internet has changed the nature of scientific debate
Article Comments (261) ANDRE PICARD

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

E-mail Andre Picard | Read Bio | Latest Columns
March 5, 2009 at 9:23 AM EDT

Someone who writes about hot-button issues such as vaccination, prescription drugs, complementary medicines and "health" foods such as raw milk - as has been known to happen in this column - gets a lot of interesting mail.

That people are passionate about health issues is not at all surprising. Hopefully, that will never change.

What has changed a lot over the years, however, is the nature of correspondence and the nature of scientific debate more generally.

Prior to the Internet and e-mail - a time not long ago, remarkably - people were sometimes moved to write letters in response to an article. These missives were infrequent, but usually thoughtful and thought-provoking.

Today, quality has largely given way to quantity.

Irked about something you read in the paper or online? You can fire off a vituperative missile by e-mail or in an anonymous posting on the Web.

Then you can post the article and choice comments on a listserv or blog.

Or get in your digs with Twitter tweets and have like-minded people join in on the bashing.

All of which is fine: The occasional write-in and phone-in protest campaigns of old have given way to routine flaming and viral e-mail attacks. (One thing that has not changed is that people are almost always moved to put pen to paper or thumbs to keypads when they are angry, not happy.) Feedback, no matter how relentlessly negative, is welcome - or at least it should be. Constructive criticism keeps you honest and forces you to be more precise and hone your arguments.

Sadly, though, there no longer seems to be much place for civilized disagreement, honest scientific-based dissension, on differing analyses of agreed-upon facts.

Instead of deconstructing an argument or offering up an alternative philosophy, rebuttals too often take the form of insult and character assassination.

Again, this goes with the territory: If you are going to offer up an opinion on health issues, particularly those that people hold sacred, you had better have a thick skin.

What is truly troubling is that the most common "debating" technique in cyberspace has become the dismissal of anyone with respect for scientific fact and reasoned opinion as part of some vast conspiracy.

If you read scientific literature and health research with an open mind and still conclude that vaccines are not poisons, that chelation therapy will not cure heart disease, that realigning someone's chakra is not going to clear up a bladder infection, or that strange concoctions of vitamins and minerals cannot cure bipolar disorder - all theories that have pretty broad followings on the Web - then you are dismissed as an agent of an evil empire.

Those who promote these bogus therapies - and often profit from them - will, paradoxically, dismiss you as a paid shill for Big Pharma, oppressive government or some other branch of the devilish military-industrial complex.

Doctors, nurses, pharmacists, pharmacologists, biochemists, immunologists, geneticists and journalists are not to be trusted. They are all on the take.

Medical journals that publish peer-reviews research: They are nothing but promotional tools for Big Pharma and researchers are their puppets and profiteers.

So who do you trust?

Well, you depend on chiropractors and Hollywood stars to give you advice about vaccinating your baby; you trust the guy at the health-food store to offer up a sure-fire cure for arthritis; and you take as gospel the e-mail that warns ominously that if new food safety rules are adopted by government, storm troopers will soon be busting down your front door to seize the chamomile tea.

In the world of cyberspace science, the best evidence is anecdote and the more fantastical the claims, the larger the following they seem to garner.

On the Web, you can find ample material to confirm any prejudice and enough "evidence" to fuel any conspiracy theory.

There is, of course, some good scientific material on the Web. Much of the health-related nonsense that is circulating through cyberspace has been debunked artfully on sites such as quackwatch.org.

What one needs to wonder, however, is why there is such an appetite for quackery.

It has emerged largely in the vacuum created by a lack of science literacy.

In an era in which we are constantly bombarded with information, our education system is not equipping people with the tools to reason critically, to analyze and to sort the wheat from the chaff.

Sure, science isn't that exciting. It tends to offer up steady, incremental bits of knowledge rather than miraculous cures, and there remain a lot of unknowns. But these voids need not be filled with fantasy and snake oil.

And, yes, Big Pharma and big business have had their scandals and excesses, but these have been exposed and denounced by the so-called establishment, and they do not negate the good.

Over time, there has emerged from this "vast conspiracy" pretty good health care.

But on the Web, it is mob rule. Even the best science can be shouted down and the most important health advances vilified by a chorus of naysayers.

Yet, as the journalist and author Anatole France noted: "If a million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing."

That was long before the Internet. But he probably still got hate mail.