Science is the discipline of publicly testing ideas by systematic observation and controlled experiment.
There is a lot of stuff entailed by that claim: the whole of actual scientific practice, in fact. The specific sciences and subdisciplines all have their own special techniques, but they have some things in common, as well, and a big one is the rejection of “blur”, which is the tendency we have to ignore inconvenient details.
If you talk to any pseudo-scientist, anti-scientist, creationist, anti-vax-ivist, creationist, ID-iot or conspiracy theorist, you’ll find they have a strong tendency to focus obsessively on one or two small details, and blur away the rest. They talk about the “power of prayer” by focusing on one person’s cancer remission, but ignore the millions who died every year of easily preventable disease in times and places far more religiously scrupulous than our own. They talk about dragon skeletons as proof that humans and dinosaurs walked the Earth together in recent times, but blur away the anatomical reality that the bones, where identifiable, are a carefully constructed collection of different species.
And strangely–for people who claim to be able to see what no one else can–they believe that is impossible for anyone to see anything they don’t. So when they have blurred away a fact, anyone who can see it becomes, in their eyes, delusional.
I once had the misfortune of arguing with a person who claimed (I kid you not) that gravity was a repulsive force. His “evidence” for this was a) the second law of thermodynamics (always a go-to sound-bite for anti-science nuts) and b) that the orbit of the Moon is slowly receding from the Earth. His use of the second law amounted to the claim that “things fall apart” and therefore there must be a “principle of repulsion” at work that is more fundamental than anything else, or dead bodies wouldn’t decay (to give his specific example.)
His claim that the moon’s orbit is receding is true, but it is fully explained by tidal forces and Newtonian dynamics, so his claim turned out not to be a critique of General Relativity (which is what he claimed) but an outright dismissal of Newtonian physics, which is even more insane. But he simply blurred away any counter-argument as consisting of “irrelevant details”.
Those of us who practice the discipline of science know how dangerous the “irrelevant detail” is, and it is this fact that makes science more of an art than a science.
Some details really are irrelevant, and a large part of experimental and observational technique is figuring out which aren’t. How that’s done is a matter of, well, the discipline of testing ideas by systematic observation and controlled experiment. If you see something odd in the details, you make a note of it and keep an eye out for the possibility of it being relevant. If you’re bothered by it you figure out a way to test–by observation or experiment–if it could be relevant. And you hope that you haven’t missed anything, or you wind up publishing problematic results, like FTL neutrinos and cold fusion.
“Details matter until proven otherwise” is a pretty good mantra, but those in the grip of the blur reject it, and there doesn’t seem to be any way to bring them back into focus.
Attention is the most limited of human resources. We are famously able to keep just five or ten things in mind at once, and people who habitually blur seem to have a much lower number, perhaps three or four. They therefore cling to the few things they can see, and refuse to take their minds off them lest everything be lost in the blur. That’s pure speculation on my part, but I can think of a couple of obvious ways to test it.
I don’t know the cure for the blur, but I think it’s important that we be aware of it when talking to anti-scientists. If we can keep in mind that they really aren’t capable of seeing the details that we are seeing, and perhaps can only hold a few ideas or facts in the heads at once, we might be more effective at explaining to them why and how their dearly held ideas are untenable.