Most Christians are definitely not terrorists

Human cognition can be exquisitely attuned to our environment, but it can also be subject to numerous strong biases. To illustrate, consider the following logical puzzles:

Some Christians are terrorists. Therefore all Christians are terrorists.

Some Jews are terrorists. Therefore all Jews are terrorists.

Some Muslims are terrorists. Therefore all Muslims are terrorists.

The answer in all cases is a clear and unambiguous no—the inference is not warranted. Notwithstanding the existence of Timothy McVeigh, the Stern Gang, or Osama bin Laden, the inference that all members of their respective faiths are terrorists is entirely invalid.

Yet, depending on one’s background, worldview, and faith, it may be more or less tempting to endorse or reject one or the other of the above puzzles. There is much evidence that people’s reasoning—especially when it comes to accepting scientific findings—is affected by variables beyond logic, in particular worldview and other motivational variables.

The role of those variables was brought into sharp focus by the recent commentary in Nature, authored by me and Dorothy Bishop. Our commentary sought to stimulate discussion about the boundary conditions of transparency and openness. As committed supporters of openness and transparency, we were particularly concerned with how researchers might be protected from harassment that goes beyond legitimate scrutiny, and how such harassment might be differentiated from the legitimate scrutiny that transparency and openness demand.

We therefore stated:

“Orchestrated and well-funded harassment campaigns against researchers working in climate change and tobacco control are well documented. Some hard-line opponents to other research, such as that on nuclear fallout, vaccination, chronic fatigue syndrome or genetically modified organisms, although less resourced, have employed identical strategies.” [Emphasis added]

The public record, sadly, contains ample evidence that opposition to research in those areas goes beyond robust discussion or intense scrutiny, with death threats being received by researchers measuring the fallout from the Fukushima nuclear disaster and by medical researchers working in the area of chronic fatigue syndrome, to cite but two examples.

Bafflingly, this accurate statement has led to considerable invective and accusations on Twitter and on various blogs by critics of chronic-fatigue research. Those critics often appeared to be unencumbered by any acquaintance with what we wrote.

To understand why, let’s revisit the puzzles just discussed:

Some Christians are terrorists. Therefore all Christians are terrorists.

Some Jews are terrorists. Therefore all Jews are terrorists.

Some Muslims are terrorists. Therefore all Muslims are terrorists.

Some hard-line opponents of research on chronic fatigue syndrome overstep the bounds of legitimate discussion. Therefore all opponents of research on chronic fatigue syndrome overstep those bounds.

That last inference is as false as the preceding three.

Accusations that I have “slurred patients” akin to a “racist pig” and that I have compared critics of chronic fatigue research to climate deniers are therefore not only invalid—see here for my detailed thoughts on patients’ rights and how they can and should be protected—but counter-productive.

I have no involvement in research on chronic fatigue, nor do I have any research interest in it. However, I have ample experience in studying the symptoms of pseudoscience and recognizing when an agenda or motivated cognition overpowers reasoned argument.

On the basis of that expertise, it has become quite clear that some (note that crucial word again here: some) opponents of chronic-fatigue research are not engaging in reasoned discourse but are exhibiting all the hallmarks of pseudoscience. The evidence for that is on the public record, in broad daylight, and for all to see who care to look for it.

There are two conclusions that do not follow from this: First, it would be illogical to tar all opponents or critics of chronic-fatigue research with the brush of pseudoscience.

Second, it would be illogical to conclude that just because some opposition to chronic-fatigue research relies on pseudoscience and harassment, that research is thereby vindicated and must be beyond reproach. Perhaps there are problems with some research somewhere, notwithstanding how unreasonable some critics are.

However, given how quickly people can jump to conclusions when it serves their purposes, moderate critics of chronic-fatigue research—who exist as surely as there are people of faith who are not terrorists—ought to consider whether it might not be in their best interest to distance themselves from such rhetoric lest it impair their own credibility.

After all, no one benefits if people are jumping to unwarranted conclusions.