Black Swans and Cherry Picking

A family of black swans. [Photo by luis rock from FreeImages]

There’s nothing quite like arguing with Climate Change disbelievers or those who believe that 5G is harmful. Or similar ‘fringe’ believers. Oh, some of the fringe beliefs may turn out to be true, it is true, but most of them, and almost certainly the ones I mention above, will turn out to be false.

One particular line of argument caused my jaw to drop. I want to share its ridiculousness with you. It goes this way. Firstly those who cite mainstream articles, ones which espouse Climate Climate or the harmlessness of 5G are accused of cherry picking the results that support the mainstream point of view. There are after all, hundreds of papers, the critics point out, that espouse the opposite view.

Well, yes. In a very narrow sense they are right, of course, but why would anyone cite papers that oppose their point of view? There are good theoretical grounds for believing that Climate Change exists, and that 5G will not harm us, therefore the fact that most experiments support this view is not surprising. Experiments that do show that Climate Change doesn’t exist, or that 5G will harm us should therefore be considered with suspicion, especially if, as is usually a case, there is no theoretical basis for the claims, and the claims are unverified.

It is worth noting that some papers that support Climate Change do cite papers which deny Climate Change and the same is true of some papers that investigate the effects of radiation on the human body. They cite them in the sense that “we looked for the effect described in this paper, but didn’t find it”.

But mainstream believers can turn around and accuse the deniers of Cherry Picking their references too! Can’t they? Surely they also have been choosing only those results that align with their view?

“Not so!” the deniers cry. “The references that we pick are Black Swans!”


A little background. The philosopher Karl Popper stated that a theory can never be proved, but can only be disproved. One example that is often quoted is the theory that “All swans are white”. This can never be proved because, no matter how many white swans that you find, the next one you find might be black. Or red or green or blue, maybe. All the white swans that you find support the theory, but one Black Swan demolishes it completely.

Of course, it is rarely as black and white as that (sorry). Scientists figuratively find an off-white swan.

“See, we said that the theory is false. That is not a white swan,” say the deniers. The other camp say “Yes, of course it is white! A bit of a dirty white, but still white.” “No, it isn’t!” “Yes, it is!”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a finance professor and former Wall Street trader, extended this idea. He defined a Black Swan event as one which  is impossible to predict due to its extreme rarity but which could have catastrophic consequences, and which is explained in hindsight as if it were actually predictable. Just as a verifiable counter example could be catastrophic for a widely accepted theory.

The deniers, it appears, have in turn extended this definition to “a Black Swan is any experiment whose results run contrary to mainstream thought”. This completely demolishes the counter argument, supposedly, whether the experiment is verified or not. And they are never verified.

A true Black Swan experiment could be defined as one which is a) verified and accepted as producing true results, and b) contradicts a currently widely held theory. The ‘Black Swans’ pointed to the anti-5G supporters fail to fulfil ‘a)’ above.

Leaving aside the fact that scientists have their biases just as do normal folk, one can’t tell simply from a list of papers whether they have been verified by others or not. Very often, the list is said to contain ‘peer reviewed’ papers, as if that adds any veracity to any of the papers in the list. A peer reviewer merely reports that a paper is OK to publish or not.

For example, there were plenty of peer reviewed papers that supposedly showed that smoking cigarettes was harmless. There were others that supposedly showed that smoking would kill you.

Why did those that argued that smoking was dangerous win? Certainly not because of any ‘cherry picking’ or ‘black swans’.

Picked cherries [Photo by fgdfgd dfgdfg from FreeImages]

Firstly, there was a consensus among scientists that smoking endangered health. This was driven by the sheer corpus of evidence that built up in favour of that theory, and the fact that the experiments that favoured the opposite could be criticised on many levels. It couldn’t be said that the opposition was ignored. In fact many scientists spent many hours examining supposedly contrary evidence and decided that it was wrong.

Secondly, there was evidence that the chemicals in tobacco smoke were shown, outside of the context of smoking, to be dangerous. So, if you inhaled them because you were smoking, then you exposed yourself to those dangers.

Thirdly, there was ample evidence that stopping smoking resulted in better health outcomes, even if the smoker had been a smoker for years. Even the proverbial man in the street could see it.

As regards Climate Change and 5G opposition, the evidence continues to build for the former, and attempts to demonstrate a harmful effect for the latter continue to be less than impressive.

Climate Change is all but confirmed, but people do continue dissent. That is their right, but it is pointless.

The 5G opposition is strident and irrational. They continue to ignore the evidence, and instead present a body of so-called evidence that is not convincing. They ignore a body of evidence that claims that EMF of the 5G frequencies does not affect the human body, and justifies this by a ludicrous appeal to ‘Black Swans’ which is misapplication of the ideas of Karl Popper.

I’m sure that Popper would be spinning in his grave, if he knew the ways that the 5G opposition were misusing his wise words.

5G [Image by ADMC from Pixabay]