Friday, November 13, 2015

World Science Day

According to CBS News, last Tuesday was World Science Day.  It struck me upon hearing this that not many Americans appreciate the true nature of science, its objectives and how it is supposed to work.  This is partly the fault of the media that is eager to toss out every new discovery, often with very little clarification by journalists who themselves do not understand science or have any background or interest to ask the right questions.

Science, real science, is interested in finding the truth.  To do this scientists come up with an idea of how the world works, called a hypothesis.  They then must figure out an intelligent way to collect data to confirm or reject the hypothesis – it could be right or it might be wrong.  They are never absolutely sure of the result because random events or coincidences can interfere with the interpretation of the data.  If they think it is a valid hypothesis, they publish it in a journal and invite others to critique the experimental design or to gather their own data to try to confirm or disprove it.  The strongest theories withstand many tests attempting to overturn them.  They stand as long as no one can find exceptions.

That’s how it is supposed to work.  To get to the truth, scientists must be skeptical, even about their own ideas.  It is dangerous when they fall in love with their own hypotheses.  Then they defend it instead of questioning.  They may overlook or ignore contrary data or requests for clarification.  Rather than admit they may be wrong, they resort to personal attacks.  They act not like scientists but more like a parent defending a child against bullying.

Unfortunately this happens rather often, aided by the media, where a sexy story about a new breakthrough is far more appealing than a retraction, and by the system, where institutional and governmental grants favor scientists with a track record of “wins,” data that even tenuously confirm the hypothesis, tempting researchers to manipulate results.  The dynamics of funding and publicity can have devastating consequences for science and its search for the truth.

One example of this comes from a book called The Big Fat Surprise about the history of accepted (and sometimes incorrect) guidance about the food we eat and its affect on our health.  Without getting into the subject of the book – it’s worth reading – here are a few disturbing exerpts to illustrate this wrong approach.  “This kind of [negative] reaction met all experts who criticized the prevailing view…Researchers who persisted in their challenges found themselves cut off from grants, unable to rise in their professional societies, without invitations to serve on expert panels and at a loss to find scientific journals that would publish their papers.”  (p.4)  “Experiments that had dissenting results…were not debated and discussed but dismissed or ignored altogether.” (p.44)  The author argues quite convincingly that this kind of unscientific reaction has led to unsupported public policy on nutrition.

Along the same lines, I found this citation from a 2015 bravery in science award.  “Prof Ernst continued in his work [of research into complementary and alternative medicines] despite personal attacks and attempts to undermine his research unit and end his employment.”  They don’t like what he is saying, so they try to shut him down.  This is not a path to the truth, but it’s who gets the publicity that counts.

Some ideas that are readily accepted as true today were initially resisted and some ideas that were once thought to be true were subsequently disproven (but may remain popular because people want to believe).  A good example of the first case is the theory of plate tectonics to explain earthquakes and geological formations, “when first proposed, it was ridiculed, but steadily accumulating evidence finally prompted its acceptance.”  A good example of the second is this quote from WebMD:  “Vitamin C was first touted for the common cold in the 1970s. But despite its widespread use, experts say there's very little proof that vitamin C actually has any effect on the common cold.”  Proper science continues the search and does not resist further evidence, whether positive or negative.

We can’t make valid discoveries and get nearer to the truth if opposing viewpoints are shut down or if a single study becomes the darling of the press or scientists or society.  One of the worst examples is the case, again, against vaccinations, where the researcher was so enamored with his hypothesis that he was driven to falsify data to confirm it.  Even after he was stripped of his license to practice medicine, people, induced by unqualified celebrities, still cling to this misinformation.

Understanding at least this much about science is vital to critical thinking.  In this world of social media and non-stop health news from the press, how else will we survive the onslaught of new studies, well-intentioned regulations and scary health news?

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