RS Classic: Dissing Science

>> Friday, June 18, 2010

Another blast from the past.

Truth often suffers more by the heat of its defenders than from the arguments of its opposers.
–William Penn

Recently, I found myself hot under the collar. Now, don’t get me wrong, I have a temper. But this was all about science and I work very hard to keep my cool and professionalism when it comes to science – passion and science = bad science.

But I was beginning to understand why so many scientists and naysayers are getting into arguments just short of fistfights. It’s hard for even the best scientist to keep his or her temper down when they are being accused of lying and laziness.

This discussion is not going to be about religion. I truly believe in freedom of religion including anyone’s belief in Thor or the monster that hides under the bed. I have not been granted omniscience (aside from believing in fairies myself) and have no right to tell you what to believe in as long as (a) you don’t try to force it down my throat and (b) don’t try to pretend it’s science.

Science is a fascinating beastie. It’s all about finding out what and how reality is and, if possible, figuring out how to manipulate it for the betterment of mankind. Fortunately and unfortunately, reality is pretty slippery. It provides some facts pretty easily, some with a lot of work and some, well, it still hasn’t provided a clear answer. Fortunately, it’s what we don’t know that makes it fun. Unfortunately, what we don’t know (or, worse, think we know) can be very dangerous. For instance, long ago they tried blood transfusions under the correct assumption that blood can help when blood’s been lost. Unfortunately, their lack of knowledge about blood factors meant that some transfusions didn’t go too well so that it was an act of desperation until blood typing was discovered early in the 20th century.

It is because of this, the thrill and excitement (and the risk) of what we know and don’t know that scientists voluntarily subject themselves to strict rules and processes of rigor. Rules include repeatability (preferably independently), adequate controls, and theories that can be disabled with a single immutable fact (which is not the same as a single data point). All the data must be accounted for or explained; one cannot pick and choose the data. And, to be really recognized, it needs to withstand something called peer review.

Peer review? You expect them to police themselves? Yes, for two reasons. First, one cannot evaluate the science of a proposal, conclusion or bit of research without an in depth understanding of science and scientific processes. Generally, this effectively limits you to scientists or “former” scientists (if such things exist). Secondly, scientists want to be right. Being wrong, spectacularly, is not how any scientist wants to be remembered.

Yeah, but don’t we look after our own? Actually, not so much and there’s good reason. There is no benefit for a scientist to give a free pass on the work of another scientist. If the work is bogus or sloppy, the reviewers would be impugned (rightly) along with the researcher by their failure to look at it critically. Wherein politicians (and some other, but not all, professions) can generally make mistake after mistake and survive, in the scientific world, a single instance of dishonesty and/or sloppy work can ruin a career.

If someone does research and writes conclusions, a reviewer is obligated to try to shoot holes in it, find the problems, look for errors, whether the reviewer agrees with it or not, or we do a disservice not only to the rest of the world, but to the researcher. If it’s wrong, we don’t want to hang our hats on it (and we save the researcher some embarrassment). If it’s right, we want it to be as bulletproof as possible.

And people in the same field do not all agree (HAHAHAHAHA!) - far from it. It is, in fact, the hemming and hawing on details that have let so many less familiar with the process think that so many scientists disagree on global warming, when what they are really doing is trying to understand not IF there will be changes, but how much, how fast and what we can do to minimize it. On that, I feel comfortable saying consensus has not been reached. But it doesn’t mean the science is invalid.

Don’t get me wrong. Scientists get excited by findings, breakthroughs, new possibilities, verifications, etc. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be here. And, yeah, anyone who does work they’re proud of likes recognition. That’s why we peer review and take our time accepting new ideas. If an idea can take being tested independently and repeatedly, if it can stand the test of time and many different people trying to poke holes in it, it stands a much better chance of being valid that if it came from one excited individual.

That’s one reason I get so hot under the collar at being accused of laxity or dishonesty. I’m part of those very checks and balances. Does nothing get by us? Sadly, yes, mistakes are made here and there. But they usually get caught eventually and the numbers (percentage-wise), I feel, are low. Truth told, I don’t know of any other profession that examines itself so critically, puts in so many impediments and challenges to ensure that integrity, that objectivity that makes science what it is. Because people do use that information in a life and death way, we have to be responsible with what we say.

Your doctor doesn’t have the same review process when he gives a prescription (though the basis for the treatments he'll suggest should have gone through the same rigorous process). Your mechanic doesn't even have that. Your lawyer can do all kinds of stupid things (at hundreds of dollars an hour). And there’s not much you can do to preclude mistakes being made by those you trust.

In most cases, there is little you can do except fire someone (after the fact, mostly likely) or in cases of egregious error, sue. In most cases, you just have to live with it. Think of how much better government might be if positions and arguments in government were vetted with the same rigor as science. (I find it ironic that people are more likely to be believe others who have a vested interest in persuading you to a point of view - bankers, big business, politicians – than those that have none.)

Believe me, folks, we don’t want to tell you bad news. There’s no glory or riches in telling people what they don’t want to hear. If we tell you, it’s because that’s what the evidence is telling us and we don’t want our unwillingness to put it on the line to cause anyone to be hurt unnecessarily. At the least, we have no interest in looking stupid.

In science, we really try to weed out the mistakes before you ever see our results. We’re human, but we want the truth out there more than we want our name on it. We’re not perfect, but we’re trying to do the right thing.

Cut us a little slack, k?

You know, some things never change.


  • Roy

    One of my favorite lines from the Stargate: SG-1 TV series was by a young scientist named Nyan in the "New Ground" episode: "Teal'c, I'm a scientist. When I find evidence that my theories are wrong, it's as exciting as if they were correct." And that's the beauty of science; there's always more to find out. That open end to the discovering of evidence is the soul of the quest for knowledge; certainty is the killer of that search.

  • The Mother

    Every scientist wants to be the guy who discovers what everybody's been doing wrong all those centuries. That's how you make yourself immortal.

    And it always fascinates me that the pseudoscience quacks are always accusing the SCIENTISTS of being on big pharma's payroll, since THEY are the ones making money on every patient they shill.

    But we're the small minded ones, who can't grasp the big picture, and refuse to consider their way out theories. Newsflash--that indignant antipathy toward the scientific community has been the calling card of the quack since time immemorial. From Thurneisser in the 16th century to Wakefield today.

  • Stephanie Barr

    Roy, I hear you. I'm right there with you.

    The Mother, I thought this subject would get you stirred up.

  • Jeff King

    My biggest problem with science is that it’s held together by territories, hypotheses and conjecture diluted with data… now I know it has produce a ton of wonderful things and it is necessary for our future development as a society.

    I just am stating what the problem is to me. Very seldom fact don’t enter the equation, it all about using “laws” “data” “past mistakes” and all the other names we give “things” we think are correct. Most of the time it all pans out and I am grateful for the people how think like that and can delve into a realm I cannot.

    I guess the biggest problem is it’s just over my head, and the process is something one must learn to understand.

    thx for the post, I've learned a lot.

  • Stephanie Barr

    Jeff, I appreciate your comment because you highlight the problem: the perception of how science works instead of the actuality.

    As scientists, we don't understand why people are so set on misunderstanding our processes or accusing us of collusion. We know the checks and balances we built into the system specifically so that can't happen (or at least not easily).

    Any time you hear someone "reputable" saying different, do some digging on the source. You'll find (as the Mother said) quacks promoting miracle nutrients products, people who profit largely be the status quo (rather than the scientific breakthroughs or information), or people who make their living from the manipulation of the specious.

    If they make their money on talk radio/ televangelism/ speaking engagements where they use emotionalism rather than facts to persuade, chances are they need a gullible following to stay in business (and that means stifling critical thinking).

    The cigarette industry has colluded to addict and kill untold thousands, if not millions, by blowing smoke at the facts that have been known for decades, breeding doubt by focusing on insignificant details instead of the overall facts.

    Big oil's doing that now. Follow the money on those screaming the loudest. Believe me, you won't find scientists at the end but vested interests.

  • Stephanie Barr

    Bear in mind that ignorance does not equate with stupidity, unless one refuses to learn. Studied ignorance is the bane of all thinking people. But ignorance, no one is immune. All of us have areas of expertise and areas of ignorance.

    It's how one reacts to the areas of ignorance that (suspicion vs. curiosity) that says the most about your ability to think critically. Those that make their living off the ignorance of others do their best to promote that suspicion rather than foster the curiosity. That's a red flag, in my book, on how good their data is. People good data, don't want an ignorant audience.

  • The Mother

    The corollary to the quack's antipathy to real science is their tendency to use it to their advantage. (Think the way homeopathy and new age gurus like to refer to mysterious quantum effects).

    To do this, they need an audience that is somewhat better educated than ignorant (ie, they have to know what quantum is), but that does not understand it enough to know that they are being duped.

    Unfortunately, as science becomes more and more subspecialized and difficult to understand, that potential audience for quackery grows exponentially.

    I can't tell you how many doctors rail about the anti-vaccine movement or homeopathy, but fall for conspiracy theories and anti-global warming propaganda hook, line and sinker.

    It's impossible to be an expert in everything. The defense against charlatanry lies in developing critical thinking skills--healthy doses of skepticism, followed by the ability to judge source material for accuracy/credibility, and the ability to find the required source material to determine its accuracy/credibility.

    In other words--you have to know where to look and what you're looking for.

    If you haven't seen it, and everyone should, Brian Denning has a great video available free on the web called "Here Be Dragons" (; and there's also Michael Shermer's excellent "Baloney Detection Kit" (

    These should be required viewing for every human, young and old, and certainly every teenager, once a year, just to reinforce the point.

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