How Can We Trust Science??
A short course in how to evaluate and know if science can be trusted
Scientists themselves don’t trust “proven by science.”
Which is why science works. Let’s look at the “scientific method” and see how you can protect yourself from being fooled by fake or misused science.
First, why was science invented anyway?
From the beginning of human history, myths and stories were passed from person to person. Writing helped preserve knowledge, but before the printing press, every copy of a manuscript had to be copied by hand.
Religions, which provide useful information to their clients, served to preserve and protect rare and irreplaceable handwritten manuscripts. Books were transcribed by monks in remote monasteries safe from the marauding hordes, but inaccessible to all but very few people.
Science was largely alchemy, a kind of cooking recipe passed from person to person. Converting lead into gold might involve things like oil of dog or bats’ eyelashes. Every version was different, and there was no quality control.
The advent of the printing press, around 1450, made it possible to widely distribute exact copies of plans, formulas, and ideas and led to the scientific revolution and our modern world.
The “scientific method” is a philosophy of knowledge that addresses the problem of individual people (or groups), jumping to conclusions and getting them wrong. Wonderful as they are, our human brains are leaky buckets with built-in biases, misconceptions, and more that can be inserted from the outside.
How does the scientific method work?
The basics of the scientific method are this: You form an idea, or hypothesis, and design an experiment to see if it works. Do the experiment and document everything you did, so that other scientists can replicate your work. If they get the same results, then your hypothesis may be correct, forming a theory that makes testable predictions.
Others then build on your results, report their own experiments, contributing to the growth of scientific knowledge. Theories that explain how things work emerge and lead to useful discoveries, like steam engines and electricity.
However, Einstein is credited with saying, it doesn’t matter if a million people confirm your theory; it only takes one person to disprove it. The team that recently photographed a black hole for the first time reported that, once again, the Theory of Relativity was confirmed. But they also said they would have been really, really excited to disprove it or find an exception.
So scientists are or should be, professional skeptics. Nothing is taken for granted. Disproving theories is every bit as important as proving them. This leads to substantial debate within science itself, and it may be hard for a non-scientist to sort out what is true. In reality, the truth of most scientific knowledge is “it depends…”
Unfortunately, these days, the temple of science has been invaded by money grubbers and clickbait prostitutes.
You should be able to identify them for what they are and avoid being frightened or seduced into actions or ideas that do not serve your or society’s interests.
Understanding these simple principles will help you sort out reality from fake news. Among them are:
Arguments from ignorance
“We don’t know anything else it could be, so our explanation must be correct.” This one comes up in climate debates all the time. “We don’t know what else it could be, so it must be CO2.” Really? Are scientists really certain about ALL the details of EVERY process that might affect the Earth’s climate? Mostly, we don’t even know what we don’t know. And the more we find out, the less certain we become - in science, every answer poses ten new questions.
Correlation is not causation
Just because two things are correlated does not prove that one causes the other. Obesity has been increasing for 50 years. Can we conclude that it is causing climate change? Or the other way around? Correlations can look very seductive, but proving them requires multiple lines of evidence.
Appeals to authority
So and so is a great and powerful person, so what they say must be true. Politics is loaded with these cults of personality. The media exploits “scientific experts” to promote schemes and propaganda. But real science is specifically designed to eliminate this fallacy. Einstein is widely regarded as a major genius, but thousands of scientists work every day to prove him wrong.
Consensus and groupthink
“97% agree” and “settled science” are not valid scientific arguments. History is littered with incorrect consensus. The claim of consensus among scientists is often used by those promoting policy directions. Remember, scientists are as competitive as professional athletes. When you see a consensus being promoted, it is almost certainly fake news. Science is never - ever - settled.
We are naturally attracted to information that confirms our existing beliefs. Getting your information exclusively from Fox News, NPR, or CNN guarantees that you suffer from confirmation bias. It takes effort to be skeptical.
If something sounds right to you, do your best to find information that disproves it. Every pancake has two sides. Until you have seen both sides, how do you know it’s a real pancake and not just a pretty picture painted on the plate?
Mark Twain famously said there are lies, damn lies, and statistics. As useful as they are, statistics can be distorted in hundreds of ways to support unscientific conclusions. You might see a headline proclaiming, “Cow fart pollution has accelerated 20% in the last year. We’re all going to die!” Scary until you learn that it changed from 2.0 parts per million to 2.2. And that the natural variation from year to year is 20 parts per million.
The more you know about statistics, the more you distrust them in the hands of promoters and clickbait prostitutes in the media. The legitimate scientific results of many studies are often distorted to make claims not at all supported by the facts of the study.
Finally, when someone says they “believe” something, you know they are talking about philosophy or religion but not science. Just because you believe the world is flat does not make it true. This is another fallacy that the scientific method was specifically designed to eliminate:
Show me what you believe and how you came to that conclusion. If other scientists, including those who don’t agree with your belief, confirm your results, then maybe your idea is correct.
There is more, but understanding these basics will equip you to cast a skeptical scientific eye on the fake news and propaganda that pervades our modern world.
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