the problem with science

The problem with science is that it’s conducted by scientists. And scientists are human.

At least as far as we know.

The reason this is a problem is that human beings are simply not rational creatures. We are far too often guided by emotion—what feels right—as opposed to what’s actually backed up by empirical evidence. And even when it comes to empirical evidence, often that evidence is incorrectly interpreted, improperly gathered, or just plain flat out wrong. Intentionally or unintentionally.

An extremely interesting article recently published in the Atlantic (which I highly recommend) highlights this. The article is about Dr. John Ioannidis, a Greek medical researcher who, in 2005, published two papers on the amount of errors in medical science.

The first, in PLoS Medicine, describes how 80% of non-randomized medical studies are wrong, 25% of randomized studies are wrong, and 10% of the strictest large-scale randomized studies are wrong. The second paper, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, reveals that out of the 49 most highly regarded research findings in the past 13 years, when 34 of them were retested, 14 were shown to be wrong or exaggerated.

This is not good. One specific example is the 1998 study which linked the MMR vaccine to autism. It was found that the researchers deliberately distorted their results, and now we’re seeing a rise in cases of the measles in Europe and the U.S.

Wonderful.

And of course the reason that someone would intentionally publish incorrect results is that science is highly competitive, and often in order to secure funding—or often even keep their job—a researcher has to publish exciting, new, and controversial papers. And if the actual results aren’t any of those things, there’s a lot of pressure on researchers to fiddle with the results until they become something that would seem worthy of being published in a top journal.

But the mistakes are not always intentional. Sometimes they’re due to the way we handle statistics. For example, a 95% confidence interval—which is a standard benchmark—means that there is only a 5% chance that the observed effect was due to random chance, and not to the drug or whatever else the scientist was testing. But if hundreds of studies come out every single year, many of them are bound to be wrong even if the researchers are honest and the experiments were conducted well. This ScienceNews article gives a more thorough description of the problem.

Of course, there’s another very important problem with science: the public. If scientists want access to government money, they have to be able to convince the public that the work they’re doing is worthwhile. Not always an easy task, considering the fact that the public, just like the scientific community, is comprised of irrational humans.

Just look at global warming. The consensus among the scientific community is that global warming is real, happening right now, and is primarily caused by humans. Unfortunately, a lot of people out there don’t want to believe this because it makes them uncomfortable on an emotional level. They don’t want to admit that they’re a part of what’s harming the global ecosystem, and they don’t want to have to change their behavior.

Unfortunately, in response to this many scientists have taken the sensationalist approach, insisting on using words like “catastrophic” and “irreversible” to try and gain public support. This approach can backfire horribly though, as seen with the IPCC 2007 report which stated, among other things, that the Himalayan glaciers could disappear by 2035. Climate change deniers latched onto this, and used it to come to the rather dubious conclusion that because that one number was wrong, all climate science must be a lie, and all climate scientists themselves are godless commies, or something.

So yeah, basically the problem with science is the fact that people—both scientists and “normies”, as we like to call the rest of you—are irrational creatures who often use emotion rather than evidence to reach conclusions. And this is a problem that needs to be addressed, because regardless of the severity of global warming, our population is increasing and our resources are dwindling, and we’re going to need scientific solutions to these problems. And in order to achieve those solutions, we’re going to need a public who is supportive of scientific endeavors.

At least in the short term. As I’ve mentioned before, once my doomsday device is ready none of you will have to worry about any of this anymore.

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About Critical Awesomeness
I'm a 32-year-old American with a PhD in chemistry and a green hat. Only one of these two things is really important.

2 Responses to the problem with science

  1. danniehill says:

    What a great aritcle. Being in the majority of non-scientists but also well-read I enjoyed the facts in this report.

    One thing that did jump out is: “The consensus among the scientific community”. Aren’t these the same people who put out incomplete studies to gain popular support?

    I will show my ignorance by asking about Golbal Warming. Isn’t this cyclic? And happened long before humans came in to the factors. Who was at fault in the previous Ice Ages? I don’t want to argue that humans aren’t big contributors but it the vast scheme of Earth cycles are we really the primary reason the earth is changing? Can it be stopped or would this have happened without our contribution?

    Science has never been truth without question. It is a theory based study that too many of us take as chiselled in stone and then run off to claim the sky is falling with confidence.

    Having said that– what would this world be without these dedicated people who go in search of the truth? The answer, I think, would be a world run by fear-mongers and people striving to gain everything without regard to the rest who live here or the complete geosphere. A much poorer world!

    • Yeah, this is the problem with using broad, sweeping terms like “scientific consensus” and “Global Warming”.

      Actual research papers don’t normally get published unless they’re reviewed by other scientists who specialize in that field. Regardless of what agenda a scientist may have, papers won’t be accepted unless the results support the arguments being made. That said, of course mistakes are made.

      Statements that come out of scientific bodies are not necessarily the same thing. Often they are only reviewed by people within the organization, and yes, many of these organizations do have an agenda. That’s where it gets complicated. Some things read like scientific papers, but they haven’t actually been peer reviewed. Other times scientists who can’t get their work published in a credible scientific journal just go straight to the media, or start their own publication.

      This is just one of the things that makes the issue of Global Warming so hard to figure out. Yes there is a lot of cyclic phenomena at work, but the rise in temperature we’re seeing now cannot be entirely explained by our current understanding of natural cycles. In fact, the only thing that does explain the current trend is the theory that it’s due to human action.

      Again, this is merely a theory, but it’s the best–and only–theory that currently explains all the available evidence. This could indeed change as more evidence is acquired, but that’s where we stand at the moment.

      Regardless, thanks for your comment! It’s nice to see people taking an interest.

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