greatest misconception about science

The Greatest Misconception about Science

greatest misconception about scienceScience exists for the noble reason to find truth. Sometimes the message is dissonant. We don’t want to hear it. Take climate change, for example. The scope of it is so daunting as to incomprehensible. The consequences—the real ones and not the ones blow out of proportion by popular media—are equally as unintelligible. Yet, it is real just the same. But the greatest misconception about science appears more innocuous.

The Greatest Misconception

We like endings to our stories. I remember seeing “The Empire Strikes Back” when it first came out. I remember being so disappointed that it was just an episode in the series, rather than a wrapped-up-with-a-pink-ribbon type of movie. That’s kind of how it is with science.

You see, science rarely closes the book on anything. The greatest misconception about science is that some people think, “Oh, they figured it out. Glad that’s done.” What many don’t realize is that it is the true never-ending story. Science evolves. It is provisional.

If new evidence comes to light to refute past observations (read: egg and cholesterol story), then, science changes course. It’s not a failure to learn you may have been wrong the first time. You learned something, and that is truly wonderful. But now, you’ve learned something new, and that too is truly wonderful.

The Misconception In Action

Here is how the misconception plays out in the wild. Take this bit of tripe from the Toronto Star. The paper has since put a disclaimer on the story that suggested that HPV vaccines are harmful. The paper also thankfully reworded the headline to be less yellow journalism sensational. The problem stems from hangers-on clinging to old and discredited studies about vaccinations.

The same thing is routine practice with the anti-GMO crowd. In each case, individuals are trapped in the greatest misconception about science: that it stands still. Science keeps moving on. They are cases where people hang on to old science and use that as their flag.

Stick with the Tour

The best thing we can all do is accept and appreciate the fact that science learns from itself. It builds upon previous knowledge. It is not afraid to say it was wrong. The greatest misconception about science forgets that knowledge is a living and evolving thing. Failing to follow the path of science is a fool’s occupation. Stick with the tour.

The point of the Science Matters series was to highlight the uphill battle that science and scientists face while trying to pursue knowledge. It is, after all, the greatest good. Our lives are better because of science. And we all have scientists to thank for that. Thank you, Science.

bipartisan science bias

Bipartisan Science Bias

bipartisan science biasAs if misinformation and careless reporting weren’t enough, science must contend with bipartisan science bias. Yes, it exists on both sides of the aisle. The anti-science criticism is appropriate for both liberals and conservatives, according to a study by Ohio State University.

The Scope of Bipartisan Science Bias

Researchers found that both groups engage in anti-science bias if something treads on their political beliefs. The subject varies, but the anti-science bias exists just the same. Liberals reject nuclear energy despite the economic benefits and the support of scientists. Though the study didn’t address it, the same bias applies to GMO, which are safe according to the AMA, AASA, WHO, and the Royal Academy, to name a few.

On the conservative side, evolution and climate change struck similar discords. Of course, the media stokes the fire, creating its own kind of bias. For example, you’d think ant-vaxxers were more prevalent in society, but thankfully are not. And not everyone engages in vigilantism a lá Greenpeace. The media just likes to push our buttons.

The Harm of Motivated Reasoning

This attachment of political views and science is a dangerous component of bipartisan science bias. Emotions become the driving force in the decision-making process. We are losing our ability to view science rationally and unbiased. Everyone loves a good story, but I blame popular media for fanning the flames.

Psychologists call this kind of thinking motivated reasoning. With emotions in play, individuals can justify just about anything. They filter science with a sieve of misinformation, letting the good information flow away. It’s a horrible riff on throwing the baby away with the bathwater.

Because it would be one thing if we were talking about football strategies, but we’re also talking about big issues with grave consequences like fracking, climate change, and food security. (Yes, GMOs are an essential part of the latter.) While we need to consider the stakeholders’ positions, we also have to act with the best knowledge, namely, science—even if we don’t like what it tells us.

The popular media has its selfish motivations for acting as it does. People, however, often forget one of the most basic tenets underlying all science. Until next time. Chris DR
photo credit: Welcome to Wellington via photopin (license)

anti-vaxxers hangers on

The Trouble with Hangers-On

anti-vaxxers hangers onScience has enjoyed an information boon. People are reading about science and learning more. But like other fields, it has also attracted criticism, doubt, and frankly, people on the fringe of facts. One of the most insidious are what I call, the hangers-on.

Defining Hangers-On

Hangers-on are the proverbial loose cannon. They know enough to be dangerous. They understand some basic concepts. However, their knowledge exists in a bubble.

The bubble exists only at the time of the substance of their knowledge and when it was obtained. Unlike science, it does not evolve with new evidence or new information. It stays in this static state.

The hanger-on holds fast onto this bubble of information. If an opposing view threatens it, he will try and mold it into a weapon against that threat. He doesn’t change it; rather he uses it time and time again despite the fact that science marches on.

Examples with the Issues

Several issues fall into the controversial realm for no other reason than the hangers-on. Take the GMO issue.

Anti-GMO advocates use several nonsensical approaches. There’s more wacky talk about conspiracies and cover-ups than a JFK assassination conspiracy believer could ever hope to find. They also use the discredited study by Séralini and colleagues at Caen University in France, as their “proof.”

Never mind the fact that it was riddled with ethical lapses, ‘conflict of interest’ allegations, and conclusions not supported by the data. But it’s the fault of industry pressure,  they cry. Whatever. And George W. Bush is more evil than Stalin, Genghis Khan, and Idi Amin combined. Get over yourselves.

Anti-Vaccination Nonsense

On the surface, the question about the efficacy of vaccinations should be a non-issue. Unfortunately, we have the same situation here: hangers-on clinging to a discredited study.

In this case, the highly prestigious journal, The Lancet, dropped the ball by publishing the tripe by Andrew Wakefield and associates. Again, science and ethics went out the window. Their breaches of ethics involved children.

Despite the more deplorable aspects of this study, anti-vaxxers are the quintessential hangers-on. In the meantime, a measles outbreak brews, whooping cough cases have risen, and countless children are at risk of serious diseases needlessly. All of this for a “scientist” who created an elaborate fraud meant to deceive and destined to harm kids? I don’t have the words.

While sharing knowledge has brought benefits, science has learned a hard lesson. Hey, you guys thought peer review was tough? The court of public opinion is a minefield of fallacies, biases, and misinformation. Oh, and there’s the Internet too, the unwitting accomplice.

I think George Bernard Shaw said it best when he observed,

“Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.” Chris DR
photo credit: Influenza vaccination via photopin (license)

climate change biases

Climate Change Biases

climate change biasesI accept anthropogenic climate change without question. However, as much as I hate to say it, I don’t believe the global community can come to a consensus about fixing the problem. One of the reasons is climate change biases.

Climate Change Biases in Action

One would think that with an issue with such catastrophic consequences that we could come together on a suite of solutions. (Notice that I say suite and not a solution. That would lean toward the perfect solution fallacy realm.) Instead, we have name-calling and vicious bickering that one could almost say we deserve what we get.

Take the latest action by the U.S. Department of Energy to nix funding for the FutureGen 2.0, a $1.65 billion clean coal project in Illinois. I don’t claim to understand all the science behind the project. What is clear is that the DOE and the White House pick their causes. Can anyone say Solyndra, a $535 million “mistake”? Or how about the DOE’s $1.2 billion loan guarantee to SunPower?

The preference for solar power over clean coal shows signs of confirmation bias and anchoring. That latter is the tendency to rely one part of the story when making decisions, in this case, about US action on climate change. It’s not a stretch to conclude that clean coal lost out because it includes, well, coal.

Science-Based Decisions

I don’t have anything against solar power. I think there are some problems that need to be addressed, not the least of which is funding. But the bias doesn’t just exist with coal. The feds have pulled the same act with nuclear power.

Nuclear power offers a no-emissions solution that runs at a 90-percent capacity factor, with a 60-year lifespan. Compare that to a solar plant with a 20-percent capacity factor and a 25-year lifespan. I’m reminded of the Pew Research Center surveys that I wrote about last time.

Only 27 percent of scientists said that science drove policy decisions on clean air and water regulation all or most of the time. Clearly when climate change biases sway decisions on energy supply, the White House is confirming this assessment by scientists.

We live in a time where conforming with our group drives our thinking—even to the point where we reject science. It’s evident in other areas too, like GMOs and vaccines. Both are safe and necessary in today’s society.

Hopefully, research and development will continue with clean coal, especially if it truly has something to offer. In the meantime, we have to contend with the rather loud and obnoxious the pseudoscience and non-science crowds. It’s what Albert Einstein warned us about when he said,

“Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions which differ from that of their social environment.”

Maybe we should have listened.
photo credit: Black-headed gulls arguing on the ice via photopin (license)

science-based decisions

Science-Based Decisions?

science-based decisionsYou may have heard about the recent pair of surveys by the Pew Research Center in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Many articles and blog posts focused on the hot button issues like GMOs and climate change. But the surveys uncovered another disconcerting fact about science-based policy decisions.

Disconnect about Science-Based Decisions

You’d think that issues regarding land use, clean water and air, and food safety would be rooted in science. We take it for granted that science provides the foundation for new drugs and medical treatments. We like to think that.

According to the surveys, scientists feel differently—and these are the people that would know. Here is a disturbing breakdown of the numbers:

  • 58 percent of AAAS scientists believe that is the case with new drugs and medical treatments
  • 46 percent of AAAS scientists believe that is the case with food safety issues
  • 27 percent of AAAS scientists believe that is the case with clean air and water issues
  • 15 percent of AAAS scientists believe that is the case with land use issues

These numbers reveal a gaping disconnect between policy and science input. Every category of issues consists of weighty and complex areas of science. They also represent issues that can have significant impacts on humans. Yet, either the science is being ignored or it’s being cast aside for other non-science reasons.

Faith in Science

I don’t think I have to poll scientists to get to what they believe about science. It is, after all, their life work. If you want to understand why policy and regulations lack science-based decisions, the surveys offer another clue.

When asked whether U.S. scientific achievements are either the best or among the world’s best, an astonishing 54 percent of the general public agreed with that assessment. Compared that figure with the 92 percent of the scientists. Therein lies the real concern.

All kinds of questions emerge. Why distrust science? And if not science, what else do you use to base these important decisions on? Public opinion—about food safety? I’m sorry, but I can’t comprehend or understand that sentiment.

Science Is the Foundation

Of course, the public, i.e., stakeholders, should have their say. However, science-based decisions are imperative. As Galileo reminds us,

“By denying scientific principles, one may maintain any paradox.”

Denying facts doesn’t make them go away. Sure, science deals some very hard blows sometimes. But we must man up and accept them even if they are not the thing we want to hear. As Bill Watterson of Calvin and Hobbes fame puts it,

“It’s not denial. I’m just selective about the reality I accept.”

It’s that selective reality that can bite you in the pants on day. Perhaps that is the origin of the phrase, “I told you so.” Chris DR