boxing match

Study or Trial; Whatever You Want to Call It

boxing matchYou know that you’re dealing with a person suffering from science starvation when he says study or trial, whatever you want to call it.

It’s like a featherweight coming to a professional boxing match. You’ve thrown the match before the first punch. It’s like not knowing the difference between a hay maker and an upper cut.

Suspicious of Science

I had a discussion about science with a friend of mine. He is admittedly suspicious of science. He believes that all researchers are on the take. Yes, they have to publish to get grant money. Science, after all, isn’t cheap. Yet, he believes that puts them on the same level as used car salesmen. That’s like saying all women are bad drivers. It’s just as stereotypical—and wrong.

I suspect that his suspicion is intertwined with some deep-rooted ideology. That seems to be a common theme with the more contentious issues of our day. And it’s because of this relationship that discussions have descended into arguments. There are no winners in such debates.

Study versus Trial

The fact that he equated study and trial tells me that his position involves emotion rather than fact. They are by no means the same thing. They are not synonymous. As I tried to explain to my learned friend, a study can only draw correlations. It doesn’t determine causes. There are confounders that researchers can try to account for, but there may always be something.

A trial, on the other hand, controls for confounders. There is an adequate random sample of the population. They are randomly assigned into groups, control or treatment. It is only from trials that scientists can make causal statements. And as I also tried to explain, science cannot run trials on all the questions we may have because of ethics. You can’t run a trial on the effect of second-hand smoke on babies without drawing some backlash.

But my friend did not budge on that point. Science, in his eyes, is flawed. Never mind the fact that scientific papers undergo a peer-review. Never mind the fact that other scientists read papers regularly and will gladly point out flawed studies. Never mind the fact that the scientific community is its own check of fraudulent research. Everyone is on the take like one huge conspiracy in the scientific community. The suggestion is laughable to say the least.

Yes, my friend is a true agnostic—except when it comes to his own beliefs. He is one of those people who fly happily in the face of facts. Facts only fuel his fury however misplaced it is on the waves of ignorance. But he’s probably relishing the fact that he was right, while I too relish the fact that I know he was wrong. At least I know which one is indeed true. Chris DR
photo credit: Boxing cake via photopin (license)


We All Need More Science

scienceI wrote earlier about the irresponsible journalism of the Toronto Star. One quote from the columnist, Heather Mallick’s, statement about the original story rattled my cage. She said, “I’ve been trying to teach myself about statistics and science.” If this wasn’t a serious story, I’d think that quote was a punch line in a blonde joke. It proves my point: we all need more science.

More Science to Get at the Facts

Understanding science goes a long way toward helping you filter out the crap with popular media. Get your shovel because a lot of so-called science reporters don’t get it.

To the plea for more science, I believe all reporters should take a basic statistics class. And that doesn’t just apply to science stories. These days, stats infiltrate everything. Have you listened to the commentary during a football game? Or a baseball game? You’ll soon learn what weather, temperature, and humidity work best for the pitcher. And you’ll know how many rushing yards a running back averages per game by stadium, if it’s outdoor or indoor.

We need more science and statistics to understand the difference between causation and correlation. This is where journalists frequently stumble. Yes, the meaning is nuanced, but that doesn’t give license to misreporting. The verbiage walks a fine line between the two.

As a wacky example, you could say that having a beard is linked to prostate cancer. Or wearing dresses is associated with breast cancer. You get the point. They blur the definition of correlations to imply something causes another thing to happen.

The Value of Understanding

More science knowledge can help you navigate the media better, along with the stories they publish. You can make the logical connections—or not—between what is reported and what is in fact, true. You’ve probably heard the adage about not believing everything you read on the internet. The same advice applies to “news stories.”

Anyone can write a science news story. It’s another thing entirely to be able to understand what you’re writing and its implications. More science can help you. For the journalists, it begins with a responsible headline and not one that sensationalizes for the sake of selling newspapers or generating ad revenue. It’s called integrity. Chris DR

photo credit: 105070 via photopin (license)

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.