What Does Science Tell Us?
Why there’s no such thing as absolute scientific truth but there’s definitely such a thing as the scientific process
I love science. It’s the one thing we humans have invented that enables us to escape occasionally from our near-total inability to deal with reality. Thanks to science we’ve discovered that the universe is unimaginably vast. We’ve discovered the means by which phenotypical traits are passed on to descendants. We’ve learned that we weren’t modeled like plasticine by some invisible magic pixie but rather we evolved, like all life on Earth, from a common ancestor that originated far back in the early years of our planet’s existence.
Science enables us to understand the extraordinary multi-step process by means of which chlorophyll uses captured photons to power the core metabolic processes of plants. Science has enabled us to learn that the apparent solidity of the material things we see all around us is an illusion and that in fact our material world comprises agglomerations of unbelievably tiny atoms that are in turn built from even smaller components — and that this type of material comprises less than 5% of the total mass-energy density of the universe.
We’ve learned that the universe is governed by the speed of light and that far from being deterministic at the very smallest scales, very many phenomena appear probabilistic instead. We’ve learned that mathematics is a far more reliable guide than our intuition, which evolved to deal with far simpler challenges in a very basic way.
Everything we humans now rely on for our daily lives, from smartphones to plastic-wrapped boxes of chicken breasts in the local supermarket, is the result of science. Although 99.9% of people have no idea whatsoever about how any of it works, we’re all avid consumers and if all the fruits of science were suddenly to disappear, 99.999% of humanity would starve within 30 days or less, utterly unable to cope in a non-technological world.
And yet, science isn’t infallible. Science is done by highly flawed human beings. The reason science works is because it’s not predicated solely on authority. No matter how senior, imposing, and bemedaled a scientist may be, if their ideas are wrong or their data incorrectly analyzed, eventually their claims will be discarded in favor of ideas that more closely match what the data seems to be telling us.
The history of science is the history of better and better approximations, many of which often open up entirely new realms that were hitherto unexpected. But science is not handed down engraved on tablets of stone to be accepted at face value. That’s why all the religions in the world have contributed precisely nothing to the advancement of our species while science in the last 500 years has changed the world out of all recognition.
Science has given us anesthetics, antibiotics, vaccines, analgesics, clean water, bridges spanning vast distances, skyscrapers automobiles, airplanes, satellites, LED bulbs, the Internet, and of course the very apotheosis of human achievement: 278 flavors of ice-cream.
Yes, many of the changes science has enabled have been deleterious, but that’s because we humans are stupid and greedy and incapable of imagining even the most blindingly obvious consequences of our actions. It’s not the fault of science per se. Flame can warm a home and cook food; it can also burn a forest and roast an enemy. Science doesn’t determine what we do with inventions and science can’t (so far, at least) mitigate our generic human tendency to be as unpleasant as possible to each other and to everything around us.
Science is also not a destination. It’s not Holy Writ. It’s not infallible wisdom handed down unchanging for all time. Science is a process. It’s a method.
It’s perpetually a work in progress.
And we humans mostly hate that fact. We humans have feeble brains that want simplistic answers to incredibly complex questions. Our brains are essentially pattern-recognition machines and we crave simple patterns that don’t suddenly change on us and make us feel uncomfortable. We hate ambiguity, uncertainty, and doubt.
The problem is that science is all about ambiguity, uncertainty, and doubt. Science is always and forever in search of better explanations than those available yesterday. Worse yet, today’s best explanations will sooner or later be superseded by even better explanations. Science is inherently provisional.
And that’s where the fundamental mismatch between science and human desire arises.
Today we live in a world of endless sensationalism, generated by mass media that relies on constant hyperbole, distortion, and outright fabrication in order to grab fickle eyeballs and thereby monetize them while the going is good. It doesn’t matter that this endless stream of toxic sensationalism is destroying our civilization — it’s damned good business while it lasts!
And so science, like every other aspect of human existence, is pulled into the media maelstrom and regurgitated in utterly distorted form. Study shows coronavirus can survive on glass and metal for 146 billion years! screams the headline. Who’s going to read the details in which it’s mentioned as briefly as possible that the study was really a single carefully-curated sample of viral particles placed onto a specially-prepared sterile surface and then put into an airtight chamber in total darkness, left for 14 days undisturbed, and then taken out and quickly analyzed before the viral particles could be damaged by ordinary light, currents of air, and other environmental factors?
The mass media has been distorting genuine scientific studies for decades, leading ordinary ignorant people into a mire of confusion and contradictory notions.
But if the sensation-addicted mass media was the worst of our troubles, life would be lovely. Unfortunately it’s an inescapable fact that science is conducted by people. Flawed, fallible, self-promoting human beings who far more often than not are well-intentioned but not actually very good at the process of science. Back in 2006 both Nature and Science, the two leading English-language scientific journals, published articles on the fact that at least 50% of all NIH-funded research was garbage. Since then, other studies have shown that more than 75% of studies published in highly reputable peer-revied journals are likewise not worth the paper they’re printed on. As for studies that are published in lesser publications, the percentage of garbage is even higher.
This is not because scientists are mostly duplicitous; it’s because most scientists aren’t actually very good at doing science. Astonishingly, it’s perfectly possible to secure a science-based PhD without taking a single course in experimental design or statistical analysis. Not surprisingly therefore, a great many experiments are hopelessly flawed by inadequate design and inept data analysis. It’s depressingly common to read studies in which the experimental and control groups are so small as to render any result meaningless; it’s equally common to see appallingly basic errors in statistical analysis of modest data sets. Lamentably, most of the SARS-COV2-related studies fall into this category. Most garbage science is a consequence of the fact that few scientists are actually trained to do the business of science adequately.
Some spurious results, however, are the result of what we can charitably call selective presentation of data. Here the scientist ignores data that irritatingly contradicts their hypothesis and “massages” the remaining data to strengthen what is surely the correct conclusion. The most blatant examples of this type of science are discovered because they’re associated with very important research topics; less important studies receive less attention and their duplicity can go undetected for decades. Fleischmann and Pons would likely have escaped embarrassment had their claims not promised universal nuclear power in a jug of water.
There’s yet another complication: much science is funded by central bodies that rely on small groups of senior scientists (known as Study Groups) to determine which grant proposals should be funded and which rejected. To nobody’s surprise, this means that Study Groups tend to approve grant proposals that reflect their own biases and preferences, and reject those that run contrary to the prejudices of those comprising the Study Group.
This is why Craig Venter’s proposal to sequence part of the human genome was roundly rejected and returned to him with the comment that his idea was clearly infeasible. Much to the annoyance of those in the Study Group, Venter published the first sequence of the human genome a mere three weeks later — thus showing that not only was such a thing entirely feasible but also that he was streets ahead of anyone else. Not surprisingly, no one was willing to forgive him this terrible breach of scientific etiquette so he was forced to become a hugely successful businessman by commercializing the fruits of his endeavors.
From these examples, chosen more or less at random from literally thousands of options, it’s apparent that the process of science does not proceed smoothly. Because science is an endeavor done by humans, and because we humans reliably screw up everything we touch, it’s hardly to be imagined that science should uniquely be spared our generic self-defeating incompetence. The beauty of science is that over the longer term the process defeats our incompetence and yields results of immense value.
Unfortunately, few people understand how science works. Most people imagine either a solitary genius handing down incomprehensible Grand Truths engraved on stone tablets and good for all time (Einstein) or edicts issued by People Wearing White Coats Who Know Things.
Either way, ordinary people want a simple story they can sort-of grasp, at least until the next streaming video clip captures their attention. Headlines are accepted without question, and when sometimes headlines contradict each other (as in Caffeine Causes Cancer! followed a decade later by Caffeine Prevents Cancer! — both of which are entirely misleading, but that’s beside the point because newspaper headlines never ever lie) then people just shake their heads in frustration and give up completely. “Can’t trust the experts!” is apparently the best that most people can manage in such circumstances.
But what if we don’t want to be victims of misleading headlines and spurious studies? What if we’re genuinely interested in things of importance and want to sort out what’s potentially valuable from what’s clearly chaff?
Fortunately, once we understand the problems inherent in the process of science we can look for the warning signs. Any single study or paper is of little value; what matters is reproducibility. Have other independent research teams looked at the same thing and replicated the results? Is there a general scientific consensus, based on years of reliable data? If not, then there’s very little point in putting any credence into even the most sensationalist media headline.
A good rule of thumb is: the larger and more impressive-seeming the claim, the stronger the evidence has to be. As Truzzi said many years ago, “extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.”
Unfortunately this is the part nearly everyone leaves out. Astonishing grandiose claims are often accompanied by the flimsiest possible support. Endless media sensationalism actively encourages this kind of thing. Reputations and book deals often rely far too much on attracting attention for what frequently turn out to be totally misleading claims. Who will even notice if, three years from now, that Professor Shoutalot’s groundbreaking study was actually completely wrong? The headlines won’t mention it, the book deal won’t be rescinded, and the radio and TV shows won’t stop wheeling the Professor on as their go-to “expert” for everything remotely connected with whatever it was the original breathtaking sensational paper was supposed to be about.
It’s therefore incumbent on each one of us to self-educate to the point where we can reasonably assess claims promoted in the media and elsewhere. What was the sample size? Was there a control group? Was the study double-blind placebo-controlled and if not then how was some pre-experimental baseline established? Was the data “adjusted” to yield a satisfactory p-score? Were the statistical techniques employed valid for the types of data the experiment produced? How many independent teams have replicated the results? Is this new sensational claim plausibly consistent with what we’re confident is reliable prior knowledge? Does this new theory account for everything we currently know to be true, while also explaining in a testable manner one or more important things the current theories don’t explain?
Unless the study or idea in question is solid across all these various factors we should treat it with skepticism. Even the most illustrious scientists regularly screw things up, especially as they get older and need one more big announcement to justify their reputations, or are younger and desperately seeking tenure, or are middle-aged and hoping for advancement.
Science is a beautiful thing. It’s the only path to truth we’ve ever managed to construct. But it’s done by terribly fallible human beings. We should no more accept the assertions made by media headlines than we should accept the pronouncements of astrologers or Tarot card readers. They’re all in the business of monetizing our ignorance and our credulity.
We don’t need to let them. With just a little effort we can be less ignorant and less credulous, and therefore far less likely to be fooled by highly misleading media reportage and the earnest pronouncements of government experts whose job it is to say whatever the government of the day deems most likely to positively influence opinion polls.
In short: we need to start thinking for ourselves, based on a rational and persistent examination of the evidence. We need to keep two important truths in mind:
Any moron can make an impressive-sounding assertion.
Only good science can show us the nature of reality.