Posts Tagged Knowledge

How to spot the cuckoos of science

The cuckoo is infamous for two things; regularly jumping out of clocks and laying its eggs in other bird’s nests. These cuckoo chicks when born sometimes even try to push the other eggs out of the nest before stealing the attention and food of the mother. This situation isn’t a unique one in either nature or our society, there are limited resources in this world and in this time of economic recovery and budget cuts there’s even less to go around. Ensuring that the right people get the allocation they need is vital however our society is plagued with pseudo-science, everywhere we look we can see adverts and advocates claiming ‘scientific’ proof for whatever it is they’re selling. This is done to add some cloak of authority to whatever is being said and it’s a dangerous abuse of trust that leads people to distrust real science. So how do we sort the snake-oil salesmen from the pharmacist, the nutritionist from the dietitian? In short, how can we detect the cuckoos of science?

Without a background in the field it is difficult for anybody to tell if what they are hearing is correct. This is true for all of us; everybody is ignorant of far more than they know. But you don’t have to run off and get a PhD in a subject to determine the truth. There are some tell tale arguments that people use when pretending something is science.

  • You can’t prove me wrong!

Frequently proponents of ideas such as intelligent design cite the fact that they have not been proved wrong as some sort of evidence for their ideas veracity. In arguments on the subject the supporters will often make statements along the lines of “well you can’t prove it’s not true so I’m going to keep believing it”. This is flawed logic. If we assumed that things were true until we proved them wrong we would have to believe in far more than we disbelieved. You can’t prove me wrong that there are invisible, intangible pixies whispering in my ear that if I don’t jump 100 times a day they will pull my pants down in public so I should do it right? Of course not! That’s not to say that we disbelieve everything until its proven correct either, if there is no evidence for or against something then it is an unknown. Something is unknown until there is evidence for it (or evidence to show it is not possible). Remember this, if somebody is claiming to know something that is unknown or unknowable then their claim has no evidence, as such it is not science.

  • It’s been around for ages.

This argument I’ve always found particularly odd. People often claim that the older something is the more valid it must be. There is perhaps a grain of truth to this if a method is old then it must work to some respect for it to be used for all that time, but that doesn’t mean that a better and newer method doesn’t exist. Often with this people claim “science changes its mind all the time”. No, science adjusts its views based on what’s observed and progresses. If a text book is different to a text book from four years ago it’s a good thing, the latest will be more up to date and have more accurate information. Ideas such as herbal medicine and fundamentalist religion often tout how long their practices have been about as if that were evidence for their truth. Be particularly wary of this when it comes to medicine, when people claim that such-and-such medicine has been used to great effect for thousands of years ask them why it is that it is not used in real medicine. The answer may be something along the lines of “big pharma just want to make money and so make synthetic poisons”. If you ever hear any conspiracy crap like that just walk away, anything that works as a medicine is investigated thoroughly over years of intensive study. If it works it’s called “medicine”, if it doesn’t it’s called “not medicine”. There is no such thing as “alternative medicine”.

  • It’s 100% natural.

Alternative medicines and fashionable diets are particular perpetrators of this statement. There is an idea that if something is natural it is better and if something is manmade or synthetic then it must be poison. This fails to take into account that most medicines are natural! Whether a chemical is synthesised by a plant as a byproduct of its biology or in a lab with beakers and test tubes as long as it is the same chemical it will do the same thing. The advantage of synthesising medicines in the lab is that you get just the medicine you need. A prime example is aspirin, derived from willow bark it is an effective analgesic. Eating the willow bark by itself is likely to cause you to throw up. If you’re still not entirely convinced just ask yourself this; if natural, unprocessed material straight from Mother Earth was all we needed then why do we have so much disease? Why weren’t hunter gather societies healthier than those of today?

There are many other signs to look for that I will probably go into more in later posts. Key things that I look for are the credentials of the proponent of an idea (remember not everyone who calls themselves a doctor ever got an MD or PhD) and their agenda (are they pushing religion? A product they are selling?). It is important for us all to remain vigilant towards those who would deceive us to either get our money or take funding from worthwhile causes. Beyond the economy is it really good for our health if we let medicine that is unproven or proven not to work into our health service? Or that we teach religious views on the origin of our species over what we have evidence for?

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What the ruddy hell is this ‘science’ thing anyway?

First things first I need to declare that I am indeed one of those long haired, lab coat wearing boffins known as a scientist. I have always been a scientist even before I actually got to wear the coat. From a very young age I wanted to know things, I wanted to figure things out and I wanted to use that knowledge to build wicked stuff (I’ve still not entirely fulfilled my childhood dream of building my own spaceship but we’ll see…). I do accept however that I am in the minority. Most people don’t like studying science whether it’s because they find it hard or boring or perhaps just have a penchant for something else. But there is a problem with this that I have come to notice over my (admittedly short) career, whilst its absolutely fine if people don’t want to be scientists most people don’t even know what science is. And that as we shall see is like being a sailor whose doesn’t recognise the water beneath him…

A typical scientist at work

It should be self evident to anyone reading this blog that we live in a technologically developed world. I’m touching a variety of pressure sensors that are converting that pattern into a digital code that is then represented on my screen as words and images. That code can be distributed on the interwebz for all to enjoy. Our lives are an expression of an ocean of knowledge that has been painstakingly gathered and built upon over thousands of years. There’s little I can point to in my life or the lives of anyone I know that hasn’t been affected by science and technology. This brings us neatly to our first question “what’s science and whose technology?”

The broad definition of science that most people might say is that it is a process of gathering facts about the world. A more accurate definition though would be that science uses empirical reasoning to build predictive models about the world; it’s all about model building. Empirical reasoning in science simply put goes observation – hypothesis – experimentation – conclude. We observe natural phenomenon, we develop a hypothesis about how it occurs (what in colloquial terms may be called a ‘theory’ or ‘idea’), we then test this hypothesis and from that we make a conclusion. Technology is the application of the understanding drawn from these models. We build shiny machines and funny sounding chemicals that run on the principles we have discovered to perform tasks that we find desirable.

What makes science so different? Sometimes in life truths are rather unpalatable for us humans. Whether it’s finding out that the Earth doesn’t revolve around us, that we are indeed related to other animals or that yes our bum does look big in this there is a plethora of things about the world that many might not like. But whether or not you like an answer has no veracity on its truth. Whilst this seems obvious it’s a statement I often see disregarded; just watch Fox News or read the Daily Mail and you’re bound to be bombarded with ideas like climate change is a conspiracy, vaccines cause disease and that its only ‘fair’ to teach fundamentalist religion in school science classes as a matter of ‘balance’.

In science no answer, no matter how devastating to our world view, is disregarded or accepted on the basis of what it is. The only reason to accept anything in science is that it has evidence for it no matter what it is. Science isn’t about what people think or what people reckon based on personal experience or anecdotes they’ve read about, it is about demonstrable truth through good, repeatable unbiased experimentation. This doesn’t mean that I go and do some experiments then just tell you the answer, other scientists will repeat my work over and over to see if the results are correct, to see if my method was flawed or to see if the results I obtained do not match the conclusions I have made. Nobody’s word is taken as gospel in the scientific community, something is considered to be true only when it has been demonstrated time and again by other experts in the field. This is the peer review process and I will go into it in more detail in another post.

So why is it important that everybody understands how science works? We all rely on the fruits of its labour to survive and flourish; in the developed world we live in a Garden of Eden where we suffer little threat from parasites, predators, natural disasters and where food and water are plentiful. All this is a product of science and technology but don’t take it as a constant! There are people in this world who have little interest in truth, merely agenda. It is because of these people that we all must have a fair understanding of how science works, if we don’t then how can we know what to do about issues such as climate change, pandemics and so on? A scientifically illiterate person has no immunity to the bullshit and propaganda that surround us like wolves beyond the campfire. How can the public know whether it’s right to teach evolution or creationism? To vaccinate or not? These are issues that I will address in further depth later on, until then I hope I’ve sparked a curiosity and shed a little more light on what exactly this ruddy ‘science’ thing actually is.

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