The Pilot is again asking for guest editorials, so I decided to send one on the poor quality of current science and the reporting of it by the press. Unsurprisingly, they weren’t interested.
So, here is is
I have been in love with science since I was seven years old, but I chose to make a career in health care and to follow science out of love, which is what ‘amateur’ means.
Now, sixty-five years later, at least as it is reported to the public, science is breaking my heart. It’s much like returning to your hometown to find that your first great love is now an addict, selling herself on the street for her next fix. Something has gone terribly wrong.
It’s not just an intellectual disappointment. In this increasingly complex world, public policy is often driven by the public’s perception of science, and that has seen a diminishing connection with reality.
Much of it is simply intellectual laziness on the part of those who bring science to the public. Press reports on science commonly confuse correlation with causation. If A and B occur together, it may be that A caused B but it could as easily be that B caused A, or both A and B were caused by some other factor, or it could be simply coincidence. Correlation can be a starting point in investigations, but it should never be presumed to proof of cause, yet most articles on science report it as such.
Another problem is reliance on authority or consensus. Physicist Richard P. Feynman warned that progress in science begins with the belief in the ignorance of experts.
For forty years, experts told us that eating foods containing cholesterol was the cause of high cholesterol in the blood, and there was hardly any disagreement with that consensus. But it was never true, and low fat diets doctors prescribed turned out to be a large contributor to the rise in type two diabetes.
A more insidious problem is the corruption of science by politics. Researchers no longer rely on university salaries for their sole income, they are dependent on research grants, and those who provide the grants, whether government or private, have an agenda. We would like to believe scientists are incorruptible, and most probably are, but the funding goes to those who support the agenda.
It is the duty of amateurs to hold the experts, and those who report on science, to a high standard of intellectual rigor, as too much of the scientific community has been compromised by the grant system.
The basis for that rigor was best explained by Dr Feynman, who described the process by which science advances, We start with a guess at how things work, then we compute the consequences of that guess, and test the results against reality. Feynman asserted that “It doesn’t make any difference how beautiful your guess is, it doesn’t make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is. If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong.”
And that’s all there is to it. It doesn’t matter if you work for NASA, or the CDC, or of you have a stack of Nobel prizes, if your theory doesn’t match with experiment, it is wrong. It is not easy to discard a theory that has popular support, but that is the standard to which scientists must be held, by their peers, and by the public.
One of the ways scientists are kept honest is for other investigators to confirm their results independently, but that isn’t possible if researchers withhold their data and methods from other investigators. Any study in which the data and methods are not made public should be suspect.
We can’t rely totally on the scientists themselves. Review of research by peers is supposed to provide a check, but those peers are seeking grants from the same sponsors with the same agenda as the papers they review. Review by researchers from other fields, and by amateurs, is needed.
Editors who present science to the public cannot allow themselves to become cheerleaders for the consensus. They must seek out and include the input of skeptics but ultimately, we must all be better consumers of science reporting.
But when the press asks no questions and the experts look the other way, it is up to the amateurs to cry foul.