Armchair scientists in the information age

This a post about scientific literacy, and it’s in response to a rash of climate change skeptics posting on this site. When I say scientific literacy, what I mean is the average person’s ability to locate, understand, and use scientific research.

What I find truly amazing is the ability of an average person to say, “The guy with the PhD who’s dedicated his entire life to studying a particular field and been trained to do so? That guy is totally wrong because I read a book and visited a website that said so.” People in this country have an amazing propensity to completely dismiss the findings of experts. It’s my opinion that this is because, now more than ever, people have access to information and data that they never had in previous decades. And while this is can be a good thing, as of right now it’s terrible because the average American doesn’t have the scientific literacy to draw any legitimate conclusions from it.

Science in this country is suffering. Fewer and fewer people are going into the field, and Americans are usually at the bottom of the list when it comes to math and science comprehension among developed nations. Where the problem lies is that science is a complicated, lengthy process, and scientific studies are even more complicated. If you gave the average American raw, primary data from a scientific study, they wouldn’t know what to make of it. They wouldn’t know how to qualitatively or quantitatively analyze the data–how many Americans do you think understand what a linear regression is? Or a p-value. Or an odds ratio? Or attributable risk? Probably very, very few. How many people understand what a bias truly is, or a confounding variable? Again, probably very, very few.

So what ends up happening? Scientific research is summarized by some third party for public consumption. And that, my friends, is the true danger, because that’s where personal and political agendas come into play. It’s great that you read an article that gave the results of a study. But how was the data collected? How was the sample population obtained? How was the data analyzed? How does this evidence compare to other evidence?

I’ll give you a prime example, one that doesn’t involve climate change. I live in Portland, OR, and we recently had to vote on whether or not to fluoridate our water supply. Many people against it cite a study done that linked one of the chemicals used to deliver the fluoride with increased lead levels in children. Well that sounds pretty bad, you might say. After all, who wants that for our children? Well, what if I told you that by and large, the two largest sources of lead in the environment were the air and the soil? The problem then becomes this: how did the original study account for this? Unless they shut all the children indoors and only pumped in filtered air, there was no way to control for lead exposure through air and soil, two highly variable factors.

I’m not trying to say that people should never question the results of a scientific study or a generally accepted principle. Questioning things is, after all, the basis of the scientific process and necessary for improvement. Question whether climate change is a man-made phenomenon all you want. What I DO have a problem with is someone with zero training or experience evaluating research data making conclusive statements about a topic. We have people who are trained to do that much better than you can, so just let them do their jobs.

And I’m picking on climate change skeptics for a reason: there’s a lot at stake. Climate change has the potential to drastically change all life on this planet, so if you’re going to argue that it doesn’t exist, you better have some quality evidence, and you better damn well pour over it with an objective fine-tooth comb. You can’t just shrug and say, “Oops, I guess my data was bad,” or “Uh oh, turns out the research was done incorrectly.”

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2 thoughts on “Armchair scientists in the information age

  1. I agree with you, to a point. I think some of this boils down to common sense. And lack of common sense is the problem with America. I’ve ranted on this (deleted) a time or two, wondering how it is we validate the knowledge of unlearned people who head the science committee in Congress, or people who write the articles of which you speak. Common sense will lose every time when it comes to supporting a personal view, no matter how asinine that personal view is.

    While the book was only a ‘thought experiment’, I latched on this quote from Scott Adams’ “God’s Debris” because I believe it sums up much of these problems nicely: “The human mind is a delusion generator, not a window to truth.” People don’t want the truth, especially truths that inconvenience them or upset the balance of the status quo (that’s one of my favorite phrases, by the way). Global Climate change upsets too much. Evolution upsets too much. And because they are upsetting the balance, people will do what they will do to protect what they perceive is a threat to everything they have believed.

    On the point of lack of understanding of science, I don’t believe that is the place of most of us. I do believe, however, that we should be more ready to trust the people who are proven in their fields. I hold stock in what Stephen Hawking or Neil Tyson says. Why? Because they know more than I and because they have been validated by their peers and their works. It’s why, without knowing the exact math behind such things as M-Theory or string theory or the like, I’m willing to trust the potential validity of the theory because the math is often right. Should I choose to learn it, I will, but I’m not a mathematician or scientist by choice; I prefer the arts over math. I don’t think we can expect people to know all the ends and outs of the sciences – how to qualitatively or quantitatively analyze data; p-values; odds ratios; attributable risks . I do believe that should expect people to be more prudent and critical in their thinking when concluding what research is valid and what research is not.

    On another note, science sounds a lot like Project Management…

    My hats off to you. Another brilliant explanation! This is pretty awesome.

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