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The Truth About Science

  • ScientificMethod

In today's world, when we say "science" we generally think of men and women in white coats, sitting in a lab, looking through microscopes and pouring liquids into beakers and making calculations on a computer.  Whatever results they come up with are facts and to be shared with all as truths in how we should live our lives and what decisions we should make. After all, these scientists went through rigorous training in academies of higher learning. Unfortunately, that's not always true and that's not science.

"Science" has become a term that no longer abides by its original parameters and is used loosely to support whatever ideology we have a bias towards. This is especially true when it comes to science that looks at human health, medicine, and nutrition. Isn't it disappointing that what is considered healthy one day is considered unhealthy the next? That a prescription drug or medical procedure once considered safe and effective is found out to be harming or killing large amounts of people?

It's even worse when you share information with someone that contradicts a popular "scientific" opinion and you're met with "citation please?".  While citations are important since they provide us with some form of scientific documentation to back up our claims, it's also important to remember that many claims are based on research that you have to piece together, maybe do some math, some critical thinking, and then a conclusion. Not EVERY claim was literally put into a study. That's not how reality or science works and so to hide behind the "citations please" as the only go-to response to new or counter-information only holds back progress and intellectual honesty. 

So what is science?

Science is a method, not a bunch of facts.

Science is saying, "Huh. I have this idea that I think might be true. I will try to devise an experiment that will provide support for its truth or refute it.

“But, because I know there are things like confirmation bias, I will use some tricks like ‘control groups’ and ‘double-blind testing’ to help root out my errors. I will design my experiment so that it can be repeated for verification by anybody else who has the knowledge and experience. I will record findings carefully so that I can see if the results are statistically significant or random variation.

“I’ll also assume that my findings are perpetually tentative. Someone at some later point may come up with an even better experiment that can disprove mine.

“If I think I’ve discovered something important, I’ll double-check my results, write them up clearly, and send them to a journal. The journal will have editors who are also scientists, and they will pass out my findings anonymously to 2–3 other scientists who work in that field, and they’ll double-check my math and look over my experiment design. I won’t know what 2–3 scientists will be looking at my work, and they won’t know who I am, and that will help prevent bias.

“If they find problems, they’ll advise the editor to reject it for publication. If they see small problems, they may send the paper back and ask me to include other bits of data. Once they’re happy, the editor will publish it, so that everybody in the world who can access that journal can see it and point out problems, or do new experiments.”

That’s science, as I understand it. The RESULTS might involve fabricated facts or errors, as there’s no guarantees against that, but the PROCESS is what we talk about when we talk about science. Best of all, if there are errors or falsehoods, they tend to get overturned in the long-run, when others can’t replicate the results.

So, science isn’t necessarily always CORRECT, but it is self-correcting. Fabrications tend to get scrubbed out by the process—not perfectly, mind you, but it’s more likely to be free of fabrications than something that doesn’t go through that process.

Now here's the rub. The scientific method described above is NOT strictly followed when it comes to studies concerning human health, medicine, and nutrition. These studies are called epidemiological studies. They are based on surveys and observations primarily and they CANNOT DETERMINE CAUSATION, meaning they cannot prove something causes another thing, where as the true scientific method can. Keep all this in mind when there's a discussion over the results of a scientific study concerning health or nutrition and someone cries, "correlation does not equal causation". This means that if a study shows a high correlation that A leads to B, it is not a claim that it CAUSES B, only that there's a high probability that there's a connection between the two. Epidemiological studies can only show correlation, which means we will NEVER find CAUSATION and should remember that. No epidemiological study will PROVE one's position on how to eat, how to exercise, or what medicine is safe and effective.  

This doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of looking into how each individual study is designed, how the statistics were calculated or possibly manipulated, how and who funds a study and the possible conflict of interests, and the political motivation for a study to find a particular result or not. Even worse, many studies that show undesirable results are often thrown out and not published in favor of studies that only support a desirable result!

With all that's been said here, it's important to teach ourselves and our children what SCIENCE is designed to be; a fallible method designed to help us interpret our reality and, hopefully, make our lives a little better...but take it with a huge grain of salt.

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