A while ago, I started following someone on social media.
They were a scientist of some sort and had a knack for explaining quirky things about the world.
It was fun and educational.
I stopped following them after they posted something like this:
Boom, instant unfollow.
I didn’t stop because I have a strong stance on the origins of The Virus. I stopped because they lost all credibility as a scientific thinker, let alone a science communicator.
Based on how everyone else lapped up the post, I think I’m in the minority here.
There’s a lesson in here. If you get confused when people ignore science, it’s not (necessarily) because they’re dumb or fanatical.
Some of the folks who disagree with you are geniuses. You don’t understand your position until you understand theirs. And, no, writing them off as ‘crazy’ or ‘eccentric’ isn’t an answer. That might explain where their position comes from, (but probably not,) not what their position is.
Here’s why smart people argue against The Science.
Like ‘love’, science has (too?) many meanings. Conflating them is a disaster for science’s credibility, so let’s separate a few of the meanings.
If you think in terms of science’s brand, it’s all the noble pursuit of objective truth. That’s not how it works in real life, though.
I’m going to talk about four different types of science. This is still an oversimplification (analytical chemistry doesn’t fit well with these scheme, for example) but it highlights something important.
I’ll call them A-Science through D-Science, because there’s a rank to them. A beats B which beats C which beats D.
A-Science: The Settled Science.
A great example of this is the theory of evolution. Yeah, there are unanswered questions in the field, but the basic premise has centuries of solid and diverse evidence supporting it.
If you think the only proof of evolution comes from the fossil record, you’re wrong. The sheer variety of evidence is what makes it so compelling. Everything from DNA sequences to how cells work to the different designs of eyeballs all point in the same direction.
As biologists like to say thanks to Dobzhansky, nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.
That’s no exaggeration. There’s no organism, cell, ecosystem or protein where evolution isn’t the best (and often, only) explanation.
Can the Settled Science be wrong? It can be wrong about certain details. Newtonian gravity was wrong about how fast gravity propagates, but apples and planets still move because of the same force.
If you want to question Settled Science, you need a lot of data and a great explanation for why the current theory looks right but isn’t.
That’s not easy. It’s why, if you pull it off, history will immortalise your name.
B-Science: The Frontier Science.
The world has many unanswered questions. Scientists research and experiment at the cutting edge of our understanding.
They bring back nuggets of insight, which could easily be wrong.
At best, they’re incomplete.
Any paper on how antidepressants work falls into this category. We know that some drugs counteract depression in some people. We don’t know how they work or why they make depression worse in some folks.
There are many ideas, many promising lines of enquiry, but we don’t know.
It’s not as if no one knows anything.
But we don’t know enough to confidently create a new antidepressant.
The trap with this is you can find “a study” to prove just about anything. I remember looking into the science of whether saturated fats are good or bad for you. I don’t know what the current state is, but I found iron-clad evidence on both sides.
There were dozens of meta-studies, multidisciplinary studies, those studies where they follow people around for decades and see who stays healthy… about half of them found one answer; the others, the other.
If your instinct is “well, OBVIOUSLY some of those studies were flawed and, like, funded by Big Beef or whatever!!!” then you don’t understand how science works. A dozen papers – even a dozen of the best papers in the world – tell you approximately nothing that isn’t obvious already.
To turn Frontier Science into Settled Science, you need more than mere evidence. You need to attack the evidence, the hypotheses and the interpretations from every possible angle.
You need to do this for years, just in case you overlooked something.
That’s why Settled Science is so formidable: it has endured the most scathing and relentless of counterattacks, and emerged stronger for it.
There are no shortcuts here. This process takes time.
By the way…
I’m telling you not to believe any isolated study. That’s not a licence to ignore any inconvenient research. If you wait for the science to be settled before you act on it, you’ll never get out of bed.
So… what’s the answer?
Believe Frontier Science or don’t?
If you expect an easy and definitive answer to that, you really don’t get science. You can’t do science without thinking deeply, honestly considering alternatives and considering all the evidence based on its merits.
C-Science: The Opinions of Scientists.
Domain experts know a lot more about their topic than you do.
They know even more than they realise they do. After years of practicing and researching, they develop good instincts.
That makes their opinions more valuable than average.
This, of course, raises the question: just how valuable is the average opinion?
Think about it: when Einstein said, “God doesn’t play dice with the universe”, he wasn’t delivering proof against quantum uncertainty. He was expressing an opinion.
To which the scientific community said, “sure, but our experiments say otherwise, so shut your trap”.
Even Einstein couldn’t get away with undefended opinions in physics.
D-Science: Scientists Making Manure Up.
It turns out that inhaling carcinogenic smoke is bad for you. We can probably file than one under Settled Science.
There was a time when it was Frontier Science, though. A flood of data showed that smokers developed lung cancer at absurdly higher rates than non-smokers.
Scientists working for the tobacco companies found all sorts of ways to interpret that. My favourite is that people with lung cancer are unconsciously drawn to the soothing effects of tobacco. A cute theory, but that’s not the case. If that were true, new smokers would have higher rates of lung cancer than non-smokers.
Sometimes scientists make things up. They might do it for the money, for the status, for ideology – who knows? Sometimes they just speak off the cuff, not realising that others think they’re talking from evidence.
Science’s strength is that it reveals these lies for what they are eventually.
It doesn’t do that instantly though.
Again, real science takes time.
Because people on both sides use the term differently.
With these differences come different expectations.
Biologist: “Evolution is a scientific fact.” (A-Science)
Creationist: “You say that, but science can be wrong about things – even scientists admit that. Some of you might even be lying about your experiments for grant money. You’re only human, after all.” (B-Science, D-Science)
Sorry, Creationist, but you’re arguing on the wrong level here. Just because science is unsure about the frontier, that doesn’t mean it’s unsure about everything.
You need a new theory – one that does a better job of fitting the evidence than evolution does. Pasting a shrug emoji into the conversation isn’t enough at this level.
Let’s look at another:
Scientist: “You can’t change the composition of the atmosphere without changing the climate.” (A-Science)
Sceptic: “Yeah but what does that mean in practice? Could the changes be minor or even beneficial?”
Scientist: “Not likely. I mean, randomly changing your blood pH might be beneficial but it probably won’t be. According to our models, we’re in for more extreme weather over the coming decades.” (B-Science)
Sceptic: “Who comes up with these models? If it’s anything like the models economists use, they’re probably wrong anyway. Besides, I read a paper that says all that is overblown fear.” (B-Science)
Scientist: “It’s too big a risk to do nothing. We need to cut emissions immediately.” (C-Science)
Sceptic: “Or what?”
Scientist: “Or humanity is facing extinction.” (D-Science)
Oh, how easily you can slip from arguing from a place of truth.
It’s easy to argue against climate change wiping out all humans. The worst case is a collapse of civilisation. That’s bad, yes, but it’s not extinction.
So someone might question that last point.
But then a science-brand thinker chimes in and says, what, you’re suddenly smarter than science, the purveyor of all truth?
Then the sceptic says that’s stupid, which it is. Science isn’t making that claim, only a scientist is. If both sides conflate those two, it becomes a weird argument that goes nowhere.
Back to the origins of The Virus:
Scientists (and even science enthusiasts, and even politicians sharing science-based advice) need to be very careful when they communicate. Talking with certainly implies the science is settled. If you turn out to be wrong, it damages science’s credibility.
This person could have said: “in my opinion, The Virus probably came from an animal, not a lab. But, hey, I don’t actually have any proof – I’m just going off a hunch and what’s happened before.”
Instead, they took their Opinion and treated it like Settled Science.
They took C-Science and passed it off as A-Science, skipping over a lot of necessary rigour.
If the folks on Team Science conflate all the different levels here, then you can’t blame the other side for doing the same.
Oh, and speaking of The Virus?
There’s no Settled Science on a new phenomenon. There can’t be. The countermeasures that emerged in early 2020 were, at best, C-Science. The best anyone could say is, in similar situations, we’d do this. Some of it was D-Science too, because that’s human nature. Demand immediate answers and you’ll get them, whether they’re right or not.
Filter science through politics and policy, and you get something else.
Since then, we’ve gathered a lot of data. We’re exploring the Frontier of it. Like so many areas of life, the best we have is B-Science. It’s much better than nothing, but it’s not above questioning.
But even as flawed as B-Science is, how much of it informs our leaders? Does the best evidence actually tell us to quarantine the healthy, not just the sick? Does it tell us the only defence against The Virus is to give everyone the jab?
A hallmark of Frontier Science is that it changes fast. Apart from flip-flopping over masks, the policies have barely changed. They started as best guesses – does the data show they were the right ones?
If so, we’ve been weirdly lucky.
Either way, this is why smart people argue against “the science”. Outside the islands of Settled Science, it’s a confusing swamp with no clear ways forward. Yes, science is the best way through that swamp, but only because it tries every path, including the wrong ones.
Don’t underestimate the Swamp of Confusion. You don’t know what the truth is. Newton looked around the universe and said, “huh, maybe the force that makes apples fall is the same force that moves planets across the sky”. He also looked for occult messages hidden in the Bible.
This isn’t because he was a scientist with a few odd beliefs. Occultism and gravitation were both equally improbable. If you think one is ‘obviously’ more likely than the other, than you’re thinking with: (a) the benefit of hindsight, and (b) in terms of science’s brand, not in terms of science.
You’re not smarter than Newton. You can’t see 200 years into the future and know what they’ll say about the early-twenty-first. The Swamp of Confusion surrounds you in almost every direction and almost to the horizon. Most of your correct beliefs, the ones outside Settled Science, come from you being lucky, not smart.
Some folks take this as permission to believe whatever they want, evidence be damned.
That’s obviously wrong – and obviously a problem.
The solution isn’t to elevate all science to Settled Science. To do so would violate the very heart of it. Treating opinions as fact is anti-science. Treating murky data as unquestionable truth is anti-science. Those are the exact mistakes the old enemies of Truth made, so don’t make them again.
Anyway, I’ve touched on at least three hot-button issues here.
Some of you are twitching with anger right now.
Others feel that strange mix of frustration and validation, when you hear someone put your manure-like situation into words.
I won’t list what all the others might feel, as that list would encompass all of human experience.
Either way, you could probably use a chill out now.
Sign up for a Neural Reset and book yourself in:
You must log in to post a comment.
Pingback: When the Nobel Prize makes me throw up a little - Guided Thought | William Batten
Pingback: Til you run out of cake and eat it too - Guided Thought | William Batten
Pingback: Time lapse of a communications disaster - Guided Thought | William Batten