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Featured Problem with science today and the war on reason

  1. Feb 1, 2017 #1


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  3. Feb 1, 2017 #2
  4. Feb 1, 2017 #3


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    The "scicomm" effect may be a contributing factor to people being less willing to accept science, but I don't think it's completely at fault.

    I think you have to go deeper and look at phenomena like confirmation bias. A reasonable person who is willing to be swayed by the balance of evidence will consider details behind scicomm statements. A person with a predetermined position will either comb through details for weaknesses, or invent "possible" details if the statements do not agree with said position. If the statement supports his or her predetermined position, that person is likely to ignore the details completely.

    I think there's also the "boy cried wolf" factor. The damage that's done from scandals like that autism-vaccine fraud is enormous. Even when the truth of the matter comes out that the paper was completely wrong, you still end up with a decrease in the level of trust that the public affords to scientific institutions.

    Other factors:
    - growing distrust of authority in general
    - exposure to mass commercial media makes people skeptical of just about everything they hear
    - binary vs spectral conditions: whether you accept creation or not is reasonably black and white, with climate change there are different positions: the climate isn't changing at all, the climate is changing, but humans aren't at fault, the climate is changing and humans are part of the problem, the climate is changing and carbon emission from human activities is the primary reason, etc.
  5. Feb 5, 2017 #4


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    I think scientists themselves, at least the ones that go in for pop science books and TV specials (Brian Greene is my go to example for this, because of the number of threads in the physics forums here that have been based on misconceptions a lay person has gotten from one of his books or shows) are partly to blame, by not carefully distinguishing varying levels of confidence in different parts of science. Greene, for example, will talk about way-out speculations or extrapolations of quantum physics (such as saying that QM says there is some small probability that you can teleport through a wall) the same way he talks about results with strong experimental confirmation (such as the behavior of individual qubits in quantum computing). It's natural enough for the audience to think that Science is telling them the first is just as well confirmed as the second.

    In short, scientists who do popularizations often succumb to the temptation to portray science as an Authority, instead of as a tool for everyone to use to develop their own independent understanding. And then, when the Authority ends up saying things that turn out to be wrong, people flip to the other extreme and don't believe anything scientists say.
  6. Feb 20, 2017 #5
    Today's Vermont Edition (local public radio talk show) was a discussion about the public perception of science. I only caught about half of it live, but I'll plan on listening to the entire show soon. I thought the discussion was good. You can listen to the program here.
  7. Feb 21, 2017 #6


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  8. Feb 25, 2017 #7
    I see a lot of people resisting credible scientific claims because of two related reasons.

    1. They toss the basket of apples because a few went bad. There is bad science out there and studies that are fraudulent, poorly designed or political. Some even get big media attention. When finally debunked this creates a skepticism and distrust in the viewer next time they read a headline. I just came across this article which doesn't help either Most scientists 'can't replicate studies by their peers'.

    2. Science is changing and improving all the time, but people see this aspect of science as negative. One day eggs are bad for you, the next they are good etc. One day we understand gravity the next is a headline saying maybe we got it all wrong etc. This leads some people to doubt everything categorically. Or able to pick and choose and then point to a case when science was wrong in the past and corrected itself later.

    This is spot on. Some people see scientific claims as an arrogance and resist the presentation of authority. You will see these people refer to science as a dogma or religion.

    Science educators and communicators have a massive task in front of them because as we've seen with some cabinet picks it doesn't matter what the scientists think if the general public isn't on board.
    Last edited: Feb 25, 2017
  9. Feb 25, 2017 #8


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    I think this is an example of scientists miscommunicating with the public. In the example of eggs, what happened was not that we had a valid scientific theory that said eggs were bad for you, and then we discovered that that theory was incomplete and a more complete theory said eggs were good for you after all. In other words, it was not anything like, for example, the transition from Newtonian physics to relativity. We never had a scientific theory that said eggs were bad for you in the first place. What we had was a highly heuristic guess based on one very incomplete understanding of how human metabolism worked, which was replaced by another highly heuristic guess based on another very incomplete understanding of how human metabolism worked. Neither guess was supported by controlled experiments, and neither guess had very strong statistical backing.

    Yet when scientists said "eggs are bad for you", they presented it as Scientific Fact, and the public believed them. But Scientific Fact isn't supposed to change; you're only supposed to use that kind of strong statement when you have extensive support from controlled experiments and you can demonstrate impressive predictive power--in other words, when there is extremely high confidence that what you say is not going to change. The astronomers who calculate the trajectories of near-Earth asteroids fifty years out don't come back every so often and say their models were way off and all the numbers they said before should be thrown out. And that's true even though they're using Newtonian physics, not GR, to calculate. As Steven Weinberg once said, "If you have one of those t-shirts with Maxwell's Equations on them, you might worry about it going out of fashion, but not about the equations becoming false." But very few scientific fields actually have that high level of confidence.

    This article actually reinforces what I said above. IMO its title should have been "Most claims that were said to be scientific actually weren't." The replication issue is not new; the media has been confused about it for years, because they don't understand that much of what is being told to them as Scientific Fact, isn't. The replications fail because the original experiments weren't actually showing a real effect to begin with. At least, that's my take.

    If scientists make claims of Scientific Fact that later have to be reversed, IMO the public is right to view that as arrogance and a presentation of authority and to resist it. If you present yourself as an authority, you have to have the predictive power to back that up. Many claims of Scientific Fact simply do not have that predictive power, and should not be presented that way. Until scientists fess up to this and take extreme care to distinguish different levels of confidence in different claims, they will continue to have this problem of public disbelief.
  10. Feb 25, 2017 #9
    The media has a role in how they report the research as well. We've already talked at length on PF already about how media stories distort research for good headlines. I was just at the dentist and the dentist was telling me about the headline a few months ago where media was telling people about some research that proved flossing doesn't help. The dentist said the actual research was looking specifically at one type of bacteria and if flossing had any effect on it. Certainly that is different than claiming flossing is useless overall.

    Yes but the problem is the damage from going back and forth. It creates distrust in layman. They think "why should we trust you now". I have actually found myself debating someone who said that to me. I found it difficult to respond other than to say look at our overall scientific progress and how it always increases year after year.
  11. Feb 25, 2017 #10


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    I agree, but I don't think journalists in general have the background knowledge to be able to make independent judgments about the level of confidence in a given piece of scientific research. In other words, they're in the same position as the average lay person. So I would not expect media reports to be any better than an average lay person taking a look at a paper and being able to tell what it says. How many average lay people would have been able to read the paper your dentist described and figure out what it actually said?

    There is another way in which the media is more specifically responsible, which is that they claim to be doing journalism but are actually doing entertainment. But that is driven by market forces that are not going to be easy to change.

    Yes, and the only way to fix that is to not have to go back and forth, by not presenting anything as Scientific Fact unless it has the same level of confidence as, say, astronomers' predictions of asteroid trajectories. Which means that much, if not most, of what the average lay person currently thinks is Scientific Fact, isn't. It is going to change at some point in the future; we just don't know when or how.
  12. Feb 25, 2017 #11
    Just like journals, different media have different credibility weights. I get the feeling that many media outlets are purposefully constructing misleading headlines to appease their marketing departments. The problem again is given the fake news epidemic it seems the average person has trouble (or is too lazy) to figure out if something is credible or not.

    With the public's thirst for quick interesting news bites the media will continue this potentially destructive trend.
  13. Feb 25, 2017 #12


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    It's the same problem that we've always had, its just more manifest now b/c of the density of information people are being exposed too. In particular, i'd argue its a serious deficiency with our education in general, basically at the high school level. There is absolutely no reason why an 18 year old should be sent away from school, without knowing rudimentary statistics. It's the one area of mathematics that is absolutely guaranteed to be of critical importance to all humans lives, whether they realize it or not. Of course, it is also one of the more notoriously difficult subjects for first time students, so of course it is readily dismissed into the murkiness of liberal arts college (where students can easily get their requirements by avoiding the subject altogether).

    It's such a problem, that we even have academics writing papers in the social sciences, who have barely the requisite grasp necessary to make correct probabilistic statements. Then our science writers can't even read an abstract or conclusion without mangling the meaning. It's just a complete mess, and it has to start at the beginning.
  14. Feb 25, 2017 #13


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    Yes, that is what I was referring to as "market forces".
  15. Feb 25, 2017 #14
    If you can't report it in 140 character or less they don't want to read it. Or worse it seems that they probably don't even know where to go to find a good source of factual information.

    I don't think they necessarily don't understand the content in so much as they don't properly summarize the results in a way the readership will understand without distorting the conclusions. Some may disagree but I think some scientific studies should not even be reported to the public in the general press unless it has an immediate impact on them.

    Much has been written about this but what good is it unless you are reading the original paper. An then it not only about the math but the validity of the assumptions and the overall study design. How many will go that far to get to the truth.
  16. Feb 25, 2017 #15
    How can we expect to do such a bad job in the science and math classrooms and then expect the average graduate to think properly and critically about scientific issues?

    Failures of education are a pre-requisite for a "war on reason" to even be possible, at least among those who graduated from high school having passed with 3-4 years of science and 3-4 years of math.
  17. Feb 25, 2017 #16


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    An interesting article. I think that the gist, revolving around the fact that there is no possible effective way to communicate science through media - at least given the present conditions of life, education and all the other influencing factors, is not something that can - at least easily, change. There are three completely different entities from an educational perspective, scientists, media and non-scientists. I won't call the last "laypersons" because this is a very diverse set of people with education / expertise ranging from no-education-beyond-basics to technically well educated people and all in between, regarding many different qualities.

    It absolutely stands to reason that what a scientist tells, will not be completely understood - unfortunately more often than not it will be poorly understood, by a media person and given the limitations but also the purposes of exposing a scientist's opinion to the general public, the whole thing will very likely end up being distorted and giving wrong impressions. Now, for the media part, the purposes of "giving scientific facts" range from pure informative to political and all in between. I don't blame media for this, they do their job but science according to its very nature, cannot be presented in the same way as any other thing that media brings to the public. This is the worst thing in my opinion that media do when they present scientific facts or discoveries and it is more than sure that anyone non-scientist, will take what he/she will listen to at its face value and - even worse, the way this face value is presented and finally, what will remain persistent as impression is a fact - like all the other things presented during a certain media program and not something possible that is anyway subject to further research. On the other hand, there is no other way for media to convey science: there is limited time and things must be communicated to audience simply. So, if anything good can be done for all this mess, is on the sides of scientists and general public.

    For scientists I'll quote what PeterDonis said because this reflects accurately my opinion too:

    I think that scientists have to think very carefully about how they expose their knowledge and convey scientific meanings to the general public, while on some TV special or anything for that matter. This won't solve everything but at least it will limit the damage done to science in general. When something is initially presented from media as "A" but after some time becomes "A+", "A-" or even "B", general public usually will put the blame on scientists. It is rather rare for media to be blamed for this. After all, journalists and other media people are not scientists - and even the people who are, they are not active in current research.

    On the other extreme, general public has to apply good filtering and personal search that is not at all difficult in our era of information flooding, for anyone. We can't ask for "fast and sure things" when the nature itself gives us very few of them. Also as Haelfix points out, there are serious deficiencies in education that have finally to be fixed.
  18. Feb 25, 2017 #17


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    Science itself has become diluted.

    The social sciences, and some medical sciences to perhaps a lesser extent, are not a science, but their results are often reported as though they held the same rigor and predictive power of say, physics.

    That is a shame because people often believe they do, until the picture becomes so muddled they throw the baby out with the bath water and just distrust science as a whole.

    They should once again be called what they are, humanities, and those that report on their findings should try to dispel any notion of predictive power. That would be a start.
  19. Feb 25, 2017 #18
    If this answer was intended as a parody, then it is brilliant.

    If it is literal, then it demonstrates hypocrisy.

    All communication occurs under constraints of time and resources. You cannot demand reasoning, justification, and nuance and yet refuse to provide it yourself.

    The right to answer in sound-bite length responses reasonably requires accepting when others do so as well. Requesting longer, nuanced, answers demonstrating the desired complexity should offer the same considerations.
  20. Feb 25, 2017 #19
    OK, I've deleted all my comments just now, as a way of withdrawing them until I can find time.

    No hypocrisy, just fatigue and a belated realization & remembering I didn't have the time to get involved after that first reflexive post.

    I do agree with this:

    I'll come back if I can. It's an important topic.
    Last edited: Feb 25, 2017
  21. Feb 25, 2017 #20
    I'm reminded of Feynman's '71 Caltech commencement speech (where he coined the phrase cargo cult science). It does seem that the type of utter honesty that he professed was essential to science has continued to erode in scientific communication. As he put it, the first thing a scientist must do is learn not to fool themselves and then it is easy not to fool others after that. I don't know whether there are just more instances of scientists fooling themselves or whether Feynman understated how easy it is to fool others! Pasteur also expressed similar sentiments:

    I wonder if part of the problem is that the system for funding, tenure, etc. perhaps puts too much pressure on scientists to get positive results. My wife is a veterinarian and she often complains about the studies she sees published. There was one in the last issue (I think) of JAVMA which discussed a new (presumably effective) cancer treatment. The sample size for the study was 6 dogs. Perhaps an example of the cargo cult tendencies for the medical sciences?

    A related issue that was discussed in the radio program I linked in post 5 is that null results don't often (ever?) get published. This seems like an absolutely essential tweak (overhaul?) that needs to be made to the databases of scientific literature.

    The NGSS have done a good job of reframing the purposes of national standards for science in that a greater emphasis is placed on reasoning than on content. This doesn't fix the problem, but I think it is a step in the right direction. Assessing the validity of the ideas should really be the central question around which any science course content is framed (at least for introductory courses – but perhaps upper level college courses too). This can also be the lens through which skills are taught.

    I tend to agree that social 'sciences' are more pseudoscientific than not. Note, however, that Popper's demarcation criterion (which essentially boils down to predictive power) is often viewed as too strong a criteria for something to be considered science (even by Popper himself after he published his ideas). For example, Darwin's theory doesn't have predictive power but is considered scientific. As new conceptual frameworks emerge in science (even physics) they often don't have predictive power but can nonetheless develop into fruitful theories. I don't know when the right time for communication to the public about new conceptual schemes is appropriate. I see benefit here in generating excitement (perhaps just as the loathed-by-many popular accounts of modern physics do) but also danger based on what has been mentioned in this thread.
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