How do we know what is good science and what isn’t?
The world is funny place. Today we know more than we have ever known in history about how the world works, our origins and our place in the cosmos. The internet is filled with information. But information is not knowledge. True knowledge – the collected wisdom gained through lots of people and trial and error over a centuries – is hard to find amongst the layers of crap out there.
So the question is – how do non-experts evaluate scientific claims in the media?
**I’m going to use the pronoun “you” to describe this, partly because I’m lazy and partly because it’s an easy way to go about this. If this doesn’t apply to you, read it anyway and set about “converting” your friends and co-workers. Trust me, they’ll love you for it.
1) The first step is to recognise any biases inside yourself that would lead you to be in error. Are you actually interested in the truth? Be honest with yourself. Do you have any internal responses that cause you to recoil when some aspect of science is mentioned? Is it more likely that you are experiencing cognitive dissonance and that you may be wrong?
If you want to interpret scientific information correctly, realise that you may not be starting from zero in your approach. This requires a degree of self awareness, which can be difficult for some, but necessary if you are to be as objective as possible.
2) Next, you must largely ignore claims in the media. Mainstream media is particularly haphazard at presenting scientific information because they seek to apply a (false) balance view to the stories. Science is not a democracy. The facts are the facts – there are not two sides to the facts. Anything else is opinion (until proven otherwise).
3) Pay attention to scientific media that has a reputation of accuracy in scientific matters. Remember, a good source representing science will cite their research sources. Scientific magazines base their entire existence on the quality of their science reporting. If they get something wrong, they will say so. Their primary source of stories is research papers and reputable scientific journals. You will find magazines such as Cosmos, Scientific American and New Scientist are criticised and kept honest from all quarters – readers, scientists and the journals themselves. A biased source claiming to have accurate scientific information have no such checks and balances with regards to the facts. It is unlikely that they would correct themselves when they are found to be in error. After all, it is in their interest to distort the data.
Ask yourself: Who is more likely to promote the unbiased scientific information – a dedicated science magazine whose reputation rests on the quality and accuracy of its reporting, or sources with ideological, political, religious biases?
4) Find out what political or ideological media are saying about the issue.
In New Zealand, that is as simple as thumbing through the right wing, religiously conservative magazine Investigate while in the supermarket (don’t buy it!).
Uncensored magazine endorses all kinds of craziness. This doesn’t make them wrong, but notice that their criteria for evidence is loose to non-existent and it seems they endorse any view that is alternative to the mainstream view (no matter how crazy the alternative view may be).
Investigate is politically biased and often miscontrues science choosing instead to spread misinformation that will support their views. While the people behind Investigate are biblical literalists and apologists, they will often disguise their more kookier beliefs in an effort to produce a veneer of credibility with the lay public. Be aware of ideological biases in media sources that filter information in order to promote their cherished ideas (even our own).
It is therefore no surprise that Investigate magazine is a prime example of an organisation dedicated to distorting the science of global warming, evolution and science generally. Be wary of what is behind what you’re reading.
5) Watch out for logical fallacies. In the case of Investigate, writers are routinely caught making faulty statements based on their own misconceptions. From a recent edition, an author dedicated to discrediting the science of climate change, states that it is faulty in part and therefore faulty in whole… Ah, the false dichotomy, all-or-nothing fallacy. This is just one fallacy and there are numerous others. Become a legend at spotting fallacies in arguments and you will begin to see them everywhere. They are the symptoms of faulty (bad) arguments and are used a lot by those seeking to discredit science in an effort to push their “own” view of reality.
6) Do your own research on the basic science that underpins the science in question. If you really want to have an informed opinion, find out why scientists are making a claim. If it is evolution, go to reliable scientific sources for the basics. A tip in this case: Don’t expect a biochemist to be an expert on evolutionary biology. Find what evolutionary biologists are saying. This is obvious, but often overlooked as people often generalise the myriad of scientific disciplines down to the one: science and scientists.
Be honest with yourself. If you are not an expert, it is advisable not to make an arse of yourself by claiming that you are, especially if you are making claims that are fallacious, false and have been refuted time and again. That doesn’t stop some people from doing it anyway.
Update, 23 April, 2011: This post, “Reality check” by Donald Prothero at Skepticblogs is a great explanation what elevates science above nonsense.