The Wrack

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The Great Thing About Science Is...

Posted by | January 15, 2015 | Filed under: Opinion

It is NOT about easy answers, shortcuts, or even [usually] a-ha revelations. Why on earth is that great?

Here's a shallow post today on a subject I enjoy thinking deeply about.

Consider some recent examples of science's apparent un-greatness:

Grandmothers have always contended that if you get cold, you'll catch a cold. I have heatedly shot back, many times, that cold weather does not cause colds. Then a study came out recently that *apparently* showed that lab mice kept colder caught more colds. Except that, as usual, the findings were blown way out of proportion. The headline vindicated the grandmothers; the fine print did not.

Thinking was, you should take a daily aspirin to lower your risk of heart attacks. This week, that thinking changed, said the media. And then the fine print made for a more nuanced, less dramatic finding.

The seas have been rising steadily for 150 years, tide gauges showed. But instead of rising worldwide about six inches over the course of the 20th century, as previous research suggested, the sea actually rose by approximately five inches, the team from Harvard and Rutgers Universities found. That 1" difference, amounting to quadrillions of gallons of "missing" water, had been a big problem for sea level rise researchers and predictionistas. Turns out, we had it wrong for a long time. (NOTE: the study, published this week in the prestigious journal Nature, also describes an increasing rate of sea level rise since 1990.)

Butter is bad for you. Butter is NOT bad for you. (I don't think anyone will ever prove that butter is not incredibly delicious.)

Now, one could conclude from the above "revisions" that scientists don't know what the heck they're doing. They're just confused, and their confusion is confusing the rest of us.

That would be the wrong conclusion. Scientists are the most careful, skeptical, least-prone-to-drama folks I know. If they're revising something, that means they've found a better answer, or want to correct some earlier mistakes or misunderstandings. They are often very up-front about this process.

Us lay people, and the sensationalizing man-bites-dog media -- that's often where the trouble comes in. For those of us who don't spend our days with datasets, lab reports, and peer reviewers, the slow grind of discovery and clarification is frustrating, even agonizing. We want the fast answers, the usable info, the soundbite meal, and we want them now.

We are also not, by nature, scientific. As a species, we survived by making snap judgments and jumping to conclusions. Hypothesizing, testing, evaluating, retesting - the scientific method is a foreign mode of thinking for most of us, and so we take shortcuts, condense findings, and read headlines but not the research behind them.

And so we get into trouble, or at least, confused. And overhyping science's early results can be just as dangerous as underreporting them. I think part of our slow response to our very real environmental problems is that some people get off on catastrophic prognostications and poison the well of hope the rest of us drink from.

The key lesson is that science is always learning, revising, adjusting, evolving. That's what makes it great. It's alive. Unlike some other disciplines and areas of thought that purport to have the Final Word (*cough* religious doctrine), science makes no such claims. Every theory is a work in progress. Some are more complete than others, and many have passed the point of what us lay folks would consider "reasonable doubt," in the courtroom sense. But scientists will be the first to tell you that their certainty is never 100% about anything.

At least scientists - unlike the media, unlike our politicians, unlike our friends and family - admit when they're unsure, confess when they're wrong (usually), and continually seek to publish better explanations and clearer findings.

Trust the process, then, if not the messengers. Next time you see a headline contradicting some science - or worse, some conventional wisdom - you'd previously believed, keep that in mind.

...and also: never believe anything you read on the Internet.

Uncle Albert

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