Will the Real Science Data Please Stand Up?
Posted by hyperpat on July 11, 2007
We are bombarded on a daily basis with the latest scientific research results. Anything from what stem cell usage might mean towards treatments for various ailments, space probe data pointing towards life elsewhere, new ‘global warming’ data in either support or disagreement with this hypothesis, new fossil data and how it supports one or another competing models of evolution, which foods have the greatest potential for prolonging (or shortening) life-spans (and this list changes constantly, with the former favorites turning to bottom-feeders and vice versa), DNA clues to how life works, the latest advances in computer speed, new ‘Grand Unified Field’ theories fueled by new astrophysical observations, the dangers of genetic manipulation and whichever virus of the day is seen as being a new great threat, the latest wonder drug – the list goes on and on. The total mass of this data is not surprising; after all, science still seems to be riding an exponential curve in terms of discoveries.
The trouble is, 99% of this information comes to us as filtered by the media. And most media outlets have a) a poor understanding of the science and b) a need to present this information in the most sensational way possible. After all, they are in the business of selling information. Which means that the average person often gets a very distorted view of what is really going on. Couple this with that same person’s own poor understanding of science and how it works, and you have a basic recipe for conclusions and plans that are not based in reality.
The current global warming flap is a good example of this. Most scientists would be the first ones to say that the current theories are trying to model what is a very complex system, with far more variables than most theories try to tackle, and that it is difficult to apply normal scientific methods, as there are very few laboratory experiments that can be done to verify or disprove most aspects of this – instead they must rely on the ‘open air’ data that the entire world can provide, and this data has highly varying degrees of verifiable accuracy. This leads to warring factions within the scientific community, as various people focus on one or another aspect of the available data and how well it fits their chosen hypothesis. Consensus on the extent and cause of the perceived problem has been slow, and there is still a contingent that violently disagrees with the current consensus view.
But it is rare that the media coverage explores these disagreements within the scientific community with any depth. Far too much of the coverage highlights the ‘scare’ factor – “New York city will be under 20 feet of water by the end of the century!”, and rarely gives more than a short summary of the underlying data and assumptions behind that prediction. The scientific community itself must take part of the blame for this. Far too often, scientists will make statements to the press or hand out short excerpts from their papers, leaving out the hard data on which their statements are based. It doesn’t have to be this way in today’s internet age. On line articles should include links not only to the summary statement, but to the complete paper that the scientist has probably submitted to the appropriate organization for peer review. But when such links are given, all too often when you try to open those links, you find have to pay some sort of fee or be a member of some professional society to access the complete paper – at which point most people give up, and rely on the summary only.
This is not to say that most people can actually understand the original complete paper. Few have the training to understand the data, reasoning, and methods that such papers typically present. But for those that do, having such access would at least provide a much larger set of eyes looking critically at the data, able to see possible variances from the given hypothesis, or outlying data points that the theory doesn’t explain properly or completely, and be able to come up with a better assessment of just what level of confidence can be placed in the theory’s predictions – the critical item in determining what to do about it.
Science via media/sound bite doesn’t cut it. Political and economic decisions based on such partial and filtered information is just asking for a disaster.