I freaking love science. I really do. I listen to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s podcast to hear fascinating bits like the fact that the force of electromagnetism is 40 times of magnitude stronger than gravity. I took three semesters of calculus as an undergrad. And passed all three, even! I spend time in my backyard at night staring at the stars and ponder deep things. I suppose that makes me a nerd. So sue me.
What I really freaking love about science is the inherent nature of self-criticism and self-correction. All kinds of people make all kinds of scientific claims. Some of them even turn out to be correct and we know this because someone will always review the method along with the results and raise red flags when necessary. This results in science being self-correcting. Eventually. Admittedly there are times it takes a while to self-correct but science gets there eventually. And that is what makes it great.
It is certainly true that science gets used badly at times. The link between vaccinations and autism debacle for example. Bad or pseudoscience trotted out in 1998 as holy writ in spite of the fact it is entirely baseless and the M.D. who published the initial findings had some connections to attorneys involved in vaccination litigation. This is called conflict of interested Red Flag #3 in the article below. We know it is baseless because of the seven large studies that followed the original article. That is self-correcting.
The problem is, thanks to some sensationalism (Red Flag #1 in the article below), the vaccination/autism controversy continues and kids are going to school without vaccinations. I don’t disagree that parents should be able to make healthcare choices for their children but what the lack of vaccination can mean in the real world is that kids will die unnecessarily from diseases that are largely preventable. (See this article for an abstract of one study) Parents need to think about the implications of their choices on the health of others.
Climate change is another topic that gets a lot of mileage. I’m inclined to agree with science on this one as we’ve pumped a lot of crap into the environment since the industrial revolution. Much of it carbon based but think of all the nuclear testing that has been done. THAT can’t be good. But also don’t feel particularly qualified to make a definitive judgment. What I will say is that climate change or no, we’re trashing the planet and that isn’t good nor sustainable. And if climate change isn’t happening, some scientist will get it sorted out. In the meanwhile, no reason not to clean up our act, is there?
The biggest challenge to navigating what is good science and bad science is the difference between causation and correlation. Just because two things are correlated doesn’t mean one cause the other. One example in the article below is that the earth is getting warmer since the 1800s and there are fewer pirates (correlation). That does not mean that a lack of pirates is causing the earth to get warmer (causation). The trouble with so much of what gets reported and later sensationalized is that it uses an anecdote of things that are correlated but not causational.
This is an important point because that fails Red Flags #1, #4 and #6 at the very least. These things become a sensationalized story without cause but because it is interested it get’s reported as fact.
Which means all of us need to do due diligence and be aware of good, bad and pseudo science and how to spot it. The media, print, television and social will always gravitate to the sensational even if unsubstantiated. It is each of our responsibility to do some checking before we perpetuate the bad science or jump on the band wagon. One aid, referenced many times above, is found here: Rough Guide to Spotting Bad Science