‘According to science’

We seem to have a love-hate relationship with science.

On one hand ‘science says’ articles abound with just about any claim you can think of. Being ‘scientific’ can be a great selling point for just about anything – mattresses, toothpaste, superfoods. Most of the popular diets around now use some kind of ‘science’ to back their claims of weight loss, reduced inflammation and clarity of thought or whatever benefit they promise.

On the other hand there’s a lot of anti-science around as well. I hear it a lot in the form of ‘traditional doctors have got it wrong – ancient wisdom is best’ or ‘you can’t trust [insert name of respected science authority] they have missed some fundamental truths about things’ or ‘don’t do such and such recommended by doctors, our bodies know what to do without interference’ or ‘I read a book by a doctor who says they are right about something and the rest of the profession is wrong’.

As someone immersed in biological sciences for many years (since 1983) I find both of these stances puzzling…and frustrating. Both these pro and anti science types are really one and the same thing: a fundamental misunderstanding of what science is trying to do and how it works.

This is completely understandable

It’s not surprising really that most people don’t understand science. It took me a lot of years of training in medicine, in public health and in reading thousands of scientific papers (and even writing some) to develop the skills for reading, interpreting and understanding science.

Without this type of training and experience in science, it’s methodology and how to understand what a scientific finding means in the context of a larger body of work, it is very easy to be misled.

It’s easy to assume that something written in a book by someone with an MD after their name must be ‘true’ – after all they are an authority with a bunch of letters after their name and a string of anecdotal successes and testimonials to back the cause.

It’s easy to assume that science and doctors don’t know what they are doing when you hear about serious errors and harm that can happen with medical care.

Similarly because recommendations change over time it’s easy to dismiss the whole enterprise altogether.

It’s easy to assume that something that sounds plausible is likely to be true.

It’s easy to assume one bad experience in the health system translates to global badness.

It’s also easy to overgeneralise that something that worked for you should work for everyone.

What science really is

Like every field of human endeavour science has strengths and weaknesses. Understanding these can help us make better sense of the claims we hear about and the things we read.

Broadly (very broadly) the purpose of science is to describe and test observations about the world (using a particular method) so we can make sense of it, as well as predict and control (to the extent we can) a world of seeming chaos.

Heres just some of the characteristics of what makes science science…

Science is neutral

Without science we wouldn’t have gone to the moon, developed the device you are no doubt reading these thoughts on, developed IVF, transplant medicine or eradicated smallpox.

Arguably without science we wouldn’t have nuclear weapons or quite so many carbon emissions.

What many people miss about science is it’s neutral nature. Science is not good or bad inherently. It’s neutral. It’s just information about the world we can do things with.

Science evolves

Science by its nature evolves and changes over time. Science deals in theories and probabilities. It is not designed and cannot ever give us final ‘Truth’. If you want ‘truth’ you are better off looking elsewhere.

One thing often misunderstood about science is it’s founded on the idea (according to Karl Popper) of falsifiability. This means, in general, any statement that is scientific has the theoretical potential to be tested and disproved.

Any theory or proposition about the world that cannot be tested is NOT science. It doesn’t mean there is no value in these ideas, just that they are not scientific.

This fact that science is continually trying to prove itself wrong makes science self correcting and a great strength.

It also explains why recommendations change. Each new piece of knowledge gets added in to the whole body of knowledge. What we know about generally gets more and more refined over time.

Sometimes a discovery is made that overturns everything. That’s just the way it is. But is foolish to assume that just because any one recommendation may change the entire enterprise is worthless. You have to do the best you can with current knowledge.

Science can only answer the questions it has been asked

There are many theories about life and the world that could be scientific but they have not been adequately tested yet. One big limitation of science is we only know about what has been observed and tested. There’s probably infinite things science just hasn’t looked at yet. This isn’t a failing of anything except time. Just because there’s a theory about the world and science is silent doesn’t mean science is wrong. It just means we don’t know yet.

There is a hierarchy of claims

Moving from a plausible idea to accepted knowledge takes time. A good idea is the starting point for collecting information – often in the form of case studies or anecdote. This does not prove anything though – it’s just an indication of a useful place to look. Ultimately the more an idea has been tested the more reliable the finding. One study with a small number of people is weak evidence. Multiple studies with lots of people is stronger evidence. A good experience with yourself as the subject – is nothing more than a good experience.

Why have I written this article?

We get our knowledge from the world in a number of ways – from oral tradition, from direct experience, from logic or philosophy, from experimentation i.e. science, from people we perceive to be an authority or have special knowledge, from social media influences, from belief systems.

Each form of knowledge has strengths and weaknesses. I think we need to at least try to understand where our knowledge comes from before we try to influence other people.

Maybe in the end it doesn’t matter why one person chooses the decisions they do for themselves – I fundamentally believe we have free choice.

Does it really matter if someone makes a choice based off logic, evidence or popular opinion? Well, it matters when there are potential harms from the choice and it matters when you choose to influence someone else.

Maybe what I’m calling for is some kind of honesty, or maybe just humility. There are very few things in this world that are black and white and for certain – excepting for death and taxes. The world is vastly more complex than we have even begun to understand.

So take science seriously – it is a serious and carefully thought out endeavour – but don’t try to sell an idea as scientific if it isn’t. And don’t expect from science what you would from belief.

So why have I written this article?

Well, maybe it’s just to trigger some thought and conversation…

What do you think? And why?

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