Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Five Anti-Science Arguments and Why They are Wrong

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This is my last blog post.  At least for now; I’d love to come back if life ever gets less crazy because I do love this blog and my fellow talented prosers.  Because this is my last post, I’m going to be a little self-indulgent and talk about something that is very important to me outside of writing because there are just some things that non-science people need to understand about how science research works.

I have a Ph.D. in Chemistry. Currently, I am stay-at-home mom, but I have worked in the scientific community.  I’m going to be sharing my experiences, and I know not everything I’ve seen is a universal truth, so I’d love to hear from the perspective of other scientists.  If you are one, please leave a comment. 
The internet can be a crazy place, and there is a lot of misinformation out there, and a lot of anti-science ideas that are very harmful.    I’ve been around on the internet enough to see some scary manipulation of numbers and facts to promote certain agendas.  I understand how easy it is to be duped because some are very convincing.  I think in some ways our education in science has failed us because it focuses too much on scientific concepts and not enough on how scientific research actually works which is what you really need to understand. 

I wish I could do everything in one blog, but I can't.  So I’m going to hit the top five biggest anti-science arguments that make me cringe and explain why they are wrong.

It’s just a theory.  Yes, evolution is a theory, but in science, a theory doesn’t mean what you think it means.  In regular life we throw around the word theory a lot.  “I have a theory about (fill in the blank).”  Usually these theories are based on pretty poor evidence and a little bit of logic.  In science, however, a theory is generally accepted to be true until it is disproven. 

A hypothesis is more interchangeable with our colloquial use of the word theory, but even a scientific hypothesis is probably based on more evidence.  I used to believe that a hypothesis once confirmed by experiments than turned into a theory which upon further testing turned into a law, but this is wrong.   A hypothesis once confirmed by experiments does become a theory, but a theory after further testing just becomes a stronger theory, and then a stronger theory and so on.  It never stops being a theory.  Atomic structure is a theory.  Germs are a theory.  The science behind everything that runs our world is just a theory.  So a scientific theory is pretty damn solid, not something to be dismissed.

In case you’re curious, a law in science is a very strong, always reproducible observation like the law of gravity.  What goes up must come down.  This happens every single time you throw a ball in the air.  That is why it is a law.  There are very few scientific laws. For further explanation see here.
What do scientists really know?  They used to think the world was flat.  Yes, once we all believed that the world was flat, but do you know who figured out that it was round?  Scientists.

I really hate this argument because it takes one of science’s greatest strengths and uses it to undermine science.  Our understanding of science is constantly growing and evolving.  This is a good thing.  If the scientific method wasn’t designed to do so, we would all be stuck in the dark ages. We can only give you the best answer that we have for now, and that may change in a year or two or a hundred, but it still is the best answer that we have for right now.  Just because someone wants something else to be true does not undo all the solid evidence we have for the current scientific explanation.  The best explanation is always going to be the scientific one.

The truth is that major well-accepted theories are not going to be completely unraveled with new discoveries.  I’ve been in science long enough to see a few mind-blowing revolutionary changes (prions, ribozymes, and neo-Lamarckian inheritance just to name a few in my field), and while they did expand our understanding of how things work, they NEVER undid or disproved the prior theories.  Really the current theory only needed to be tweaked slightly to fit the new evidence.  New discoveries are only going to refine our current understanding not completely demolish them.   So really you can trust our current scientific theories.  I promise.

Why shouldn’t we teach our children both evolution and creationism or intelligent design?  They should be exposed to both theories.  This is the only time I’m going to discuss a specific topic.  To those who are religious, I’m not going to bash your personal beliefs.  I am a religious person with a deeply held belief in God, but creationism is not a scientific theory.

Creationism and intelligent design are both invalid scientific theories.  They aren’t testable hypotheses.  The only way to test the Intelligent Design hypothesis is to prove that there is at least one step in the origin of life or in evolution that cannot occur spontaneously.  So you have to prove that something cannot be done.  This is impossible because you cannot prove a negative.  There will always be questions of whether there is another way or different conditions in which the step could be done.   If you can’t test it, it can never move beyond a hypothesis to become a theory.

But I believe that there is another problem with creationism and intelligent design as scientific theories.  Putting God in a theory is harmful to science.

Let me try to explain this with a simple example.  Let’s say a child asks, “Why is the sky blue?”  And someone answers, “Because that is how God made it.”  Now the discussion is dead.  There is nowhere to go from that answer.  No questions to ask.  Nothing will be learned about the natural world and how it works.  This kind of thinking does not lead us to a deeper understanding of how the world works.

Now let’s look at creationism or Intelligent Design (which is creationism repackaged).  If one asks how did life begin?  The answer according to intelligent design’s is God started it.  That ends the conversation.  There is no place to go, no more questions to ask.  God is the ultimate authority and that is it.  But if you look at the answer through abiogenesis (life started spontaneously), there are a million questions that can be asked.  What came first, proteins or DNA?  How did the first organic molecules spontaneously form?  What would the conditions be like?  What kind of solvent?  And so forth.  Now experiments can be designed to attempt to explore these questions.

Science is all about asking questions, and anything that stops the questions from even being asked is damaging to the scientific method and halts progress.  

Science can never disprove the existence of God, but it also won’t ever validate your belief in Him.  That’s why you got to have faith.  You can believe whatever you want in your heart, but when it comes to science, creationism is not a valid scientific theory.  To teach anything else would be irresponsible.

Big Pharm and political conspiracies.  This is an argument that I see a lot concerning vaccines and climate change, but in general when people don’t like the answers science gives them, they tend to turn to conspiracy theory.  “We can’t trust scientists.  They are in the pocket of greedy pharmaceutical companies or politicians who fund them.” 

Sure pharmaceutical companies are looking to make a profit, and I understand the mistrust.  The US has had a history of big companies being unethical to make a few million or billions dollars.  But the scientific community is bigger than pharmaceutical companies.  It is bigger than your country (whatever country you live in).  The scientific community is global.  I’ve read papers published in different countries all over the world.  That is a lot of people world-wide which would have to be in the pharmaceutical or politician’s pocket for these conspiracy theories to work.

I did my research at a university.  We had no funding from pharmaceutical companies.  But yes, we did need funding.  We got grants from the government (NIH grants), but we never reported to them.  They never tried to oversee or control our experiments.  We just had to prove we were productive and doing important research by publishing in respectable, peer-reviewed scientific journals to get our grants renewed.  That was all.  There was no great conspiracy trying to buy us to support whatever agenda.  I think this is true for most scientists in academia (working at universities), and that includes scientists working with viruses and vaccines, and climate change.

I have little experience with working in industry (which would include pharmaceutical companies), but I have a lot of scientist friends.  They are pretty awesome and moral people otherwise they wouldn’t be my friends.  That is my next point to these conspiracy theory arguments.  Scientists are real people not faceless boogiemen.  Like every other group of people, there are probably some who are a little slimy and self-serving and maybe even those who are truly evil, ruthless bastards.  But like the majority of people in the world, most scientists are normal, decent people who would never lie about the safety and efficacy of vaccines given to babies and small children, that wouldn’t poison people just to make a corporation more money.  Would you?  Or would the people you know do that for any reason?  Because the people I know wouldn’t, and that includes a fair number of scientists.

Finally, I want to point out that there are agendas on both sides of every issue.  Many times those who undermine the authority of doctors and science are trying to sell you something or build their own platform. I don't understand how people are so willing to trust some random person on the internet and not those who are the known experts on the subject.  Why are the scientists and doctors the ones in a conspiracy and not the random person pushing alternative medicine?  Every side has those with an invested interest.  That is why I trust the side who actually backs up their position with scientific experiments and data.

This non-peer reviewed study or article with no sources proves my point.  I can find support for anything I want on the internet, and some even sound scientific by using key buzz words.  Anyone can post anything they want on the internet and even put whatever letters they want after their name to seem official (Ph.D., MD, etc.).  The internet is swarming with misinformation, and trying to navigate those waters can be tricky and confusing.  There are people who are intentionally or unintentionally misleading you.  That is why sources matter.

I get really frustrated with all articles that are supposed to be informing on a scientific topic that do not site sources.  No one should just take the word of random people on the internet.  Sources need to be cited to prove the facts that they are asserting, and you need to check those sources because sometimes the data obtained from those sources has been manipulated, modified, or misrepresented in the article, and sometimes the sources do not say what the author claims they say, and sometimes the sources are not legitimate.  You need to be diligent because there are people out there who are willfully trying to manipulate you, and they are getting better at it.  

It is important that research sources come from credible peer-reviewed scientific journals.  Peer-review is very important.  I’ve published a few papers in scientific journals, so I’m pretty well acquainted with the process, and I will outline it for you here.  First you submit your paper to your favorite scientific journal.  The journal then sends out your paper (removing your name and information so the reviewers don’t know who you are) to three to four other scientists who are experts in your specific field of study.  Essentially these are the researchers who are studying the same thing you are studying.  Some could be your direct competitors (although they do not know they are reviewing your paper).  These reviewers report back to the journal and comment on the validity and importance of your research.  They recommend whether the paper should be accepted, accepted with revisions (revisions may mean more experiments), or flat out rejected.  The scientific journal will not publish your paper unless the majority of reviewers recommend accepting the paper.

This is a rigorous process that is essential to ensuring the validity of papers being published (although occasionally a bad paper manages to sneak through).  I’ve seen this process and for the vast majority of the time it works.  Scientific journal’s reputation and importance in the scientific community hinges on the validity of the research papers it publishes.  Scientists’ reputations are also on the line.  Bad science destroys careers and sinks journals.  It is in everyone’s best interest to do good, solid studies, and although there are those notable exceptions, who are eventually discovered, for the vast majority of the time, the peer-review process is pretty solid.  

Thus, it is vital that any citation to a study is linked to a peer-reviewed journal, but how do you know the journal is peer reviewed?  Here are a few links to help you.  This first one describes the format of peer-reviewed papers which usually indicates that the paper is legitimate peer-reviewed article, but not always.  The second one shows you where to look to see if the journal the paper is published in is a peer-reviewed journal.  And finally because there are a lot of scientific journals that look valid and claim to be peer-reviewed but aren't, here is a list of questionable journals that are not accepted by the scientific community (note: there are two lists.  Make sure you check both of them).  If the source links to an article from one of these journals, don’t trust it.  They most likely are not peer-reviewed.

Determining the validity of the source is not enough.  You need to actually read the sources, or at least the abstract, to make sure that it does indeed support the author's claim.

It is an involved process to determine the validity of these claims of random people on the internet, but if it is really important to you, you can do it.  Just remember to look at the actual data, and not blindly support point of views because they appeal to you.  You need to find the truth.

And if this process seems too lengthy or you just don’t have the time, it is okay to trust the experts in the field (check their credentials if they are random people on the internet).  I don’t know why people have a hard time with trusting the experts.  If I need my car fixed, I go to a mechanic.  If I want to know about the civil war, I read articles or books on the civil war by civil war historians.  When my daughters are sick, I take them to the doctor.  We live in a society that specializes.  Everyone in this world through schooling and/or work has become an expert in something.  I trust you in your expertise.  Why is it so hard for some people to trust doctors and scientists in theirs?



  1. Maryann is my sister so my validity may not count, but she is brilliant and I real lose to this blog. We have discussed this may time and I agree. My area of study is psychology and I know the struggle my field has with research and do no harm. We have to be ethical when working with people. I deeply respect the science community. I also have a son with severe food allergies and what they know about this relatively new disease is frustrating and since he has been diagnosed what they said originally is now being replaced with a new line of thought. Frustrating for a parent and I don't get to hear absolutes like I would like, but there are those who claim absolute cures out there. We have a family member on the other side of the argument, but I am thankful for her because she made me realize that I need to be more informed. People need to be careful about what they accent as truth and research different sides of an issues.

    1. Thanks, you are so sweet. I appreciate your thoughts and your support. I do think it is frustrating when scientists don't have the answers especially when it concerns health issues, and it is so easy for others to claim they have the answers when they don't have any real proof. I think most of these pseudo-science supporters use either fear or hope to gain followers. It's tough for real scientist who are being honest to combat their claims.

  2. I love this article MaryAnn, and I am so sad to be losing your biweekly posts. I look forward to the day when you come back.

    1. Thanks Melanie. I'll stay check in to comment. :)

  3. If I could change one thing about science education, it would be to put more emphasis on teaching kids to evaluate sources of information. If I *had* to choose, I'd rather my kids graduate high school knowing about experimental design and peer review and who/what to trust than physics equations they will soon forget (though in my ideal world they would get BOTH. Physics was my favorite class!). I can't count how many articles I've read that proclaim some thrilling new medical discovery only to put in the last paragraph that the sample size was 10 and there was no control. :)

    I am really going to miss reading your posts, MaryAnn. Every single one of them has made me think about something in a new way.

    1. Thanks Sarah. I still miss reading your brilliant posts. :)

      I totally agree with your assessment of science education. I've seen so many people being mislead on the internet because they don't understand how research works and why controls are important. It really is something we should teach in high school.


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