Science-Based Thinking – Why

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Mission Statement

The stated purpose of this project is to communicate the scientific process and the methods of scientific research to 1) people who might not be familiar with it or are traumatized by their school experience, 2) people who are skeptical or distrustful of it, and 3) people who find it boring. It may also serve as a hub for scientists or science-enthusiasts, though that is not its primary goal.

Why this goal:

  • Many of the most important issues facing people around the world – including but not limited to public health, the environment, nutrition, poverty, and the ways in which they interconnect – are science-based issues that will either benefit from or require evidence-based or technological solutions (Sutherland et al. 2016)
  • In the U.S., there is a large gap between public opinion and the scientific consensus on a range of topics (Funk and Rainie 2015). Scientific consensus is defined as the presence of overwhelming evidence coming from replicated findings in peer-reviewed sources of diverse backgrounds and interests all supporting a certain conclusion/idea/theory (Raptor 2015).
  • In the U.S., there is a politicized distrust of the motives of “scientists” (Funk and Kennedy 2016)

The sources of distrust and disagreement are many and complicated to unravel. They come from all sides of the political spectrum for different reasons (Funk and Kennedy 2016). There are certainly many valid criticisms of the way research is funded, carried out, or the assumptions underlying many research projects (Seth 2009; Albers 2015; Price 2010; American Institute of Physics 2016; Greenwald and Krieger 2006).

However, mounting valid criticisms of methods, funding structures, etc. is fundamentally different than dismissing the basis of scientific research. We have good evidence to suggest that this kind of foundational distrust of the scientific process and its methods is mostly based in misunderstanding, misinformation, or an ardent denial of reliable evidence (Wikipedia 2016; Novella 2002; Chigwedere et al. 2008; Chigwedere and Essex 2010; NIAID, NIH 2016; Browne et al. 2015; “Dismantling the HIV/AIDS Denialist Henry Bauer’s Central Falsehoods” 2012; van Elk 2015; Swami et al. 2014; Brotherton and French 2015; Prescod-Weinstein 2015).

What we DO see is that there is a consistent pattern in the way people selectively parse through evidence and cherry-pick data, and this pattern does a good job of explaining (at least partly) why gaps in public understanding of science exist.

There is an emerging body of evidence suggesting that people distrust evidence when it conflicts with their ideological leanings (Kahan 2015b; Kahan et al. 2013).

This is not just a problem for the so-called “public,” it is prevalent in many demographics and professions. The literature of science-communication and skepticism suggests that being familiar with science or math is not enough, and that anybody can fall for this cognitive trap (Kahan et al. 2013). In fact, people acquainted with analyzing evidence might be most susceptible to this kind of cherry-picking of data in order to suit their ideology (Kahan et al. 2013).

However, constant vigilance against self-deception, acknowledgment of biases, tools like blind-studies and systematic reviews, and seeking feedback and review from other sources, can help us guard against motivated reasoning or confirmation-bias (Novella 2002; Kahan et al. 2013; Byrne 2016b; Byrne 2016a; Raptor 2015; King 2015).

In terms of communicating science, at least some of the literature suggests that effective science-education or communication of evidence occurs when scientific information is not presented as conflicting with people’s cultural, historical, or religious identities (Kahan 2015a). For example, by framing knowledge of climate-change not in terms of belief in the phenomenon, but rather in terms of knowledge used to mitigate daily effects in a local community, science communicators succeeded in getting people of all “sides” of the “debate” to engage with the information (Kahan 2015a).

There is a lesson here. According to Kahan, “science communication professionals must protect citizens from having to choose between knowing what’s known by science and being who they are as members of diverse cultural communities” (Kahan 2015a).

That is how this project was born.

I decided to start this project out of the desire to communicate the beauty and importance of science. That means not only the knowledge we can gain from it, but the beauty of the process itself.

It is my desire to do this especially in those arenas where political, cultural, and historical divisions might make us want to turn away, tune out the evidence, dismiss it altogether. I aim to do this through the aggressive admitting of my own biases, by acknowledging the brutal history tied up with scientific research, and by asking us all to follow the evidence and to acknowledge our imperfections and preferences.

Let’s remember that we don’t have to stake our identities in stances that can be easily changed by evidence. We do not have to tie up our sense of self with a refusal to be moved by new evidence. We can maintain our heritages and beliefs without putting them in conflict with scientific scrutiny, with discovery, with self-criticism.

This is NOT an anti-faith page.

This is NOT a page to belittle anybody’s beliefs.

This is NOT an attempt to convert anybody to any position, political, ideological, or otherwise.

This is meant to be a reminder that science is beautiful because it’s driven by questions, not answers. Science is beautiful because it helps us unlock mysteries only to reveal a thousand more. Science is beautiful because it does not claim to know what it doesn’t or what it currently can’t. Science is beautiful because it asks us to be comfortable in our uncertainty.

Science is beautiful because each idea, discovery, or theory relies on millions of people from different places, languages, and histories to corroborate or falsify each other’s claims. Every accepted scientific consensus is a feat of human collaboration borne out of painstaking, tedious work, out of rigorous competition, out of pettiness, out of innovation, and out of trust in each other.

There is no field like it.

There has never been, in 200,000 years of human evolution, another endeavor like it (Harari 2014).      

Thank you for joining me.

Roi

 

Sources Cited

Albers, Casper J. 2015. “Dutch Research Funding, Gender Bias, and Simpson’s Paradox.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112 (50): E6828–E6829.

American Institute of Physics. 2016. “Astronomy PhD’s Awarded 1983-2014 by Gender.” https://www.aip.org/sites/default/files/statistics/physics-trends/spring16-phdsawarded-a.pdf.

Brotherton, Robert, and Christopher C. French. 2015. “Intention Seekers: Conspiracist Ideation and Biased Attributions of Intentionality.” Plos One 10 (5): e0124125.

Browne, Matthew, Patricia Thomson, Matthew Justus Rockloff, and Gordon Pennycook. 2015. “Going against the Herd: Psychological and Cultural Factors Underlying the ‘Vaccination Confidence Gap.’” PloS One 10 (9): e0132562.

Byrne, John. 2016a. “Cognitive Biases – Skeptical Medicine.” Accessed December 11. http://www.skepticalmedicine.com/cognitive-biases.

———. 2016b. “What Is a Skeptic? – Skeptical Medicine.” Accessed December 11. http://www.skepticalmedicine.com/skeptic.

Chigwedere, Pride, and Max Essex. 2010. “AIDS Denialism and Public Health Practice.” AIDS and Behavior 14 (2): 237–247.

Chigwedere, Pride, George R. Seage III, Sofia Gruskin, Tun-Hou Lee, and Max Essex. 2008. “Estimating the Lost Benefits of Antiretroviral Drug Use in South Africa.” JAIDS Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes 49 (4): 410–415.

“Dismantling the HIV/AIDS Denialist Henry Bauer’s Central Falsehoods.” 2012. Debunking Denialism. February 3. https://debunkingdenialism.com/2012/02/03/dismantling-hiv-aids-denialist-henry-bauers-central-falsehoods/.

Elk, Michiel van. 2015. “Perceptual Biases in Relation to Paranormal and Conspiracy Beliefs.” PloS One 10 (6): e0130422.

Funk, Cary, and Brian Kennedy. 2016. “The New Food Fights: U.S. Public Divides Over Food Science.” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech. December 1. http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/12/01/the-new-food-fights/.

Funk, Cary, and Lee Rainie. 2015. “Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society.” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech. January 29. http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/01/29/public-and-scientists-views-on-science-and-society/.

Greenwald, Anthony G., and Linda Hamilton Krieger. 2006. “Implicit Bias: Scientific Foundations.” California Law Review 94 (4): 945–967.

Harari, Yuval Noah. 2014. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Random House.

Kahan, Dan M. 2015a. “What Is the’Science of Science Communication’?” Journal of Science Communication 14 (3): 1–10.

———. 2015b. “The Politically Motivated Reasoning Paradigm.” SSRN Scholarly Paper ID 2703011. Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network. https://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=2703011.

Kahan, Dan M., Ellen Peters, Erica Cantrell Dawson, and Paul Slovic. 2013. “Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government.” Yale Law School, Public Law Working Paper, no. 307. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2319992.

King, Ritchie. 2015. “Science Isn’t Broken.” FiveThirtyEight. August 19. http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/science-isnt-broken/.

NIAID, NIH. 2016. “The Evidence That HIV Causes AIDS.” NID. January 5. https://web.archive.org/web/20160105052319/http://www.niaid.nih.gov/topics/HIVAIDS/Understanding/howHIVCausesAIDS/Pages/HIVcausesAIDS.aspx.

Novella, Steven. 2002. “Skepticism and Denial.” The New England Skeptical Society. April. http://www.theness.com/index.php/skepticism-and-denial/.

Prescod-Weinstein, Chanda. 2015. “Decolonising Science Reading List – Chanda Prescod-Weinstein.” Medium. April 25. https://medium.com/@chanda/decolonising-science-reading-list-339fb773d51f#.cbb3lns13.

Price, Joshua. 2010. “The Effect of Instructor Race and Gender on Student Persistence in STEM Fields.” Economics of Education Review 29 (6): 901–910.

Raptor, The Original Skeptical. 2015. “Developing and Supporting a Scientific Consensus.” Skeptical Raptor. May 31. http://www.skepticalraptor.com/skepticalraptorblog.php/developing-supporting-scientific-consensus/.

Seth, Suman. 2009. “Putting Knowledge in Its Place: Science, Colonialism, and the Postcolonial.” Postcolonial Studies 12 (4): 373–388.

Sutherland, William J., Phoebe Barnard, Steven Broad, Mick Clout, Ben Connor, Isabelle M. Côté, Lynn V. Dicks, et al. 2016. “A 2017 Horizon Scan of Emerging Issues for Global Conservation and Biological Diversity.” Trends in Ecology & Evolution. Accessed December 15. doi:10.1016/j.tree.2016.11.005.

Swami, Viren, Martin Voracek, Stefan Stieger, Ulrich S. Tran, and Adrian Furnham. 2014. “Analytic Thinking Reduces Belief in Conspiracy Theories.” Cognition 133: 572–585.

Wikipedia. 2016. “History of Scientific Method.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=History_of_scientific_method&oldid=751849099.