I don’t know how many times I have read a headline in the media based on a scientific study that suddenly declares it’s findings as absolute statements of truth. Science like nearly every facet of life is not straightforward, nor is it infallible.
I am not writing this as a critic of science as a philosophy, I believe science is the best method we have developed to attempt to understand the world around us. I also come from a scientific background in that I have a science degree, but that does not mean that I think science is beyond criticism.
Untangling science is no easy matter, even for those trained in the scientific process, so the lay public have an even more difficult task.
So how do we go about trying to cut through the crap and find the best information out there. Let’s start with the basics.
In a scientific study, the scientists involved develop a hypothesis (ask a question)or use one already in existence in a specific area of interest to try and determine if there is substance to their hypothesis or is it wrong. They design their methods, complete the study and analyse the results. From these results some conclusions are then drawn.
However,the results of one study are not conclusive proof of anything. What they can do though, is contribute to the body of knowledge in the particular field of science the study is examining. Only when there is a significant body of evidence that points overwhelmingly in one direction, is it safe to conclude that something appears to be factual.
Scientific research has many limitations, but the power of a study’s results can be hugely reduced if the quality of the study is poor or its methods lack – or are low in – reliability or validity. It is inevitable that the quality of research will vary widely, depending on how many of these limitations can be addressed.
One obvious example, where the power of research is reduced is using animal studies to determine effects on humans.
One must also understand that science and scientific knowledge is never static, but always in a state of flux. The consensus now may not be the consensus tomorrow if further evidence contradicts it.
An example of this was the demonising of saturated fat and cholesterol and it’s links with heart disease. For decades there was widely accepted to be a proven link, but they were merely poor correlations which largely went unchallenged, until more recent evidence contradicted these assertions.
The increasing influence of big business also continues to undermine the independence and veracity of science. The weight of commerce can have a negative influence on researchers and place undue pressure on them to skew results, overlook limitations and to conclude in favour of their drugs or other products. This is particularly true of the medical, cosmetic and supplement industries.
In 2014 the British Medical Journal published a research paper that showed that academic press releases routinely exaggerated scientific findings, which ultimately misled the public.
Couple this with the fact that it is reported on by a lot of journalists, who take at face value research findings without any ability to determine whether findings are exaggerated, misleading or not, and you have a recipe for a cynical and badly informed public. This not only undermines their own work, but also science in general.
So what is the solution, while there is lot of poor science and journalism out there, equally it isn’t all bad. There are many researchers out there who are trying to advance scientific knowledge, while understanding the real limitations they face in as ethical manner as they can.
Sure it’s fine to read about this stuff and take interest in new research; new studies can give important new insights and their findings may or may not prove in time to be correct, but never take any one particular study completely at face value. It is always worthwhile retaining a healthy sense of scepticism and finally, follow advice for which there is a good deal of evidence.