How many times have you heard the expression “the science says …” or “according to the experts or scientists …”? How credible are statements prefaced with remarks of this nature? Do you automatically believe them? Here are some guidelines on processing such information.
Science begins with an idea or theory about some observable aspect of our world. The idea is then framed as a hypothesis. An experiment is devised to prove the hypothesis. The experiment is carried out and its results are measured and recorded. The data is analyzed, often processed mathematically or statistically, correlated with other known theories and results, and a conclusion is drawn.
The complete work is then written up in a paper for publication in a conference proceedings or a professional journal. It will be reviewed by a panel of peers in the field. It may be rejected outright. It may be returned with comments requiring further work or correction before resubmission, or if done carefully and competently, it may be accepted outright for publication.
Once published, other scientists in the field may read the paper and comment on any aspect of the paper. It is not uncommon for discussion and argument to arise, particularly around results that are novel, controversial, or irreproducible. This open approach to research is the power of the scientific method.
Scientific papers have generally a basic structure: abstract, introduction, method, discussion of results, and conclusions. The published work is identified in a very rigorous format called a citation.
Fields of science that are heavily politicized such as climate studies and now to some degree, medicine, are prone to clique formation and research result bias, something one has to factor in when reading material.
When someone says “the science says …” the appropriate response is “good, give me the citation for the source of you claim”. If they provide it to you, you have grounds for rational discussion. If they can’t it is likely that their claim is based on something they believe is true or have heard or read somewhere. Then there is no possibility of further intelligent analysis.
When you hear the phrase “scientists say …”, a slightly different understanding has to be applied. A scientist is someone who has one or more graduate university degrees giving them expertise in a field of study. It helps to have good relevant credentials to support a statement or claim, but not essential. Most “climate” scientists have degrees in other fields such as physics, paleontology or geoscience since only recently has any university actually offered a degree in climate science.
All scientific research is paid for by business, the government or some foundation. The research performed is largely along the lines of the interests of the source of funding. This is particularly true for government research grants. So when a government trots out a scientist who is on their payroll or funded by a grant, you can be sure that that scientist will support the party line.
No scientist working for an agricultural chemical company will ever publish research saying that one of their products causes cancer. Similarly, if the government policy is that masks are essential for personal safety, no government scientist will publish results that say masks are ineffective.
Further, because science is an open field of study, there can be a wide variety of scientific opinion on current topics such as vaccine efficacy. If you do a little work you can probably find a scientist who will support any position that you have.
The term “expert” is open to much wider abuse. While a scientist or medical professional can be an ‘expert’, there is no requirement for an expert to have any academic degree or even knowledge about the topic in question. Finding an ‘expert’ to give a desired opinion is relatively easy.
The key trick for assessing the credibility of any source, scientist or expert, is to ask the question who signs their paycheck or pays for their research? When a claim is made, don’t take their word for it but apply critical thinking to it. Look for the other side of the argument.