The Course of Reason

For People Who Love Science

July 13, 2016

Every now and then (read: at least once every week), I come across some self-professed pro-science denizen of the internet who wants to argue about something or other. Often, they like to cite studies in support of their arguments. On several occasions (to the point that I have lost count of exactly how many occasions), I’ve looked into the methodology of those studies and found that they did not conclusively prove whatever point they were cited to prove. In multiple cases, the studies actually suggested the opposite of whatever claim they had been cited in service of. 

Yes, those people “love” science. I have some theories for why this happens so often. They involve presumption of authority and objectivity, lack of scrutiny, fetishism, and as always, media reporting and the systems that hinder accuracy therein.

Often, these people are simply enthusiastic about science insofar as it serves as an authority, which is plenty plausible motive for why they sometimes take a light hand to scrutiny. As someone currently weighing whether or not to enter a field in the social sciences where the methods used can be manipulated to fit desirability or grab headlines, I understand too well how easy it is to misrepresent facts and findings, even when it’s not being done on purpose. Social and evolutionary psychology are absolutely rife with issues like these. 

That is why it’s important to demand significantly more intense scrutiny. That is why it’s important to not see science as an entity that stands alone from what we do with it, that we can use as some sort of a trump card, instead of what it actually is: a way to get to truth. That seems to be the common ground between a lot of pro-science people and people who are outright deniers. The difference seems to often just be that the former see science as an inherently (almost miraculously) objective monolithic authority and the latter see it as an inherently suspect monolithic authority.

Then there’s the fetishism, best exemplified by this comic I found on the internet:

 webcomic about fetishization of science from Cyanide and Happiness.

And the conflation of science with almost purely aesthetic observation:

 webcomic about fetishization of science from vectorbelly

This is not to say that loving science and innovation isn’t good, but science literacy depends on knowing the processes that we use, and not simply the flashy bits (or at least being able to look critically at whatever information is being consumed or cited).  

One could make the argument that this seems very similar or is a slippery slope to the “fake geek girl” phenomenon. “Fake geek girl” is a pejorative term for a woman who is accused of feigning interest in geeky topics, such as video games or comic books, to get attention from men. However, widespread science literacy depends heavily on how well people who aren’t professional scientists understand what goes into science, whereas video games and comic books don’t necessarily and inherently hold such an imperative for the rest of society. The argument also ignores that, because the entire premise of scientific processes inherently relies on evidence, everyone seeking to make a claim necessarily needs to prove themselves anyway. It comes down to realizing you either know the stuff or you don’t, and guess what? The best part of science is admitting that you don’t know, so you can then try to find out more. 

Of course, then there’s the media. The culture of sensationalization exists. So too do the systems where funding is often allocated with the calculus of popularity or interests in mind. Look at who is sponsoring the studies. Look at the ways in which those studies are reported. Look at how those studies were released to media outlets to begin with. 

There are many reasons for erroneous communication in science. Remarkably erroneous communication can result from the usage of a single word, such as “significance”, for example, which doesn’t mean in statistical analyses what it means in common usage. Even when the production of those studies isn’t influenced by special or conflicting interests, the possibility that it wasn’t communicated in the way it should have been is always there, which is why it’s always better to look at the study itself rather than a paraphrasing of it that was maybe written to catch attention to begin with. 

In a world where anti-scientific sentiment and action makes it difficult for people to live and can even put people’s lives in danger, it is easy and even natural to take a defensive stance on science in our collective search for truths; I understand that. However, this makes it more difficult in turn to free the pursuit of truth from the pressures of what we find desirable. It seems to me that this is what we see in the microcosm of interpersonal interactions where people toss citations at internet foes without looking at what they’re trying to prove or even whether what they’ve cited proves it. 

We need to not just love science. We need to be literate in it, and we need to actively use that literacy.

 

 

About the Author: Sam Farooqui

Sam Farooqui's photo

Sam is a student at Florida State University studying psychology. She was a founding officer of the Secular Student Alliance at FSU in 2014. Her hobbies include defending the weak, attacking the strong, attacking the weak, and just generally being incisive.

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