Science Doesn’t Say

By Neuroskeptic | July 31, 2011 10:15 am

How many times have you heard someone say that “science tells us” – or that it shows, reveals, says, proves, or makes clear?


It’s very common. But it’s misleading.

Scientists never talk like this while they’re doing science, which suggests that there’s something wrong with it. Rather, we say: “Our experiment was inspired by the fact that X, which was shown last year by Y et al”.

Y et al aren’t just some bunch of famous smart guys who came up with an idea and told everyone, and everyone believed them, because scientists respect authority – which is what “Science Says” means.

No, Y et al is a paper, or other report, and when we say that it shows something, we mean it quite literally. Scientific data is like a photograph or, more accurately perhaps, a window, through which we can just see X.

‘Science’ is nothing special. It’s just looking at stuff.

Indeed, there are scientific papers where the key result is literally a photo, usually taken down a microscope or through a telescope, but still. This paper is a great example. The key result was that the little yellow thing in the third image grew some extra sprouts from day 0 to day 1. It takes some knowledge of the context to understand why that’s so interesting, but the actual result is right there.

However, even where the result isn’t literally a picture, it is still a window.

This line shows the chemical composition of a particular part of someone’s brain. Each of the peaks on the curve corresponds to a particular chemical, and the height of the peak tells us how much of that chemical there is.

There’s nothing mysterious about why particular chemicals cause particular peaks. It’s well understood. (Conceptually, it’s like each molecule is a bell, of a particular size and shape, and they make different sounds when you shake them around. The line is what you get when you shake the piece of brain up, and record how much of each sound you hear back.)

Getting this data is a high tech process requiring special equipment, but all that’s just background detail when you actually come to do it. Just as a photographer doesn’t need to worry about the mechanics of their camera, and you don’t need to worry about how your eye gathers and focusses light as you’re reading this.

There is an element of authority and trust in science, but not in any special sense. To take published evidence at face value, you do need to trust that the authors haven’t manipulated it, and to trust that they gathered it in the way they described.

But the same goes for any other kind of evidence. Any photograph could be Photoshopped, or the caption could be misleading. Anything you read could be made up. In everyday life, we don’t worry about this unless there’s a particular reason to.

A scientific journal is just a newspaper with access to better equipment.

There’s a view in which “Science” is a kind of oracle that hands down judgements from on high, with scientists as priests who record and proclaim the revelations. This leads to no end of problems.

It easily leads to the view that science is somehow especially hard to understand, or even that we can’t understand it, so there’s no point in trying. It can lead to the idea that science can’t be very interesting compared to the real world. It leads to questions what good it can do, or whether science can ever answer ‘the big issues’.

When you realize that science is just looking at stuff, you see that those concerns, far from being valid, don’t even make sense.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: philosophy, science
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14408369948377761936 gregory

    heh, science is the new religion .. it is believed in to such a high degree that it has created fundamentalists ..

    thanks for the post

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13670447320400400816 ramesam

    A well articulated post.
    It is my experience that many “religionists” (more particularly the New Age type) are the ones who use such phrases more often either to impress how much science they know or how correct their own religious dogma is – 'even science says so…'!
    These statements are used yet by another type of people to ridicule science whenever an earlier scientific opinion is subsequently revised. Some others try to consign or delimit science to utterly material things (argue that consciousness studies are beyond the scope of science).
    In the whole process, the true scientific spirit of “investigation” with a sense of wonder that underlies all Science is lost. Science is essentially that wonder as Dr. Feynman said: “I wonder; I wonder why; I wonder why I wonder why.”

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03709344771360482675 Brian Goegan

    This post reminds me of an episode of South Park where Eric Cartman ends up in the future where different races of otter are fighting in the name of “science”. Its hilarious, and makes the same point about how people treat science like a religion. Here is the full episode if anyone is interested:

    http://www.southparkstudios.com/full-episodes/s10e12-go-god-go

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05660407099521700995 petrossa

    I rather have science find a cure for cancer or invent a new gadget then answering 'big questions' because even if there was an answer it would immaterial since it wouldn't effect anything.

    Anyway Douglas Adams still stands lonely at the top for the ultimate answer.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06815277098386812048 Jayarava

    Agree. Sadly scientists do often fall into the trap of over-simplifying what they do. “Science says…” is all too common. I keep saying: science is not an entity; not an agent: it is a method. Then Brian Cox comes along and says “I can prove it”, Karl Popper turns in his grave, and I give in.

    If you tell people that Erwin Schrödinger didn't have a cat, they just don't believe you.

    My fav Feynman quote is “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06010623752049244967 Zephir
  • http://www.darthcontinent.com Darth Continent

    I do software development, and when talking shop with other software developers, there is certain shorthand which we use to facilitate rapid sharing of concepts.

    This shorthand helps us because it saves us from having to reinvent the wheel and explain things from the ground up over and over again. It facilitates discussion.

    I think scientists should among their colleagues present their findings in a manner which facilitates the optimal flow of information. One geneticist to another, for example, should freely use their very specific terminology to convey some novel findings about the nature of DNA.

    However, when geneticists are presenting their findings to those outside their field, they should delegate this task to someone who can effectively translate the particulars of the field into layman's terms.

    Effective leaders delegate tasks to their subordinates for which they don't have deep familiarity. Similarly, for scientists to effectively communicate their findings to the public at large, they should delegate the task of explaining these to someone who can not only understand these concepts, but explain them.

    This enables scientists to focus on their deep level of expertise without the “static” of having to dumb down concepts for the public.

  • Anonymous

    At some point during the reading, i got the impression that you didn't like science, but i don't think that's true, guess you're just angry at “it”.

    I'm posting this because science allowed me to, we live to 70 years old because science lets us to, you get the drift by now.
    So, as for blindly believing in science, well people have to believe in something, that's how we roll, anyway, being critical would be the solution, question everything and try to understand it, and even tho hope is for sissys, you gotta hope people “do” science because they want to, not to be more powerfull or richer, extremely naive right? Well, that's why i “do” science.

  • Anonymous

    The problem is, people who do science (researchers, students, etc) understand how the system works and how everything is based on data, formulas, models, and computation. Most lay people (note how the same term applies to people outside the clergy) are not familiar with how the process works, and do not understand that when an article comes out that makes a scientific claim, that claim is based on evidence, not just a neat idea or what someone wants to be true.

  • omg

    I'm assuming science is superior among scientists because it's their job. Out of billions only a fraction have access to medicines let alone scientific pursuits, as opposed to billions subscribing to religious worship – 2.1 billion Christians, 1.5 billion Muslims, 350 million Buddhists etc. I bet you more people believe in aliens than science which is probably the next phase to scientific belief systems if such a thing exists.

  • Anonymous

    I disagree. Science is more than just a photo. A paper is usually the consensus of a number of experts, both reviewers and authors, who agree on an interpretation of many different experiments to tell a story. Any observation in a good article is proven with an observation using a different technique. It is actually very reliable, relative to all other data sources. The comparison to a newspaper is a joke. Newspapers don't even check their sources anymore, much less peer review.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    Anonymous #1 – Not at all. I'm a scientist myself and I'm all in favor of science (so long as it's not sloppy or biased).

    What I'm arguing in this post is that science is nothing mysterious or magical, which means that many of the objections to or concerns about “science” are misguided because the “science” they're aimed at is this mysterious magical thing that doesn't exist.

    There will be more posts in this serious elaborating on the theme.

  • Pedro Almeida

    Actually the “Science says”-type statement is not at all exclusive of non-scientists. This is especially true, I guess, when one model constitutes a nice heuristic which may be used to look at and understand a bunch of data or a particular phenomena.

    I think there are at two levels on this discussion. On the first level, there is the overgeneralization of results from a specific piece of evidence. I'm remembering the literature on impairments in facial fear processing in psychopaths: few papers show they do present impairments (e.g. Blair, 2004), but most show they don't (e.g. Glass & Newman, 2006). However this idea makes so much sense at facial validity level that is not uncommon to hear “studies show that” relating to facial fear processing impairments in psychopathy in scientific meetings.

    The second, most interesting, level concerns model construction from the interpretation of data. The interesting thing about science is not so much good photographs, but how you put them together in order to make sense of the world (and especially the prediction of the photographs you will obtain from the model of the world you hold).

    It is easy to find different models based on roughly the same data on the literature. When a model of reality makes so much so sense, at some level you stop thinking about it as based on empirical results and start using it as a base upon to build other pieces of knowledge. A cool recent example, I guess, is the discussion over the existence of the subcortical colliculo-pulvinar-amygdala pathway and its role in emotional vision, discussed by Pessoa and Adolphs.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    Pedro: Absolutely, and that's something I glossed over, but only because I think it also applies to newspapers, and other areas of life; it's not special to science.

    We all use theories and models and so forth to explain events. So for example at the moment there's the theory that Libyan rebels are fighting for democracy, which may or may not be true; I really don't know, but it's a theory, and I would say it's very much like a scientific theory in many ways.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14767898974095933347 John

    Thought that you were going to go in a slightly different direction with this… maybe more into how popular reporting on scientific study tends to overgeneralize and not give fair coverage of competing models… would probably be interested to read your thoughts on that… still a good post on the idea that science is something fundamental and accessible for all. Thanks.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11312832447975423228 Meekohi

    “There's a view in which 'Science' is a kind of oracle that hands down judgments from on high”

    Exactly what science is not.

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Neuroskeptic

No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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