For decades, scientists have assumed that the lineages of humans and apes diverged between five to seven million years ago and that the first pre-humans developed in Africa. But analysis of two very ancient fossils, a pre-human tooth and lower jawbone unearthed in Bulgaria and Greece, has thrown the previously-accepted theory of Africa as the birthplace of modern humans into doubt.
The single greatest threat to science right now comes from within its own ranks. Last year Nature, the prestigious international science journal, published a study revealing that “More than 70% of researchers have tried and failed to reproduce another scientist’s experiments, and more than half have failed to reproduce their own experiments.”
The March for Science is another one of those liberal anti-Trump rallies. This one is being organized by scientists who believe the Trump administration is planning on reversing every scientific discovery since Copernicus. Originally they chose Bill Nye the fraudulent science guy as their public face, but there was an uprising against the decision because he’s a white guy.
I’ve followed science stories for over two decades now. As so often, the answer is simpler, clearer, and less comfortable*:
Most people who do not work in science or follow science news interact with it in areas like medicine. Medicine matters.
Even if the Higgs boson were shown to be a fraud, it would be nothing more than the Piltdown Particle. Most people who didn’t care before won’t start to care now.
Cancer diagnoses, by contrast, get everybody’s attention immediately.
So here’s what really happens: People like myself who have dear friends fighting breast cancer find out that treatment drugs failed replication. But, worse, that replication is not usually even risked. Or else we find out stuff like this: Ideological nonsense around gender equalityharms, possibly sometimes kills, women patients. Could that have played a role in the death of someone we know?
Anyone who thinks that people who want change are just anti-science should stay clear of public policy for now. Their blinkers will not do them or their causes any good.
Face your desk.
(On the other hand, if I don’t support the cause, maybe I should cheer them on.)
* People facing unaccustomed challenges resort to conspiracy thinking. In politics, for example, recent changes in leadership are blamed on the alt right,fake news, and various conspiracies when the reality is often that people who were trusted were asleep at the switch and didn’t give good answers or advice. Something similar is happening with the marchin’, marchin’ phenomenon in science.
See also: Marchin’, marchin’: The experts are right, it’s the facts that are wrong Reynolds: “According to Foreign Affairs magazine, Americans reject the advice of experts so as “to insulate their fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong.” That’s in support of a book by Tom Nichols called The Death of Expertise, which essentially advances that thesis.” Hmmm. Sounds like Nichols is another candidate for our Blinkers Award.
Blinkers Award goes to… Tom Nichols at Scientific American! On why Americans “hate science”
The high cost of marchin’, marchin’ for Science: If female, you could be road kill yourself It’s good that social sciences are not really sciences anyway. But seeing how their point of view has spread into medical sciences, which can actually help people, is disconcerting
According to Foreign Affairs magazine, Americans reject the advice of experts so as “to insulate their fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong.” That’s in support of a book by Tom Nichols called The Death of Expertise, which essentially advances that thesis.
Hmmm. Sounds like Nichols is another candidate for our Blinkers Award. Reynolds touches on many topics, including some raised here, such as:
By its fruit the tree is known, and the tree of expertise hasn’t been doing well lately. As Nassim Taleb recently observed: “With psychology papers replicating less than 40%, dietary advice reversing after 30 years of fatphobia, macroeconomic analysis working worse than astrology, the appointment of Bernanke who was less than clueless of the risks, and pharmaceutical trials replicating at best only 1/3 of the time, people are perfectly entitled to rely on their own ancestral instinct and listen to their grandmothers.” More.
Probably, but it’s best that the instincts consulted actually be ancestral instincts—and real grandmothers.
Any time now, the evolutionary psychologist will chime in with a pop science retro about why we evolved so as not to trust experts and what a shame that is. One can count on them not to even envisage the possibility that if we had trusted experts, most of us would be dead, not running the planet. For… they are Experts, right?
See also: The high cost of marchin’, marchin’ for Science: If female, you could be road kill yourself It’s good that social sciences are not really sciences anyway. But seeing how their point of view has spread into medical sciences, which can actually help people, is disconcerting
Shades of “Blinkers Award goes to… Tom Nichols at Scientific American! On why Americans “hate science”
“The evolutionary psychologist knows why you vote — and shop, and tip at restaurants”
The traffic light you see ahead
is sometimes green and sometimes red.
The red on top means “stop, stop, stop.”
The green below means “go, go, go.”
“…I found myself thinking about yellow lights as I looked through the exhaustively detailed report, “Human Genome Editing: Science, Ethics, and Governance,” recently produced by an advisory group formed by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine. In most ways the salient moral issues do not seem to me to have changed much from the last time I thought at length about these issues roughly a decade ago.
One thing, however, has changed considerably—namely, the development of what is called CRISPR/Cas9, a new method for “editing” the human genome. Attempts at gene therapy, although not terribly successful, have been around for some time. What CRISPR/Cas9 appears to offer, however, is an efficient and precise method for altering (both by addition and deletion) an organism’s genetic material. We stand on the brink of an age in which our capacity to modify the human genome may increase enormously. And not surprisingly scientists are eager to proceed with gene-editing research.”
Scientists have found a new solar system filled with planets that look like Earth and could support life, Nasa has announced.
At least three of the seven planets represent the “holy grail for planet-hunting astronomers”, because they sit within the “temperate zone” and are the right temperature to allow alien life to flourish, the researchers have said. And they are capable of having oceans, again suggesting that life could flourish on them.
No other star system has ever been found to contain so many Earth-sized and rocky planets, of the kind thought to be necessary to contain aliens.
For three anti-smoking advocates—local physicians Richard Sargent and Robert Shepard, and activist and researcher Stanton Glantz from the University of California at San Francisco—this sudden drop in heart attacks was proof that smoking bans usher in extraordinary benefits for public health. “This striking finding suggests that protecting people from the toxins in secondhand smoke not only makes life more pleasant; it immediately starts saving lives,” said Glantz in a press release sent out by UCSF.
Newspapers ran with the story, credulously assuming that the correlation had been truly caused by the smoking ban. “The bottom line of Helena’s plummeting, then soaring, heart attack rate is painfully obvious,” warned an op-ed in the New York Times. “Secondhand smoke kills.” The BBC projected that “[banning] smoking in public places could prevent hundreds of deaths from heart disease.” Wire services carried the result around the globe, and even the conservative Wall Street Journal cited the result as an important finding.
When the Helena study and its heirs were originally published, a few scientists noted that the results were wildly implausible and the methodologies deeply flawed. So did a handful of journalists, including Jacob Sullum writing for Reason (to which I am also a contributor) and Christopher Snowdon in England. Yet their criticism was generally ignored. Studies reporting miraculous declines in heart attacks made global headlines; when better studies came along contradicting those results, they barely registered a blip in the media. …
There were good reasons from the beginning to doubt that smoking bans could really deliver the promised results, but anti-smoking advocacy groups eagerly embraced alarmism to shape public perception. Today’s tobacco control movement is guided by ideology as much as it is by science, prone to hyping politically convenient studies regardless of their merit and ostracizing detractors.
This has important implications for journalism. More.
Of course, if science communicators keep getting away with it, they will keep doing it. Science really can be high tech voodoo using numbers. And then it must be kept in place by fear, not trust.
On a personal note: I found the anti-second hand smoke campaign rolled out across Canada some years ago disturbing. One government-sponsored ad featured women who were dying of cancer, whose husbands had smoked. The clear implication was that the wife got cancer (implication terminal) because the husband smoked.
The problem is, we don’t usually know that. Smoking greatly increases a person’s chance of lung cancer but not all lung cancers are caused by smoking. And second-hand smoke damage necessarily depends on many factors, including how much time a person spends involuntarily inhaling how much smoke.
I have never smoked, disapprove of the practice for many reasons, and support smoking bans in public places, as well as crackdowns on sales to minors and smuggling.
But I am concerned about using science to pretend we know more than we do, using voodoo numbers. That could lead to later family problems: = Dad killed Mom because he smoked. Science PROVES it! = We hate Dad. = [that’s just great when Dad is old and sick and needs family support]
Please. The world is full of problems for which we have a much clearer trail of cause and effect. – O’Leary for News
5) The article is sensationalized; i.e., it draws huge, sweeping conclusions from a single study. (This is particularly common in stories on scary chemicals and miracle vegetables.)
9) The article is about evolutionary psychology. More.
The “huge, sweeping conclusions” problem is especially scandalous in fields like nutrition, which is already a mess.
And, as noted elsewhere, evolutionary psychology does not explain puzzling human behavior. It offers Darwinian explanations for conventional behavior, with no insight that exceeds the results of applying common sense.
Evo psych is big in pop science media precisely because it’s so easy. Just call your town Bedrock, build a story about it on some recent evo fluff, and suddenly everyone understands the place just like it was home… Hmmmm?
See also: Darwin’s wastebasket: Time perception, evolutionary psychology, and Donald Trump
Now, in the age of Google, the frontiers of knowledge are misleadingly comprehensible rather than inaccessible. Their very accessibility means that we may not see the complex context before arriving at each nugget of information and often, we don’t want to. One of the most contentious statements of 2016 was “Britain has had enough of experts”, but perhaps a more useful starting point for debate is “have people have had enough of complexity”? It applies to science as well as politics. The problem is that the world really is complex. And the other problem is that no-one has time to deal with all that complexity – it’s tiring and frustrating to try, and denial or straightforward trust are often the easiest coping mechanisms. Simple explanations are easy to remember, and satisfying to understand. But in the complex modern world (especially with topics like genetics, climate, nanotechnology and more), they may often be wrong. So what should we scientists do? Instilling confidence in the scientific landscape (by making science easily accessible) and honestly conveying the best judgement based on the available evidence seem to be conflicting aims.
We need to earn trust in the scientific system in a new way, one that is transparent and open and human. That requires consciously re-building the ties between science and society, but not by inventing a new kind of lofty ideal. It’s simpler than that: this is about conversations. It means taking individual time to talk to others: our neighbours, our Facebook friends, and also the people we might normally shy away from – anyone who is part of the fabric of our society. And it’s not just about talking. It’s about listening, and responding in a respectful way. We need to put ourselves in places where we’re not comfortable, and let others judge the content for themselves. I’m starting to think that “media training” for scientists often misses the point, because it implies that there’s a difference between talking to an interviewer and talking to anyone else. What we need is to have confidence that strong positive dignified behaviour (in any and every environment) is what will make the world a better place. If you can do that with your argumentative neighbour, you can surely manage it in a radio interview. The same skills are important: not scoring points but honest evidence-based debate. Demonstrating good behaviour is one of the most powerful ways of instilling confidence in the scientific system. If we can’t convey every nuance of our protocols and analysis, we can at least convey the spirit in which we work. More.
In any event, one does not create more trust by saying, Believe me or else! Bill Nye, for example, would criminalize dissent from human-caused global warming claims.
If Nye’s “or else!” doesn’t materialize, he has no other argument. That is, it is very difficult to revisit evidence-based arguments with people after one has resorted to empty threats against them.
See also: Geologist on why a scientists’ march on Washington is a bad idea An increasingly typical (but usually unspoken) response to “I Marched!” is, “Who cares?” Why not save the jet fuel by staying home and helping educate the community? Especially if your big thing is the environment?
In a free country, scientists can march, if they want. But they should really apply the scientific method to the question of whether that is the best way to reach people today.
If they look like Josie, well what harm could there be?
“Scientists at the University of Chicago have created the first genetically modified animals containing reconstructed ancient genes, which they used to test the evolutionary effects of genetic changes that happened in the deep past on the animals’ biology and fitness.”