I think most competent, intelligent people would agree that our society – mostly fueled by right wing fundamentalist Christians and/or oil execs – is seeing a major assault on science. I would argue that this is more pervasive than even the standard anti-climate change conservatives; it is perpetrated by our poor education system as well as left wing radical animal rights activists, a lazy, profit drive media, and others. My views on that are for another post but the point is that it is clear that there are many misunderstandings about how science works. So here is an incomplete list of things I’d like to see more widely understood about science:
1. Yes, science is based on “theories” but those theories are upheld by consensus among experts in the field. How do you know if a theory, climate change for example, has passed the test? A good rule of thumb is that it is published in a peer reviewed journal. I found a great guide to understanding peer review in the scientific community here. The key points are:
- “Science has a system for assessing the quality of research before it is published. This system is called peer review.
- Peer review means that other scientific experts in the field check research papers for validity, significance and originality â€“ and for clarity.
- Editors of scientific journals draw on a large pool of suitable experts to scrutinise papers before deciding whether to publish them.
- Many of the research claims you read in newspapers and magazines, find on the internet, or hear on television and the radio are not published in a peer-reviewed journal.
- Some of this research may turn out to be good but much of it is flawed or incomplete. Many reported findings, such as claims about â€œwonder curesâ€ and â€œnew dangersâ€, never come to anything.
- Unpublished research is no help to anyone. Scientists canâ€™t repeat or use it and as a society we canâ€™t base decisions about our public safety â€“ or our familyâ€™s health for example â€“ on work that has a high chance of being flawed.
- So, no matter how exciting or compelling new scientific or medical research is, you must always askâ€¦ Is it peer reviewed? If not, why not?”
2. Almost all research is government funded, especially medical and pharmaceutical research. Just in case you buy the argument that if we had universal, single payer health care that medical “innovation” would take a down turn, you’re wrong. (Actually, it’s possible that it would take an upturn because the government would actually get compensated for successful drug research. Anyway …) Most drugs are developed by government funded research grants and then handed over, free of charge, to pharmaceutical companies to market and produce … in a monopoly for the first few years. (Yay for “free” markets! <- sarcasm) 3. Just because a break-through didn’t come directly out of previous research doesn’t mean that the break through could have happened without that research. Understanding what doesn’t work is just as important, and sometimes more important, than understanding what does.