Thursday, April 21, 2011

When scientists strive the charlatans thrive...

I believe in science. By that I mean, I prefer knowledge to assumptions. But, that statement is in itself fallacious as I said "I believe in science". After all, that's all I can do. I choose to take the words of the scientists as the truth - considering I haven't checked all the data myself. The general gist of a new discovery is simply presented to me through some scientific journal, or rather a magazine or newspaper article.

But “believing in science” does hold water, because if I chose to I could find all the data and methods of how a scientists attained a piece of evidence - in detail! It’s a scientist’s duty to report on every step of the process he needed to take in order to arrive at whatever theory he might wish to investigate. He cannot simply say "Hey! I found a new elementary particle!" and then not tell anyone how he found it. A theory will not be accepted by the scientific community if it hasn't been verified by several other studies and strict testing (the term “scientific community” is often used, although I personally find it a bit exclusive and elitist. But the unfortunate reality is that ordinary people don’t all have the “critical filter” which all scientists are inclined to have. More on this later). So all science is well accounted for. Or at least it should be!

It amazes me to find article after article in newspapers that tries to defy well established theories. Of course it is a good thing that even well-known theories are tested - after all they are only theories - but it would (and should) take a hell of a solid piece of evidence to knock a theory of its throne. The plight of modern science is that modern technology accelerates so fast that it’s impossible for even the keenest minds to keep track of it all. Instead, we prefer to have our science read, digested, and presented to us in a simplified way, for the most part by journalists. One of the drawbacks of this is that journalists can be quite sensationalistic and more interested in selling papers than presenting what's necessarily true. Hence, we get presented with a lot of novel, weak, and spurious science that may contradict established science and, thus, give the impression that "what you thought was true isn't true after all!" and almost give the readers a sense of fear.

I know I sound like a "dinosaur" in the way that I seem to be defending the already established theories and almost defying any new evidence. But let me emphasise that I am very much a supporter of developing, falsifying and verifying the theories we already have. After all, that is the quintessence of science and the only way science can move forwards. The issue is that the science we "laymen" and "mere mortals" are presented with is often the science that provides sensationalistic and catastrophising headlines, instead of sound and solid facts. The proof of this is ample in any newspaper you might read.

Take for example the opponents of climate change. The case of climate change and global warming is thoroughly accounted for through massive amounts of data and well-established evidence. Yet, there are people out there who claim it’s not caused by mankind but a natural occurrence. A few years back, the opponents gloated over an e-mail by one of the leading climate change investigators that indicated that the evidence proving global warming had been meddled with. This was taken as evidence that the entire global warming argument was a fabrication and a “lie”. The first journalist who reported on the email was a Daily Mail journalist. In a documentary, the famous Nobel prize winning scientist Paul Nurse interviewed the journalist only to discover that the journalist had not read any of the journal proving global warming himself, but rather had them broken down and presented to him. The fact that the evidence we get presented in newspaper articles is read and then broken down into “gists” through several links in a chain of journalists and investigators is frightening. This might imply that the “evidence” we are presented with is nothing but a mutated shadow of the original evidence presenting only a fraction of the data. Yet, this is the evidence non-scientific people are presented with and potentially choose to believe. As it turns out, the original e-mail that sparked the entire debate simply said that the data had been manipulated so that it would be easier to understand for non-scientists. Talk about snowball effect. The debate was an important reminder for the “scientific community” to be more open about their research. It is, in my view, imperative to decrease the gap between the scientists and normal population. It might hopefully lead to fewer misunderstandings in the future, and potentially a more enlightened society.

If you want another example, I recommend you read this Guardian article about the anti-nuclear activists. They seem to base their anti-nuclear evidence on spurious and weak facts, but gain a lot of support because people tend to think about Hiroshima and Chernobyl when they hear the word “nuclear”.

The habit of having scientific knowledge presented to us by journalists in such an accessible manner has led to people being readily susceptible to "scientific nomenclature"; a fact that charlatans all around the world have long realised and exploit to the full. Here the other day, I read this article about a company in the USA that sells "real water". Ordinary tap water apparently isn't safe enough anymore, according to "Real Water", which have enriched their super-water with electrons... "Electrons you say? Why, this sounds like proper science to me! You know, with all the chemistry and physics and atoms and whatnot... Take my money!!!"

You may think that my sarcastic imitation of an Average Joe might be a bit over the top, but the fact of the matter is that Real Water (and SO many other companies like them) actually manage to convince their customers that it’s true and people are literally throwing money at them. They've even got usual celebrity-support which of course validates the product way more than any proper scientist could. The same marketing strategies are used by homeopaths, quacks, and fraudsters all over the world. All they care about is exploiting your gullible ignorance (and fear) in order to make money! They fabricate facts that sound scientific to trick you into believing that their product will "save you". And I can think of no worse insult to the name of science...

So my point is this: Be critical of all science and "evidence" you get spoon-fed through papers and magazines or whatever. Don’t simply accept a fact for a fact, but ask yourself how did they find this evidence and arrive at this conclusion. If not, they'll be laughing all the way to the bank.


  1. The original copyrighted image you've used is here:
    It would be nice if you could credit © Craig Marston please, or alternatively use your own photograph..!

    1. Please accept my sincere apologies for not crediting you for the picture. I've removed the picture from the blog post. At the time when I wrote the post my blog was just a tiny blog, mostly for my friends and colleagues to read. The blog has since changed radically in style and direction, albeit under the same URL address, hence the old blog posts remain. However, that does not excuse using other people's work uncredited. Again, I am sorry and promise not to make the same mistake.