Post No.: 0908
The media, and we as media consumers, can occasionally perceive that some findings in science are perpetually tenuous, contradictory and ‘probably going to change again soon’ i.e. science seemingly ‘saying one thing one day then something else the next’.
Sometimes it’s just us reading some findings as contradictory, like being told that ‘fat is bad for us’ then ‘fat is good for us’ – when really the overall non-oversimplified message is that both too much and too little fat is bad for us, or they could’ve studied different kinds of fats, if only we read beyond the headlines or first paragraphs of a story and were able to weigh up all the related evidence in the field simultaneously and not just the latest findings that have been brought to mind. Some of us might nevertheless start attacking this misrepresentation of science, thinking that we’re critiquing the institution of science itself when really we’re not.
New discoveries, perhaps due to using more accurate instruments or conducting more comprehensive studies, can sometimes genuinely overwrite old theories. However, some scientists can make honest mistakes or alternatively purposefully commit fraud.
So one source that muddies the waters of science and makes us feel that ‘science cannot ever make its mind up’ are organisations that have the financial and political power to cast doubt on or hide research that harms their self-interests, like tobacco corporations historically casting doubt on the harms of smoking. In the 1970s, the massive energy corporation Exxon Corporation decided not to publish its own findings that found its own products contributed to climate change, and even denied this evidence existed! Such giant corporations or industries have the resources to flood the media channels and search results with their own propaganda, to bribe governments or just simply pressure governments to give them what they want otherwise they’ll threaten to take their businesses and jobs abroad.
Relatedly, not all ‘science news’ is about reporting on a newly published study but on a scientist expressing his/her own personal opinions. Perhaps they have an undeclared personal stake in a certain product or school of thought and the timing of the press release coincides with the release of that product or a proposed regulation they’re opposed to? Some scientists will happily accept money to say whatever their paymasters want them to say. Some scientists who make specific claims aren’t even scientists in the relevant fields they’re commenting on. All this in the wider picture can instigate a generalised public distrust in scientists, genuine experts and scientific evidence regarding anything from the safety of 5G telecommunications masts or how to best tackle a coronavirus.
Those with political ambitions know that it’s an advantage to first go acquire or otherwise own and control a major media company so that they can control the messages and coverage for at least a subset of the electorate. Such sources can consequently be heavily politically partisan. And if any media giants themselves are accused of wrongdoings, they have the power to try to pin or smear the blame onto scapegoats lower in the hierarchy rather than the high-ranking editors or executives. They’ll use the clichéd corporate brand damage limitation excuse of ‘it was only due to a few bad apples (from middle to low managerial positions), who have now been fired from our company, hence the problem is solved and we don’t need any external scrutiny’, like with the News International phone hacking scandal. Something systematic always comes from the top and permeates down the entire organisation like runny slime, whether through intention or through incompetence for not knowing what’s happening within one’s own organisation. They’ll always first try to hide something internally, or fashion some official deception that aims to protect the organisation’s public reputation.
Media articles also frequently present didactic truth statements even though scientific findings don’t exactly tell us what to do about them – the findings and what to do about them are separate discussions since ‘is’ isn’t the same as ‘ought’. Advice isn’t objectively found in empirical data – it’s subjectively interpreted from it. Because of differing interpretations of the results – different seemingly contradictory conclusions and advice can sometimes be simultaneously correct as far as the current data shows.
There are those who believe that faith overrides empirical science. But there are also those who believe that what’s reported in science news is always unquestionable too. Thus some people ironically take science news as some kind of religiously sacrosanct text – forgetting to question what they read or hear just because it comes with the label ‘science’. Different scientific experiments result in different confidence levels for their furry findings or conclusions hence not all science, or thus science news, is equal e.g. a preliminary trial versus a repeat experiment. Science news should be questioned like anything else – one shouldn’t attempt to take shortcuts to find the best knowable truth otherwise one can be misled.
Question claims that seem to support your existing worldviews. For instance, there was a study conducted on television that ostensibly demonstrated that junk food given to children makes them more boisterous and aggressive – but I could tell the study was flawed because the group that was given healthful options were placed in a quiet room with no party decorations or toys, whilst the group that was given junk food options were placed in a room with music and party paraphernalia, thus that party context could’ve influenced their behaviour. So even though the conclusion was something that supported my view that junk food should only be consumed in moderation – it wasn’t good science. (Other studies have shown that junk food does seem to have an adverse effect on aggression and concentration but they’ve yet to conclude whether it has to do with what’s included in those foods and/or what’s lacking?)
Another study a while back attempted to investigate what made Formula 1 drivers better drivers than others and they used eye motion trackers and concluded that Formula 1 drivers on track focused intently on limited areas (the braking points) instead of constantly moved their eyes around like people on the public roads do (or need to because of traffic lights, oncoming traffic, pedestrians, etc.!)
The scientific community arguably operates through ‘organised scepticism’ where everyone checks up on everyone else’s work. Whenever an academic paper gets published, the author’s words don’t automatically and instantly become definitive and the new established theory – this is only the start of the peer scrutiny.
But the peak-end rule regarding memory can mean that the last thing one learns about can shape our views more than most other information gleaned before that. And due to WYSIATI, we make decisions based only on any information that’s currently brought to mind rather than on everything we know about a subject in total. It’s like whenever we judge whether we like somebody, we’re heavily influenced by the last impression we had of them, along with the most salient impression that we cannot help but be reminded of whenever we think about them. We don’t always aggregate and weigh out all of the impressions we’ve ever had with them so far in total.
But all previous research on the exact same research question doesn’t just disappear or automatically become overridden, unless the new evidence is strong enough and repeat studies confirm it. ‘Latest’ doesn’t necessarily automatically mean ‘overrides all before’. Every new finding doesn’t necessarily make all findings before that obsolete – it usually appends onto the existing literature in that field. So be mindful of the whole extant forest (entire literature or meta-analyses) rather than just one or two trees in isolation (an individual study or preliminary trial). It’s like a large randomised clinical trial versus a small one – the larger the sample size, the more chance that individual biases cancel each other out. So look at the whole picture. Large, old, established trees can get chopped down but new saplings that contradict the former will need to provide extraordinary evidence for their extraordinary claims. Many young saplings get debunked before they grow into established trees e.g. in the case of faster-than-light neutrinos, at least for the indefinite foreseeable time.
We might stumble upon some science news that says genetics are responsible for obesity so conclude it’s only down to genes or nature. Then stumble upon later research that says its environmental factors so conclude it’s only down to the environment or nurture. We might therefore think the conclusion keeps flipping sides – when the best truth is that it’s a bit of both. Scientists can ask subtly different research questions, operationalise phenomena in different ways and use different methodologies, so maybe they’re all correct in their own ways if we examine the details? A sensationalised headline might exclaim ‘going to the gym is bad for you’ but it’s really talking about the potential germs on shared equipment, and it’s not like these cannot be cleaned, and exercise is still overall good for us. (That’s why Post No.: 0891 endorsed always reading beyond the (clickbait) headlines.) Granting anyone power of attorney can be risky because of potential abuses stemming from badly drafted contracts, but they’re still invaluable in case of mental or physical incapacitation. A little bit of knowledge can thus be a dangerous thing. We should aggregate the things we learn unless there’s any direct reason why a previous finding is now void.
Likewise, read multiple news articles on the same story from different sources that are independent from each other. Hold no evidence in isolation – hold them all simultaneously in mind.
If you study a subject formally, you’ll be presented with a wide breadth of literature on it to read as opposed to stumbling across one (sensationalised) media article at a time, and so you’ll have a better chance of assessing the whole present picture as it stands. So studying a formal academic course on a subject from a reputable institution will give you a holistic view of the state of the art instead of a piecemeal and fragmented understanding. You may have heard from one expert and think that what this individual says is what all experts on the same subject think – but if you hear from dozens of independent experts on the same issue, you might understand that the issue is more complicated than that. We don’t have to study a course on every subject that matters to us – but it helps to have an academic mindset; by which I mean to understand that no single news article, video, debate or source is definitive enough on any large subject, and we usually need to aggregate lots of independent sources of information before beginning to properly understand something.
When we know little about a particular subject, we can believe that one or two articles or videos that sound confident and definitive in their conclusions has explained to us all that we ever need to know about it, and this can make us feel confident enough ourselves to spread our views loudly on social media. But we need to consciously and continually remind ourselves that there may still be things we don’t know we don’t know. We can still share our views but be less bullish and more humble about it – to share with the aim of collaborating rather than preaching. Knowing that this is what people with true expertise do – we should listen less to those who sound insistent and self-righteous.
When we have particular conclusions we strongly support though, like we don’t like going to the gym – we’ll weigh the findings that appear to confirm these conclusions much more heavily than any findings that disconfirm them! A news article exploring the benefits of working from home will get those who disagree with this up in arms. A news article exploring the drawbacks of working from home will get those who disagree with that up in arms! But both articles can be valid regarding the points they make.