Let’s have a chat, brain to brain. Let’s have a chat about science, your social media pages, and your health. Ready to run yet? Good, I want to make you uncomfortable. But hopefully you’ll sit through this series of blog posts, and we can have a productive, science-based discussion on what is actually good for us. This is going to be a series of posts, because I have a lot to talk about on this subject. There are a lot of nuanced aspects of such discussions that cannot be covered in a lifetime of blog posts, never mind one or two posts.
First, this is where I tell you a truth that almost no one you’re re-pining or re-blogging will tell you:
I am not a doctor. I am not a dietician. I have no professional or clinical training of any sort. So do not take my work as medical gospel. My hope with this blog is to make you question what you think you know and make you have a honest conversation with yourself about your health, diet, and online habits.
While I am not a doctor, what I do have is an understanding of science and a high degree of respect for logic in its academic & computational definitions. I may not excel at logic, I falter on it a lot, but I try… and so should you.
Now that I’ve gotten my due diligence out of the way, we can get to the meat of what I want to talk about.
Science is actually fairly simple, it is a process that you need to understand and use more. We all do.
Did you take science in school? Did you learn about the scientific process? Do you know that science is one of the last bastions of critical thinking? (Okay, that last one might just be my opinion.) If not, before we go any further, there are a couple links I want you to read.
Yes, I am giving you homework. This is for your own good, because you and I need to be on the same page about what science is, is not, and how peer-review works. If you do not understand these things, then you’re not going to consider a word I have to say because you “just know” something is right and you think I’ve drank some Mythical Science Kool-Aid. (Seriously, I would like that flavor to exist. It would be awesome.)
Before we begin I would like you all to take this survey posted by Smithsonian Magazine. It’s a survey of basic science questions to gauge your scientific knowledge against the general populace. In honor of transparency, I got 12 out of 13. I got the question regarding the most prevalent gas in the atmosphere wrong after changing my answer. I feel like a complete moron for this, but they did always try to teach me to stick with the gut answer. It’s only 13 questions, and when you’re done comment and let me know what you got! If you got something wrong and want to discuss it, feel free to tell me which one you got wrong. This is a judgement free-zone… I want to help people understand the world around them, so I will not give you grief or allow anyone else to give you grief.
Now that you know where you stand amongst the rest of us, let’s get started:
1) “What is science?”
A quick Google of that very sentence gave me this; you can click the picture for the link to see yourself. Play particular attention to the second bullet point: ‘a systematically organized body of knowledge on a particular subject.’
There are 1.77 BILLION responses on Google to that question, and my guess is 90% of them are either niche specific or completely useless (read: wrong).
After searching quite a bit for pages that best cover what is accepted by the scientific community as the definition of “science”, I found a few pages that are easy to follow and light on the jargon. You should check these out and share them.
The first link I have for you is from Berkeley. It covers what is and is not science and does so in a way that is not mind-numbing.
The second link is from the United Kingdom’s Science Council on the definition of science. There are no geo-political borders on what science is. The method used is used across the globe. It is a common human language.
Both of these sites are full of information and good sources.
2) What is The Scientific Method?
I honestly hope you think I’m being condescending at this point, that you know exactly what the hell The Scientific Method is and want to quit reading, but again this is post one of many to follow and to make sure I’ve done my part to put everyone on a level playing field.
If you’re roughly my age you were taught a six or seven step process that basically functions as a flow chart. Here is a link to a lovely NASA page for teachers that covers all the steps according to the traditional method we all got out of our school science books. This teaches the logic of the process.
Personally, I was never taught to “draw conclusions”; I was always taught to report on my findings from a purely analytical standpoint. Honestly I think it’s pretty dangerous to draw conclusions on things you’ve done all the research on, because unless you spend a lot of time training your brain to be objective, your conclusions are likely to be clouded by your own personal feelings and attachments. I feel like this is where you get a lot of people screwing up correlation and causation. They are not the same and one does not equal the other. I will cover that in a later blog post.
3) What is peer-review?
This is probably my favorite one to talk about. Since it can be subjective. For example:
I do a study saying bunnies are the greatest pets ever for urban life. I follow the scientific method, I report on my findings and pass them onto a peer to look it over and make sure I didn’t screw up.
Well, I only give my report to other crazy bunny people. There is a bias in my peer sample. The odds that they’re going to agree with my conclusions are pretty freaking high.
Now imagine I’m doing a study on the efficacy of yak extract! I believe it is the greatest freaking thing ever, do a study using only participants that are big into homeopathy, and I purposefully exclude skeptics. I finish up my study, turn over all my papers to other homeopathy specialists (excluding formal doctors and dieticians), and get my paper printed in a pro-homeopathy journal.
The odds those people will call me or anyone else on the glaring flaw in my participant sample is remote. Yes, my report was “peer-reviewed”, but it was peer-reviewed in the same way a group of drunken sailors peer-review their Friday night “hold my beer” moments. Every one of them is biased because they are all friends. Friends are traditionally like-minded and not mean to one another.
This is a problem in science. You shouldn’t expect people to be nice if your findings are hogwash. Your results should be testable, and your process should include appropriate variables.
That homeopathy study I did was basically a test as to whether or not homeopaths stick together, not whether or not that yak-extract was a viable drug.
4) But if science can’t get its own process right, then what am I supposed to do?
Use those under-polished critical thinking skills. THINK. Because, yes… the peer-review process is flawed, but if someone couldn’t be bothered to put their name on the line with a wide variety of scientists, then why should they claim it to be “scientific” at all? No one likes to be told they’re wrong – the Catholic Church took a couple hundred years to get over the fact Galileo put the Sun at the center of our solar system. Andrew Wakefield has yet to apologize for his falsified vaccine study that has sickened millions of children worldwide, and it took the journal that reported it two years to retract it. Mr. Wakefield has since been stripped of his medical license and credentials by the science community and is no longer allowed to participate in science on a clinical and academic level.
That study was sent to a peer-reviewed journal, yet it was still published. How? Because that ‘doctor’ falsified his findings and did not appropriately account for changes in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders occurring at the same time to push the outcome he wanted.
5) What is the price of scientific illiteracy?
Diet fads. I can’t even begin to tell you how painful Google is on this one. Just don’t. Go to NIH.gov and type in whatever fad diet you’re looking for info on.
So here we are, if you read this thing, and you aren’t my boyfriend, comment and tell me what you think. I am trying to branch out and reach others. So, what part of above resulted in more questions than answers? What are those questions?
Comment below and stay tuned for Part 2 next Sunday.
Cheers & Beers,