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Thursday, July 4, 2013

A Community Conversation - Part 5



A Community Conversation About Health and Responsibility: Vaccines and Beyond

Part 5:  What is Science?   

The term “science” is widely misunderstood by most people.  “Science” does not mean lab coats and test tubes.  It does not mean dissecting frogs and reading textbooks.  It does not mean advanced degrees and multi-million dollar labs.

Science is simply a set of rules for organizing thoughts and information.  If these rules are applied correctly, errors in thinking become obvious.  This gives you a chance to adjust your thinking to more accurately reflect reality.  Science also scales well.  It works at the individual level.  It works at the community level.  It works at the global level.

Let's give a more specific example.  Suppose that you read some books on foraging and decide that dandelion greens sound delicious.  You are out in your yard one day, eating a sandwich, and spot a dandelion green.  You put it in your sandwich and take a bite.  After chewing for a bit, you make a decision as to whether dandelion greens are, in fact, delicious.  Then you tell your friends.

That's science....let me explain why.

You did some background research which indicated that dandelions could be easily identified, were not toxic, and might taste good.  You developed a testable hypothesis that stated “Raw dandelion greens in my sandwich might be tasty to me.”  You did a controlled experiment (sandwich with dandelion green vs. sandwich without dandelion green).  You analyzed your data and drew a conclusion.  Then you communicated your results.

Incidentally, I have done this experiment.  I have concluded that raw dandelion greens taste bad.  To me, that is.  I have no scientific data for other people.  Except my children.  They think raw dandelion greens taste bad too. 

Another backyard scientist might point out that the taste of dandelion greens changes dramatically with the seasons.  I would then have to concede that my hypothesis had left out important data.  I would modify my conclusion to read “dandelion greens taste bad to me in the summer.”  I might do another experiment in January.  Or I might decide I was no longer interested in this particular scientific experiment and move on to hypotheses regarding different cookie ingredients.

Like many things, science is defined by the rules.  So is baseball.  Baseball is baseball as long as you follow the rules of baseball.  Baseball does not require hot dogs, giant stadiums, fireworks, and million-dollar player contracts.  It's still real baseball if you're playing on a dirt field with no spectators.  Baseball is baseball.  Science is science.

The rules of science are not that complex and it doesn't take a lot of education to apply them.  Small children can learn to do high-quality science.

However, even simple rules can get broken, forgotten or misunderstood.  This is why baseball has umpires.  This is why any good game handbook has two sections: the basics of the game and the nuances of how to deal with specific and unusual situations.

Science is much the same, with one critical difference: there's no single umpire.  Instead, there are many umpires.  Other scientists serve as umpires for the most complex aspects of specific scientific studies.  But there is another group of people who hold some responsibility to act as umpires for science.

Us.  You and me.  Yes, we all have a right and responsibility to ask questions about science and call foul if we see some serious rules violation.

Imagine you were at a baseball game in a big stadium and watched a player skip first and second bases completely.  Instead, the player just ran out to third base and ran back to home.  The umpire declared it a home run.  Do you suppose that everyone would just nod politely and cheer?  Not likely!  The stadium would ring with shouts of outrage...probably from fans of both teams!

Of course, not everyone is a fan of baseball.  You may not know or care about the rules of baseball.  So why should you know and care about the rules of science?

First of all, doing basic science at home can make your life better.  Science enables you to test what will work best for you in your life and to recognize what will not work well.  Does the more expensive product work better than the cheaper product?  Do you actually need any product at all?  Do an experiment and find out!  This kind of experimentation can save you thousands of dollars.  What forms of discipline are most effective with your children?  Do some experiments and find out!  Setting up genuine experiments and honestly examining the data can save you countless hours of stress and grief. 

Obviously, certain areas are not suitable for home science.  Subsistence farmers cannot do a lot of experimenting, because a crop failure would mean starvation.  Hobby gardeners can do experimentation, since they can always buy food at the grocery store if their crop fails.  Any real experiment may confirm or disprove a hypothesis.  If the results of a disproved hypothesis would be catastrophic, leave the science to people with a greater tolerance for risk.  Tasting a dandelion to see if you like it is a completely reasonable scientific experiment.  Tasting a random plant to see if it is poisonous may be scientific, but it's also a bad idea.

But why should you care about professional science?  For one, professional scientists can sometimes do the experiments that are too risky or too expensive for home scientists.  They can also work with much larger sets of data and come up with results that can be applied to a wider range of situations.

More significantly, you should care about professional science because it affects your life.  Unlike professional baseball, scientific claims are being used every day to influence and even control your choices.  Science is used to justify laws and guide health care.  Scientific claims can be found in nearly every newspaper, often with instructions on how to modify your life based on those scientific claims.  Science is used to claim both truth and morality.  Whether you like it or not, science is a significant force in your life.

Learn the basic rules of science and apply them in your life.  If you see someone making a scientific claim, do your due diligence as an umpire.  Pseudoscience is philosophy dressed up in a costume to look like science.  Don't be fooled.  Bad science is science that has (intentionally or accidentally) broken some of the basic rules of science.  Don't be fooled.  Bad reporting is a newspaper article that takes a real scientific study and simplifies or distorts it beyond all recognition.  Don't be fooled.  See our blog for more information on recognizing pseudoscience, bad science, and bad science reporting.

Real, high quality science is a powerful tool.  Don't let the charlatans and counterfeiters deceive you.  Do your due diligence as both a citizen scientist and as an umpire.  You deserve real science.  Don't settle for less.

“A Community Conversation About Health and Responsibility: Vaccines and Beyond” is an ongoing series written by two close friends with a passion for improving community cohesion and building respectful relationships in a diverse world.  This article was co-created by Karen Crisalli Winter and March Twisdale.   BLOG:  Vaccinesandbeyond.blogspot.com   Email:  KarenandMarch@rocketmail.com