The audience were a bit remote.
With the rebirth of Cosmos on TV, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and the team have brought science back into the mainstream. No longer is science confined to the latest puff piece on cancer research that is only in the media because a) cancer and b) the researchers are pressuring the funding bodies to give them money. The terms geek and nerd have stopped being quite the derogatory terms they once were. We even have science memes becoming as popular as Sean Bean “brace yourself” memes.
This attention has also cast a light on the scientific process itself with many non-scientists and scientists passing comment on the reliability of science. Nature has recently published several articles discussing the reliability of study’s findings. One article shows why the hard sciences laugh at the soft sciences, with the article talking about statistical errors. I mean, have these “scientists” never heard of selection and sample bias? Yes, there is a nerd pecking order, and it is maintained through pure snobbishness, complicated looking equations, and how clean the lab-coat remains.
As a science nerd, I feel the need to weigh in on this attack on science. So I’m going to tear apart, limb by limb, a heavy hitting article: Cracked.com’s 6 Shocking Studies That Prove Science Is Totally Broken.
To say that science is broken or somehow unreliable is nonsense. To say that peer review or statistical analysis is unreliable is also nonsense. There are exceptions to this: sometimes entire fields of study are utter crap, sometimes entire journals are just crap, sometimes scientists and reviewers suck at maths/stats. But in most instances these things are not-science, just stuff pretending to be science. Which is why I’m going to discuss this article.
A Shocking Amount of Medical Research Is Complete Bullshit
#6 – Kinda true. There are two problems here: media reporting of medical science and actual medical science. The biggest issue is the media reporting of medical science, hell, science in general. Just look at how the media have messed up the reporting of climate science for the past 40 years.
Of course, most of what is reported as medical studies are often preliminary studies. You know: “we’ve found a cure for cancer, in a petri dish, just need another 20 years of research and development, and a boatload of money, and we might have something worth getting excited about.” The other kind that gets attention isn’t proper medical studies but are spurious claims by someone trying to pedal a new supplement. So this issue is more about the media being scientifically illiterate than anything.
Another issue is the part of medical science that Ben Goldacre has addressed in his books Bad Science and Bad Pharma. Essentially you have a bias toward positive results being reported. This isn’t good enough. Ben goes into more detail on this topic and it is worth reading his books on this topic and the Nature articles I previously referred to.
Many Scientists Still Don’t Understand Math
#5 – Kinda true. Math is hard. It has all of those funny symbols and not nearly enough pie charts. Mmmm, pie! If a reviewer in the peer review process doesn’t understand maths, they will often reject papers, calling the results “blackbox“. Other times the reviewers will fail to pick up the mistakes made, usually because they aren’t getting paid and that funding application won’t write itself. And that’s just the reviewers. Many researchers don’t do proper trial design and often pass off analysis to specialists who have to try and make the data work despite massive failings. And the harsh reality is that experiments are always a compromise: there is no such thing as the perfect experiment.
Essentially, scientists are fallible human beings like everyone else. Which is why science itself is iterative and includes a methods section so that results are independently confirmed before being accepted.
And They Don’t Understand Statistics, Either
#4 – Kinda true, but misleading. How many people understand the difference between statistically significant and significance? Here’s a quick example:
This illustrates that when you test for something at the 95% confidence interval you still have a 1 in 20 chance of a false positive or natural variability arising in the test. Some “science” has been published that uses this false positive by doing a statistical fishing trip (e.g. anti-GM paper). But there is another aspect, if you get enough samples, and enough data, you can actually get a statistically significant result but not have a significant result. An example would be testing new fertiliser X and finding that there is a p-value of 0.05 (i.e. significant) that the grain yield is 50kg higher in a 3 tonne per hectare crop. Wow, statistically significant, but at 50kg/ha, who cares?!
But these results will be reported, published, and talked about. It is easy for people who haven’t read and understood the work to get over-excited by these results. It is also easy for researchers to get over excited too, they are only human. But this is why we have the methods and results sections in science papers so that calmer, more rational heads prevail. Usually after wine. Wine really helps.
Scientists Have Nearly Unlimited Room to Manipulate Data
#3 – True but misleading. Any scientist *could* make up anything that they wanted. They could generate a bunch of numbers to prove that, for an example of bullshit science, the world is only 6000 years old. But because scientists are a skeptical bunch, they’d want some confirming evidence. They’d want that iterative scientific process to come into play. And the bigger that claim, the more evidence they’d want. Hence why scientists generally ignore creationists, or just pat them on the head when they show up at events: aren’t they cute, they’re trying to science!
But there is a serious issue here. The Nature article I referred to was a social sciences study, a field that is rife with sampling and selection bias. Ever wonder why you hear “scientists say X is bad for you” then a year later it is, “scientists say X is good for you”? Well, that is because two groups were sampled and correlated for X, and as much as we’d like it, correlation doesn’t equal causation. I wish someone would tell the media this little fact, especially since organic food causes autism.
Other fields have other issues. Take a look at health and fitness studies and spot who the participants were: generally, they are university students who need the money to buy tinned beans and beer. Not the most representative group of people and often they are mates with one of the researchers, all 4 of them. Not enough participants and a biased sample: not the way to do science. The harder sciences are better, but that isn’t to say that there aren’t limitations. Again, *this is why we have the methods section so that we can figure out the limitations of the study.*
The Science Community Still Won’t Listen to Women – Update
#2 – When I first wrote this I disagreed, but now I agree, see video below. As someone with a penis, my mileage on this issue is far too limited. That is why it was only when a few prominent people spoke out about this issue that I realised science is no better than the rest of society. It hurts me to say that.
There is still a heavy bias toward men in senior positions at universities and research institutes, women get paid less, women are guessed to be less competent scientists, and apparently, it is okay to ogle female scientists’ boobs… Any of these sound familiar to the rest of society? This is gradually changing, but you have to remember what age those senior people are and what that generation required of women (quit when they got married, etc). That old guard may have influence but they’ll all be dead or retired soon where their influence will be confined to the letters to the editor in the newspaper. After seeing the video below, especially the way the question was asked, I think it is clear that the expectations for women create barriers into and through careers in science (the racism is similar and is one I see as a big issue). So it starts long before people get into science, then it continues through attrition.
Fast forward to 1:01:31 for the question and NDGT’s* answer (sorry, embed doesn’t allow time codes).
Recently there has been a spate of very public sexist science moments. Whether it be telling female scientists they should find a male co-author to improve their science, or Nobel Laureates who don’t want to be distracted by women in the lab, it is clear that women in science don’t get treated like scientists. Which is why I find the Twitter response to the Tim Hunt debacle, #distractinglysexy, to be exactly the sort of ridicule required. Recent events seem to imply at least repercussions are occurring now.
Scientists are meant to be thinkers, they are meant to be smart, they are meant to follow the evidence. They aren’t meant to behave like some cretin who hangs out on the men’s rights movement subreddit discussion. Speaking of which, watch science communicator Emily Graslie discuss the comments section of Youtube.
Here’s another from Thought Cafe and Dr. Renée Hložek.
Update: After the first photo of a black hole was published, women in STEM were back in the headlines, with people wanting to again marginalise women in STEM – not to mention how the media love to promote the “lone genius” when science is a team thing. Vox had a great article on it which included some great graphs from Pew Research.
It’s All About the Money
#1 – D’uh and misleading. Research costs money. *This is why we have the methods section, so that we can figure out the limitations of the study.* Money may bring in bias, but it doesn’t have to, nor does that bias have to be bad or wrong. Remember how I said above that science is an iterative process? Well, there is only so big a house of cards that can be built under a pile of bullshit before it falls down in a stinky mess. Money might fool a few people for a while (e.g. climate change denial) but science will ultimately win.
Ultimately, science is the best tool we have for finding out about our reality, making cool stuff, and blowing things up. Without it we wouldn’t be, this article wouldn’t be possible, we wouldn’t know what a Bill Nye smack down looks like. Sure, there is room for improvement, especially in the peer review process and funding arrangements, and science is flawed because it is done by humans, but science is bringing the awesome every day: we have to remember that fact.
*Wow, who’d have thought including Neil DeGrasse Tyson in this context would age quite so badly!?
I like to think of myself as smart. My friends and work collegues would refer to me as that annoying know-it-all. Being smart is not actually as good as you would think. For example, having knowledge and understanding puts you at a severe disadvantage in an argument, as you are trying to be correct, rather than win the argument with made up nonsense. And, lets face it, everyone hates a know-it-all.
So here are 5 reasons being smart sucks (Original article from Cracked.com with some edits by Tyson Adams. Original here).
5) You’re Probably a Night Owl – And That’s a Bad Thing
Recently, scientists discovered a quirky side effect to having a high IQ: You tend to stay up until later hours and get up later in the morning. That’s right – the more intelligent are also much more likely to be night owls. Which isn’t such a surprise when you consider that intelligent people are infamous for burning the midnight oil to cram for tests, write papers, touch up those earnings reports, etc.It appears to just be evolution – the more intelligent members of a species are, in general, the first to change habits. Since humans have been day-dwellers during most of their existence, it’s primarily the smarties who prefer to habitually stay up until the wee hours and to do the types of tasks that are easier to accomplish when you don’t have the day-dwellers hanging around and distracting you.
Of course being a night owl does have some negative side effects, or rather a lot that will screw up your health. For starters, studies have found that “eveningness” is associated with a high degree of emotional instability. That means you tend to be less agreeable and conscientious than the average Joe. Oh, and you don’t just make others’ lives miserable. Thanks to your late-night habits, likely brought on by high intelligence, you’re also three times more likely to suffer symptoms of depression. According to a number of studies, night owls are at higher risk for heart disease and suffer more arterial stiffness than those who go to bed early. People who tend to stay up late also tend to do other unhealthy things at night, such as overeating. Then, once they do eventually hit the hay, they experience more sleep interruptions when those pesky morning larks get up and start noisying about. All this adds up to some nasty artery stress and whacked-out circadian rhythms, a nice recipe for a massive coronary.
4) You’re Less Likely to Pass On Your Genes
Another unfortunate stereotype of smart people is that they’re socially awkward nerds who are doomed to lives of celibacy until they get out of high school hell. Unfortunately, that one turns out to be totally true. But it’s not all bad news. There’s evidence that the highly educated get more enjoyment out of sex than the dumb jocks and that they make the woman in their lives happy. Yes, monogamy.
It all starts with the smart ladies. A 2008 national census reported that women who had dropped out of high school had the most children on average. And the more education women achieved, the fewer children they were likely to have, with the fewest children being born to women who had finished graduate school. Good news for overpopulation, bad news for picking up. Well, unless you want a dumb chick, who is likely to trap you with an unwanted child, as research found that women with lower IQs are less likely to know how to use birth control properly, leading to more unplanned pregnancies. Looks like Idiocracy was a startling insight into our future society.
3) You’re More Likely to Lie
Tyson note: I’m not sure I agree with this point because it assumes we are manipulative bastards. From my own experience managers are moronic manipulative bastards and they are usually following the Dilbert Principle.
The problem with being the smartest guy in the room is that you usually know you’re the smartest guy in the room. For some people, that’s not a big deal. They can relate to others just fine and know how to navigate around everyone else’s deficiencies without being complete pricks. Others, however, know they have an intellectual edge and can’t help but abuse it.
In order to lie and get away with it, you also have to keep the truth in mind and manipulate it, and you might even have to cover up your lies upon further questioning. All of this involves integrating several brain processes in much the same way that you would solve a complex calculus problem. This means that the age at which you start lying, and the effectiveness with which you do it throughout your life, are controlled by how smart you are.
In one study, scientists put people in brain-imaging machines and found that the regions of the brain that light up when a person metaphorically sets his pants on fire are the same that control “executive functioning.” These are high-order thinking and reasoning abilities that include working memory, which, you guessed it, is the single biggest component of your IQ.
2) You’re More Likely to Believe Bullshit
We’re sure that at some point, someone has told you that you can’t get anywhere without an education, and for the most part, they’re right. And you’re much more likely to pursue that education if you’re starting out with a high IQ. According to renowned intelligenceologists who painstakingly measured every goddamn thing that you can associate with IQ, test scores were “the best single predictor of an individual’s years of education.”
The problem is that education leads to one overall inaccurate belief: You think you’re smarter than you are. Three studies have found that people who fall for investment scams are better-educated than the average person but don’t seek advice because they think they’re immune to making mistakes. In one study, researchers found that 94 percent of college professors think their work is superior to their peers’. These fellows fail to realize that intelligence doesn’t always translate to real-world ability, and thus they tend to overestimate the quality of their work.
Whoa! Sure is getting crowded at the smart end of the bell curve. Right, guys?
It seems to go back to the old saying about how the wisest man is the one who realizes he knows nothing. Or, as Michael Shermer, the author of Why People Believe Weird Things, puts it: “Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.”
That’s why the more education you get, the more likely you are to believe in, say, ghosts and the supernatural. One study found that 23 percent of college freshman believed in the paranormal, compared with 31 percent of seniors and 34 percent of graduate students. Which leads us to wonder … what the fuck are schools teaching these days?
1) You’re More Likely to Be Self-Destructive
On one hand, it seems like the smarter you are, the greater your ability to know the dangers of, say, shooting heroin. So self-destructive habits are traits of the low-class and stupid, right? Eh, not really…
The thing is, the great minds have something in common with proverbial death-prone kitties: curiosity. Researchers have finally begun to understand the link between curiosity and intelligence on the molecular level, thanks to scientists from the University of Toronto and Mount Sinai Hospital who discovered a protein in an under-explored part of the brain that controls both traits.
It’s always in the last place you look.
Makes sense. Weird shit like monkey-powered time machines can be invented only by people with enough brain smarts to make them work and enough curiosity to want to see such awesomeness in the first place.
So extra-curious people are also extra-likely to be substance abusers. British scientists published the results of a long-term study showing that smart people were more likely to be drunks. People who fell into the “very bright” category (IQs of 125 or greater, that’s me) were not only more likely to experiment with alcohol but also were more likely to drink excessively and binge drink than their dimwitted counterparts. And they found the same link between high intelligence and psychoactive drug use. It also turns out that intelligent people are much more likely to indulge in illicit substances such as marijuana, Ecstasy, cocaine and heroin. The smarter you are, the more likely you are to be tripping balls at any given moment.
As for why, remember when we said earlier that smart people’s brains seek out novelty and thus are the first to experiment with any new habit? Well, one theory explaining the link between substance abuse and intelligence is that both alcohol and drugs are novel substances, in evolutionary terms. Humans have been consuming alcohol for only about 10,000 years, and the earliest recorded drug was only 5,000 years ago. So when something is novel, the curiouser and most intelligent among us are more likely to want to try it out.
You know. For science.