Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Scientific Study Said WHAT?

I was listening to an NPR program a couple of days ago about how 2011 has been a year for scientific take-backs. Some of the supposed discoveries of recent times, such as zeroing in on a cause for aging, have gotten second looks by the scientific community. Some of the conclusions of these studies were rethought in 2011. Unfortunately, such news adds fuel to the anti-science flames that burn in the hearts and minds of some fundamentalist Christians. They want desperately for science to fail so that they can claim a victory for their dysfunctional religious theories like creationism. But these latest headlines do not cast doubt on the scientific process. There is no cause for scientists to hang their heads in shame. Quite the contrary: The news story on NPR shows how science works, and works very well. That is what science does; it corrects itself and moves on.

In today's world of blogs and up-to-the-second headline updates the pressure on the news media to report the latest scientific discoveries is tremendous. And the pressure on researchers to produce is equally intense. If you are a government-funded scientist working to discover something new or prove a favorite hypothesis, it is very tempting to report the positive results of a study you have conducted. And it is equally tempting for media to publish the results of scientific studies prematurely. That's because the consumers of information, the American public, are eager to find the answers to those vexing problems of life: How to slow the aging process, the best new drug therapy to treat X disease, the next new technological gizmo coming over the horizon. But what the media, and the public, seldom realize is that most of the scientific studies that are published in the mainstream media have not been published in peer-reviewed science journals yet. Some never get published in peer-reviewed science journals. Yet they are eaten up as a smorgasbord of facts by the general public. Then, after further scrutiny reveals flaws in the data or errors in procedure, the public gets irritated by the whole process and eventually becomes jaded and detached.

The researchers doing the studies may not have done anything wrong from a scientific standpoint. But the premature release of information, especially when accompanied by unverified conclusions, eventually can lead to distrust of the scientific process by the public. The scientific method is the best way of finding answers to nature's puzzles. But when researchers start forming their conclusions too early and leaking them to the public, they only do science a disservice. The proper manner by which the public should be informed of scientific research is to wait until after a study or an experiment has been published in a peer-reviewed journal. Even then the caveat is to assume that any findings are tentative until they have been verified by independent researchers. Even after repeated verification, conclusions in science cannot typically be assigned a certainty of 100 percent. Science works by the process of inductive reasoning, which almost never yields 100-percent certitude. But that's fine; if a theory is useful in predicting outcomes it is a perfectly satisfactory theory. Its value is in its usefulness.

So when you read about the latest scientific discovery or about the results of a new study, drill down into the details of the story to find out if it is a single study that has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal, or is it the end result of multiple research projects that is embraced by the scientific community as a whole? Be wary of the former, and understand that at some point, the rosy picture often painted by single studies often fades quickly.

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