You are bitching about the wrong things when you read an article about scienceS

Science may be a source of fascinating, world-changing discoveries, but that doesn't stop people from bitching about it. Two of the most common complaints from the public about scientific work are actually complete misunderstandings of how science is done. The worst part is that these two complaints divert the public's attention away from two reasons they should be criticizing science articles but almost never do.

Don't Bitch Like This

Here is the number one complaint I've seen from readers of articles about science:

1. "Duh - that's obvious."

It's the kind of response that people have to studies about how alcohol leads to poor decision-making, and articles about how urban blight increases racial tensions (though in fact that study, which everybody thought was so obviously true, turned out to be based on falsified data).

This is in fact such a common complaint that the LA Times' Eryn Brown wrote an article last year explaining why science sometimes makes you say "duh." Her reasoning was that oftentimes things that seem obvious - such as the fact that smoking causes cancer - have met with incredible skepticism and required countless studies to pound the point home.

The other point that I would make is that a comment like "duh that's obvious" relies entirely on common sense and anecdotal knowledge. And the scientific method does not acknowledge either as a valid method of proving something about the world. That's why science has destroyed "common sense" ideas like the world being flat. It's why anecdotes about bright lights in the sky do not scientifically prove that fairies exist.

Science is designed to challenge our common sense assumptions about the world because they are often wrong. Sometimes, however, common sense turns out to be right. Which is why occasionally science seems to prove the obvious. But that's not science being useless - it's science doing what it does best, which is applying rigor and rationality to anecdote and dogma. So science has offered evidence that dogs pay attention when we talk to them. Seems like a "no, duh" right? Yes, but now we can prove that it's true, and not just some widely-held delusion based on YouTube videos.

So next time you want to say "no, duh" to a scientific finding, consider that there's a big difference between feeling like something is true and having evidence that it's true based on concerted study.

Here's the second wrong-headed complaint about science stories, which in many ways overlaps with the first:

2. "Nobody should be paid to study that."

You often hear this complaint about government-funded science - especially from politicians like Senator Tom Coburn, who suggested deep cuts in the National Science Foundation budget last year. But I also see it being brought up in the comments sections on science articles a lot, regardless of who funded the study. Usually it's when we've got a "no duh" study, but sometimes it's when the subject at hand is politically charged, like climate change.

In part this is the wrong response to science for the reasons I listed above, which is that science is a ruthless examination of everything existing - including stuff you don't care about. But you know what? Things that you don't care about, like say blue green algae, sometimes turn out to be goldmines of information. Though blue green algae, or cyanobacteria, was once deemed an obscure focus for microbiologists, these tiny creatures turn out to be energy powerhouses and are being exploited by many industries now for their potential use in biofuels and chemical processing.

This is also the wrong response to science because often people use the complaint "nobody should be paid to study this" as a proxy for saying what they really mean, which is that they think it's unethical to study things like climate change because it's controversial - or unethical to research the psychology of sarcasm when there are more pressing issues in the world. The fact is that there are certain areas of science that we shouldn't fund because of ethical considerations. One I think we can all agree on is the Tuskegee experiments last century, where African-American men infected with syphilis weren't treated so that doctors could see what would happen to them long term. But the problem wasn't funding the medical science behind treating syphilis - the problem was the unethical way the study was carried out. Likewise, some people have an ethical problem with other areas of scientific study, like climate change, and it's better that we debate it as an ethical dilemma rather than a funding issue so that we know what's really at stake.

So the next time you feel the burning urge to say the problem with a study is the fact that it was funded at all, you should consider two things: 1) Everything deserves scientific scrutiny; and 2) Maybe the problem isn't the funding but the ethics.

Bitch Like This Instead

So often, I wish more people would ask:

1. "Where is the attribution?"

Any article about ideas or innovation that includes the phrase "scientists say" without ever referring back to a specific scientist or study (ideally, with a link to the paper or lab) deserves your scorn. When you don't see any links to source materials and scientists, it's likely that scientists do not actually say the thing the writer is claiming. Instead, the writer simply wants to bolster his or her opinion by making it seem as if it has scientific validity.

In addition, just because one scientist or study has evidence for something does not mean all scientists in their field agree. For example, a recent study challenged the conventional view of long ago humans and chimps split off from each other on the evolutionary tree. Many scientists believe it was roughly 5 million years ago; this new study suggested it could be as long as 11 million. This does not mean scientists now believe that humanity is twice as old. It means we have contradictory evidence, as anthropologist John Hawks gracefully explains in his article about the study. So when you read that one new study has "changed everything" or "now scientists believe," the author of those statements had better have more than one person or study to back up those sweeping claims.

And here's a comment I wish I could see more often:

2. "This news is just a reprinted press release."

There are many fine science sites out there, such as PhysOrg and MedicalXpress, who do nothing but reprint press releases from universities and laboratories without commentary - and without transparently stating that they are posting press releases and not articles. The problem here isn't reprinting press releases per se - in fact, often press releases about science are written very well, by intelligent and informed people who want to educate the public. Nevertheless, press releases are by their very nature biased. They are intended to showcase the importance of a particular group's work, and so they will downplay or simply leave out dissenting views. To reprint them as "news" without acknowledging their potential bias is dishonest.

The dirty secret of science journalism is that our news cycle is almost entirely driven by press releases sent out by universities and journals, alerting the public to new results from often long-term studies. Writers will quote from these releases by saying things like "In a release, the scientists said . . " or "In a statement, the lab explained . . . " These are moments of transparency where a writer is tipping you off that the source of the information is a press release. I don't see any need to bitch about that, though you should take what's said with a grain of salt.

What you do need to bitch about is when press releases are reprinted or quoted from without context. Ideally, you want a news story about a scientific development to include comments from people not involved with the study or the lab where it took place. But in the absence of that, the bias of the press release source should be acknowledged.

My hope is that, armed with this knowledge, your bitching can be more scientifically informed.

Photo by Franck Boston via Shuterstøk