No Gospel Truth in Science

A crucial point about science I couldn’t have put any better. Science is an ongoing conversation, not a series of absolute determinations. Anytime a radical result is announced, we should really think about its implications in terms of if the results are replicated or hold up under further analysis. Every paper is only part of that conversation.

Planet Pailly

Hello, friends!

So there’s this notion in the popular press that when a new scientific paper comes out, that paper should be taken as the final definitive word on an issue. Science has spoken. This is a scientific fact now. But that is not how science works.

When new research is published, you should expect there will be followup research, and then that followup research will be followed up by even more research.  A new scientific paper really shouldn’t be seen as a proclamation of fact but rather as the beginning of a dialogue among scientists, or perhaps as the continuation of a dialogue that’s already in progress.

The recent detection of phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus has turned out to be a fantastic example of this ongoing dialogue in action.  The initial research was published in two separate papers (click here or here).  Basically, astronomers found the…

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8 thoughts on “No Gospel Truth in Science

    1. Thanks Neil. James is an excellent artist and definitely always does a good job with his cartoons and posts.

      Unfortunately, it’s not just reporters. A lot of us read scientific papers. But we always have to be aware we’re only reading a snippet of the overall conversation. It’s why I prefer reading general books or textbooks on a subject to get an overall snapshot of a field. The writers, assuming they’re experts in the field, or at least have consulted with them, have a much better feel for what’s holding up and what are outliers.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. In addition, press is often pushing a narrative to promote a particular policy backed by billion dollar industries. Science, unfortunately, has become a political instrument exploited to manipulate public opinion. Some scientific ideas are treated as dogma and skeptics are treated as political dissidents.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Unfortunately, politicians and science worshipers do not understand that scientific statements change as new data become available. Scientific statements are also never universal. “Water boils at 100C” is not true in general. It’s true only in specific conditions.

    There are some recent examples of drastic policy changes affecting millions of people based on changes in scientific consensus. This year, we went from “wearing masks is not necessary” to “wear masks or else!”. We went from “vaccines are safe and effective, make them mandatory for school attendance” last year (in the context of measles outbreak, but related to 11 other vaccines unrelated to measles) to “they can’t test for long-term effects in 8 months – I will not be the first to get it” this year (in context of COVID).

    Unfortunately, people who are skeptical of these policies are branded as ignorant anti-science rednecks. I tend to roll my eyes when a politician says that her new draconian mandate is based on “science and data”. Who can guarantee that we are not injecting children with a modern version of DDT, once considered a medical miracle?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think we have to watch out for two fallacies here. One is the issue James tackled, which is putting too much credence in any one study. As he described, each study is just one part of an overall conversation.

      But the other is overlearning the lesson from the first fallacy and deciding that it means we can ignore the scientific consensus. Certainly this is science and the consensus can change, but as evidence and studies mount, it decreases the probability exponentially of the consensus being completely wrong. Such changes have to match the empirical success of the current consensus. So any future changes are liable to be nuanced or apply to new domains.

      The thing about a current consensus, is that disagreement between studies early on actually strengthens that consensus rather than weakening it. It indicates that the scientific community explored alternatives to the consensus but found the current view the strongest one.

      So, be wary of individual studies, particularly ones with radical or outlier results. But don’t let that cause you to dismiss the scientific consensus. It’s still the best bet we have.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Of course, generally agree and a good point.

    I feel like one problem is that scientists themselves overstate results. And that is often because they are just individuals that interact with society and speak about these various topics. Most of the scientists that I heard from were pretty cautious with the phosphine thing, but that is not as true on many other topics, it seems.

    The mask question really was trying for science early in the year. We had a pressing need for an answer, we turned to those who should be best suited for an answer, and they could only give their best understanding based on limited studies. And it quite frankly was a debacle that is still going on, both with masks and other issues surrounding Covid. Basically we did not and do not have enough time to put in enough tests to make the necessary medical judgment calls, so we rely on best conjecture along with limited studies.

    Of such issues, the news seems really good on these vaccines, and I am tempted to say get 10,000 doses to the most vulnerable in El Paso immediately (assuming there is some available). There is probably limited guidance on such and we must turn to experts to help us make such a call based on limited info.

    The messiness of health science jaundices peoples understanding of science, and in many of the ways it has been presented to the general public, it should. Though, it is so difficult and has been so contradicting that it also should clue people into the process itself.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Lyndon.

      It’s worth noting that, from a scientific perspective, the mask thing has not been controversial since April. The earliest messaging was a mess, a compromise due to concerns about runs on medical grade masks. But the data and messaging since then has been consistent, at least from medical authorities. While they’re far from perfect, masks do work.

      The vaccine news does seem hopeful. I’m not following your El Paso point. But it sounds like they’re going to start with medical personal, first responders, the elderly, and other vulnerable populations. Hopefully the vaccines be available to the general public by mid 2021.

      Most of the apparent messiness comes from politics, not from contradictions from the medical science. It’s a tragedy. A lot of people (including one of my relatives) are dead because they listened to politicians instead of mainstream medicine.

      Liked by 1 person

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