Slime-Bag Dinosaur: What Science Is, What It Isn’t

Carl Zimmer discusses his new piece in Science.  It’s about the 2005 discovery of potential blood vessels from none other than T-Rex.  The trouble is that now there are a few scientists who aren’t all that convinced, instead saying that the vessels are in fact just a bunch of bacterial goo!

That’s all fine and dandy, but what I liked was this comment by one of the original authors, Mary Schweitzer

Something that is not fully appreciated by the outsider is that science is a process. One makes an observation, forms a testable hypothesis about the observation, gathers data, and the data either support or refute the hypothesis. It is then refined and retested. If the hypothesis is tested multiple times, it is strengthened, and eventually moves to become a theory, one of the strongest statements in science.

If one chooses to challenge a hypothesis and the data put forth by another researcher to support it, one is under the obligation to 1. form a hypothesis that provides an alternative to the first; 2. reinterpret the original data presented in such a way that it __better supports__ the new hypothesis than the original, and 3. produce new data that, in addition to the original, more strongly supports the alternative hypothesis than the original. That is the progression of science. Hypotheses are continually being reformulated in this way, because science IS a process, and undergoes revision as new data become available.

A good friend of mine recently complained to me that he didn’t bother reading science information (in the popular media) because it’s “always changing”.  There is a common perception about this,  particularly in medical and health sciences (of which he was speaking directly).  One day we’re not supposed to eat eggs, the next we are.  We should be able to talk while doing cardio, the next it’s interval training.

But, the hard truth is that the popular science media grossly distorts the reality of what actually happens in science, and how exactly people come to decide that eating eggs actually isn’t bad for you.  Science is slow, tedious, and sometimes downright boring.  One new study that looks promising and exciting (and therefor gets tons of media attention) doesn’t mean jack shit.  It has to be repeated, over and over, and shown to be consistently true.

This happened with eggs.  At first a number of studies noticed that eggs had a lot of fat and cholesterol.  Bad.  So the media flips out!  Never eat eggs.  Ever.  The heavens above will rain lava upon you!

But, over the years, study after study has clarified that the composition of the cholesterol and fat in eggs is such that it evens itself out, with a slight nod towards being good for you.  In fact most people who don’t already have high cholesterol would be wise to eat them.  The quality of protein in eggs is ridiculously high, they are packed with nutrients, and they’re relatively cheap.  In addition, there are many brands that are filled with omega-3’s.  Heavens be damned.

Fossil hunting suffers the same fate in the media.  One new fossil can be exciting, “we’ve discovered the missing link” (whatever THAT is).  But, that one fossil doesn’t tell a whole story.  It rarely can give us more than peeked interest to further investigate, or fill in a small gap that leads to another gap.  Multiple fossils, corroborating data from other fields, etc is needed before any conclusions can be reached.

This is going on in science all the time, of course, but you’d have to read the professional journals to know it.  Since most people don’t (hard to blame them, the writing is grotesquely dry), they must rely on the popular media to filter the information.  That wouldn’t be so bad if the media did a good job, reporting regularly on those scientific answers that have the most abundance of backing.  But, they don’t.  They do the opposite!

The media constantly goes after what’s new and exciting, the opposite of what makes science tick.  New is interesting, but tried and true is … well, true … usually.

Solution?  There likely isn’t an easy one.  But, for all my bashing of media science writing, there are a number of very good science writers who try hard to put things in perspective (Carl Zimmer among them).  You just have look for them and be your own filter.

One response to “Slime-Bag Dinosaur: What Science Is, What It Isn’t

  1. This happened with eggs. At first a number of studies noticed that eggs had a lot of fat and cholesterol. Bad. So the media flips out! Never eat eggs. Ever. The heavens above will rain lava upon you!

    I’m not sure it actually happened this way. The way Robin Hanson describes Gary Taubes’ book Good Calories, Bad Calories, the actual researchers brought an awful lot of bias to the subject. The problem may have been in the science practice first, the science reporting second.

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