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A few points to ponder about the misconceptions surrounding science

This letter is in response to a letter to the editor “Who is paying?” from Oct. 30.

The letter expresses misconceptions about the scientific method and the scientific process that I would like to clarify. Though the writer chose some great definitions like “Science is a concerted human effort to understand … the history of the natural world and how the natural world works, and with observable physical evidence as the basis of understanding,” (University of Georgia), the analogy of likening science to fifth-graders on a field trip finding something interesting and then carrying out an experiment in their classroom and writing possibly conflicting reports about the experiment, is flawed and too simplistic in several ways.

First, scientists generally have at least four to eight years of training in their field, which is different from a fifth-grader or an ordinary person. Second, these days though observations are still made by the ‘gather around to see’ method, technology and computers have greatly advanced our ability to accumulate “observable physical evidence” which is one of the cornerstones of science according to the above definition.

The importance of this cannot be overstated: For example, any human is unable to observe something like the rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere with their own senses, but scientific technology acts like an incredible enhancer to our senses and thus greatly increases our ability to study and understand our world.

Third, in addition to the reports the fifth-graders are writing, every scientific publication has undergone a rigorous process of peer review. At least three scientific peers in the field as well as the editor of the scientific journal, who by the way is the person who chooses the reviewers (not the author), carefully vet every aspect of the scientific publication to make sure that the methodology was sound and the interpretations are supported by the evidence.

Fourth, disagreement about scientific interpretations is one of the hallmarks of the scientific method. It is that discourse of scientists interpreting the meaning of their findings that moves science forward and allows scientists to come to a more complete and thorough understanding of how our world works.

Over the last decades, there have been thousands of peer-reviewed scientific studies on climate change. While the vast majority have strongly supported that the climate is currently changing and that the main cause of the current climate change is human-caused, there have also been peer-reviewed scientific papers challenging this hypothesis.

This is not surprising considering how big and complex the science of global climate change really is. However, scientific consensus is also a hallmark of the scientific endeavor, because science is also a body of accumulated knowledge that is so well supported by evidence that this knowledge is extremely unlikely to be wrong. This is important so that humanity does not have to re-discover facts about our world anew every generation. Though science is always open to challenge and revision, there are many scientific concepts that are so well supported at this point that it is extremely unlikely that these concepts are wrong.

Examples of such well-supported concepts that are extremely unlikely to be wrong are evolution, cancer biology, virus biology, genetics, and yes, the current, human-caused climate change. The current scientific consensus is that 97 percent of currently actively publishing climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities (NASA).

The author brings up the example of talcum powder, which was once the treatment of choice for diaper rash, but is now considered a carcinogen.

This is actually a great example of the scientific process at work. Some scientific studies have found a statistical relationship between talc applied to the perineal area by women and incidence of ovarian cancer which has prompted further research to see whether this statistical link is coincidental or whether there really is a link between ovarian cancer and talcum-powders. It is also important to note that there are talcum powders with asbestos and talcum powders without asbestos.

The research in this area is ongoing (American Cancer Society).There is currently no scientific consensus on whether use of talcum powder may represent an increased risk of ovarian cancer. In the meantime, this issue is also litigated in courts (CNN) which can be an effective way for interested parties to pressure for the money for necessary research.

And of course, the fact that the scientific consensus on this issue is still out, does not help women and mothers to know whether talcum powder is safe or not and of course often we wish that science already knows more than we currently do.

However, climate science is much further along from a scientific perspective than the research regarding talcum powder and ovarian cancer — the scientific consensus is there and we know at this point that the current global warming is human-caused. This brings me to my final point: the letter writer implies that climate change science is driven by the fact that many climate researchers “survive on government grants.” Essentially, all scientists receive a salary for their work, whether that is working for the government at NASA, the FDA, the National Institute for Health or for the Centers of Disease Control or whether that scientist is working for a university on publicly or privately funded research or whether that scientist works for private industry. If the fact that scientists get paid is an important reason to be suspect of scientific findings, it would mean that we couldn’t trust anything that scientists discover. We should by that reasoning then mistrust anything that science produces. By that reasoning you should also not trust your server at your favorite restaurant, your hairdresser, your grocery clerk or anyone else that gets paid and provides something for your life.

Of course that is silly — we generally have an assumed level of trust that people will have integrity, carry their job out reasonably well and do not intend to harm us or deceive us, despite the fact that they receive a salary. Recently, 11,000 scientists around the globe signed a letter about the climate crisis (The Independent). If we don’t want to trust them we would have to believe that there are 11,000 human beings that are collectively so corrupt to the point of deceiving us about climate change, solely so that they can continue to receive their grant funding. I think trusting evidence based science and trusting that most scientists do their job with integrity and honesty is the way to go!

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