Odds are if you are reading this you are smarter than average. I’m not buttering you up, that’s just the demographic that reads my blog. Likely you are as smart as most scientists. You are an adult human being, perfectly capable of observing the facts and drawing conclusions based on those observations. So your opinion is just as valuable as a scientist’s opinion, right? Well, no it isn’t, and I’m going to tell you why.
The first reason is called ‘Confirmation Bias.’ What this simply means is that you are more inclined to look for reasons why you are right than you are to try and find out what is true. Now now, that’s not an insult– it’s just the way we’re wired. So when an issue comes up you look for information that supports your opinion. You seek the reasons that you are right. In todays world of the internet you’ll find reasons to believe that you are right, and can bask in the self-satisfied glow of confirmation. Even when you are absolutely, totally wrong.
When when an issue or idea comes up for a scientist they also look for reasons why they are right, just like you. But it’s not enough for them to simply believe that they are right, they need to prove that they are right. So they design an experiment to prove that their idea is correct, carefully trying to eliminate any bias and meticulously document their procedures so that others can repeat their work. They don’t simply look for information that agrees with them. This is qualitatively different than what you, me and the bulk of humanity do.
If in our search for confirmation of our particular biases we encounter data that contradicts our supposition we can simply tell ourselves that it is a bunch of crap, disregard it and continue to believe as we choose. But if a scientist’s experiment contradicts their idea the scientist has two choices. They can either look for a flaw in their experiment that caused an improper result or admit that their idea was incorrect. If the experiment was flawed they can design a new, better experiment and try that. If it wasn’t they shrug and move on. Well OK, maybe they gnash their teeth, tear their hair and rage at an intractable universe before they move on, but they move on. But scientists are human too; they make mistakes and are just as subject to Confirmation Bias as you are.
So when their idea is confirmed they rush out and crow that they were right, yes? Sometimes, but ideally no. Because scientists know about Confirmation Bias too. So they write a paper and submit it for ‘Peer Review.’ Basically they invite other scientists to prove or disprove their idea. If you look around on the internet you’ll see the idea floated about ‘scientific conspiracies.’ Obviously the people proclaiming these have never met scientists. Scientists are fiercely competitive, and they like nothing better than proving that they are smarter than other scientists. One of the ways to do that is to prove them wrong, so when they read another scientist’s paper their Confirmation Bias is to prove that it is wrong. Particularly if the paper in question disagrees with their own theories.
So when a scientist gets an idea they test it, and if it appears they are right they invite their fiercest critics to nit-pick their work to death. Only after that do the announce their conclusions to the world. Often tentatively. Last fall Dr.White from NASA reported on his efforts to create and measure small warps in space-time. He said that they had achieved, and I quote, ‘Significant non-negative results.’ Translated into layman-ese that means, “Gosh, it sure looks like we did it, but we’re not ready to throw it to the wolves just yet.’
Why so bashful? Simply put their career is on the line. Pons and Fleischmann thought that they had discovered a new type of nuclear reaction, a form of fusion at room temperature. The University of Utah, eager to claim credit on their behalf announced their results before they could be submitted for peer review. It turned out that they were wrong and to this day they are still the butt of jokes and the idea of ‘Cold Fusion’ has become so toxic that researchers trying to follow up had to rename the concept ‘Low-Energy Nuclear Reaction.’
There is a site in Turkey where they are digging up the remains of a ten-thousand year old complex of buildings that might be the oldest known city on earth. I’m a layman; I can look at the data available and say, “Huh. That looks like a city to me- this will change our view of history forever!” If subsequent discoveries prove that I am wrong I shrug and get on with my life, no harm, no foul. But if the scientists working on that dig announced “We have discovered the oldest city yet found- this will change our view of the history of civilization forever,” and subsequent data proves that they are mistaken their career will be as dead as the residents of that ancient site. Scientists are harsh and unforgiving; they have to be to maintain the integrity of their disciplines.
Scientists are sometimes wrong. Even when there is an overwhelming consensus in the scientific community there are always dissenting voices– how are we mere laymen to know which is right? By keeping an open mind and practicing our own due diligence. When we see a dissenting scientific opinion that agrees with our own bias we tend to believe it. Don’t- you may not be able to understand the science, but you can find out if the work was subjected to peer-review and what the results of that review were. If the work was peer-reviewed you know that it was subjected to minute scrutiny by people that do understand the science and are highly motivated to disprove it. If it passed muster with them, then chances are they may be on to something. If the work was not peer reviewed you are looking at an opinion that contradicts the best information available and nothing more.
If the work was not peer-reviewed you should also take the classic step of following the money. Was it funded by an individual or industry with a vested interest in the scientific consensus being wrong? If so you are looking at an unreliable source and should view it skeptically. Why should we bother? Because it matters, in real life in the real world.
A lot of people are leery of vaccines, fearing a link to autism. This is mostly based on the opinion of a celebrity that is not qualified to make that connection. Her opinion is likely based on an article published in the Lancet a few years back. Neither she or whomever she heard about this from practiced due diligence. The study was proven to be incorrect and later retracted by the magazine, and to date there is still no scientific evidence supporting a link between vaccines and autism. If that celebrity had checked her information she would have discovered this. Children have died because of her uninformed opinion.
Essentially you may be smarter than a scientist- but you aren’t smarter than science. Be as smart as you can, be open minded and practice due diligence. Don’t let Confirmation Bias lead you down the primrose path to disaster. The world really will be a better place.