Behind the surface
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates suggests that looking merely at the surface of things as most of us do in our daily lives, will not lead us to understand the phenomena that underpin the workings of the world. While this is not welcome news, it actually explains why we are so easily misled by people with an agenda. What they do is point to single incidences or examples. They tell us, something happened to so and so, and that proves …
Nothing. Anecdotes really don’t mean much, other than to the actors involved in the event. But, people who are either ignorant of that fact or who have an ulterior motive are often untroubled by the fallacy of extrapolating from the single to the multiple.
In other words, they use inductive reasoning to construct a false hypothesis. When scientists develop a research project proposal, they do the opposite. They identify a proven axiom to start from, develop further hypotheses deductively from that proven law or axiom and then identify procedures to test those hypotheses. They also assume the null hypothesis from the start and seek to refute that null hypothesis, in order to thoroughly test their theory and avoid the temptation to only see what they want to see. They take the position that the natural tendency would be to find only those data that confirm what they hope to see in the first place. A true scientist or empirical researcher scrupulously avoids any subjectivity or bias in the construction of the experiment or observational investigation so they will actually observe what is taking place, not what they want to take place.
Once they have done that, and developed a set of methods to test their hypothesis beyond doubt, using statistical algorithms (when this is possible, by assigning numerical values even to qualitative, as well as quantitative data), they submit the research plan as a proposal and have it reviewed by peers, for study-worthiness. This is especially important because no properly trained researcher would want to waste their time conducting a set of experiments or observations only to find out that the method was wrong for the phenomena they want to study. This is called”validation”. In other words, the method is valid for analyzing or testing the phenomena one is interested in.
Once they have a valid system or procedure outlined, they carry out or unroll the research in a series of steps. Hopefully, they do it several times so they can establish the “reliability” of the research methods being used. Once the researcher(s) are satisfied that the repetition of the experiments, let’s say, yield the same results, they can begin to analyze and extrapolate, to draw conclusions from their work as to whether they have disproved the null hypothesis. That means they have to disprove that there is no significant phenomenon identified. That is how extensive the attempt of a true scientist is, to eradicate any bias whatsoever from their work.
Why do they do this? So, when you and I and the world read their findings, we can rely on them as being true, factual, real. We can use their conclusions and proven hypotheses to solve problems or understand the world. Some of the people that will be reading the final report or write-up of the research results will be other researchers all over the country and the world. The best research is published in the top scientific journals, such as the Journal Nature. Then, the Journal will hire “peers” in the scientific community to thoroughly analyze, test, and comment or review the article on the research. This is called “peer review”. The scientific community is small enough and sufficiently specialized that they know each other and know what each team is working on. If there are any flaws at any step along the way, you can be certain the reviewers will point it out dispassionately and objectively. The original investigators will typically respond and so it goes, back and forth until everyone is satisfied that the results are true and valid or that further investigation is needed, with adjustments to the plan.
Moreover, even when the results confirm the hypothesis and thus support the researcher’s theory irrefutably, the true scientist will still humbly refer to that established law, proven axiom as a ‘theory’, because in science, nothing is ever finished. What is an axiom or law? Gravity for example, the earth rotating around the sun, the moon spinning on its axis, tectonic plate movement. I would also put Einstein’s “theory” of relativity here, quantum physics notwithstanding, so too with “string” theory, and the “theory” of evolution. These so-called theories are actually axioms or laws, but they are so complex that their finer points are still being honed and so, in humble and ethical deference to the great and awe-inspiring workings of this universe, the best scientist will call his work a “theory in progress”, even when it is actually for all intents and purposes a law. If the public understood this, they would be a good deal closer to understanding the way the scientific world works, and would not fall prey to the false notion that this caliber of theory is up for debate. These steps are Best Practices in science and they are vital for yielding usable results.
The reason I am talking about all of this is that we are now being bombarded with information from all kinds of questionable sources. Whereas in the past, people who had no expertise in a topic, who did not attend recognized and respected training programs at the top universities around the world, would be reluctant to advance theories that were not based on this rigorous process. There is so much integrity and ethical protocol built into the actual scientific community, that they bend over backward to avoid assumption and overstepping the reach of the data. It is completely against the ethics of the profession to distort findings or to report partial results in the service of some agenda, other than fact and truth.
But there seems to be no such reluctance on the part of the thousands of websites that are promulgating phony research and ersatz science. These are often political and business interests that misleadingly cloak themselves in the camouflage of names that make them sound like think tanks or academic bodies. They put out false data to refute scientific fact. That explains in part why so many people are now confused about things like GMOs, climate change, health and disease, oil, gas, and coal production. You can just fill in the blanks yourself.
Back to anecdotal evidence. While it is true that a carefully accumulated and controlled aggregation of information from individual incidences can point to a trend with the use of certain statistical yardsticks, such as the mean, median and mode, they are limited by definition. To take those aggregate data, or worse, one-off incidences, and apply them as if they indicate a trend or were an important indicator on any of these critical issues is not only bad science and scholarship, it is false, misleading and dangerous.
I say this because I see the sheer magnitude of non scientific research-based information, individual experiences and just trumped up data currently being “reported” as indicating for example, the falsity of the fact of global warming, the build-up of greenhouse gases and its leading to the warming of our oceans, killing species, changing weather patterns, exacerbating droughts and floods, creating super-storms and swallowing up land, which has been building to epic levels based on the ubiquity and ease of publishing on the internet.
This is little different than the days when the tobacco industry deliberately falsified data, hired hacks to produce the kinds of results the big bosses wanted to put out to the public, and allowed millions of people to suffer and die from tobacco-related illnesses. Today, at least, people who choose to smoke tobacco, do so knowing the facts and the statistics. The facts are now available. The public is wise to the tricks that the industry was playing and is no longer being deliberately misled.
You cannot extrapolate from anecdotal evidence, including and especially personal experience, no matter how compelling, and even when it is a true case. Case studies, properly done by professionals, are useful but still limited and the scientific community recognizes this. A classic issue is that of immunizations and autism. There are probably many anecdotal cases of children developing autism sequentially after having a series of immunizations. However, only properly conducted research with adequate sample groups and control of variables can determine whether these two phenomena are not just positively correlated, meaning, they both happen together in the same direction, i.e., an increase in immunizations and an increase in autism, but that the first actually causes the second. Those are not the same thing. Thus, parents’ beliefs about their child developing autism after being immunized, may or may not be justified. But we cannot tell based on anecdotes and case reports alone.
As a country, we should be outraged at the attempts to inject junk research, false reports, and calculated mis- and disinformation into every critical topic. This is done largely by those who will reap economic benefits from spreading lies, convincingly and in the guise of “truth”, “reporting” and even “research”.
This is the worst form of malpractice and no scientist should engage in it for any form of incentive.
And educated Americans should know better than to trust these ad hoc and heretofore non-existent sources. Just because you read something on the internet, hear it on the radio, watch it on television or are sent it by your cousin, who got it from his friend, who saw it on Facebook or the Drudge Report, does not mean that you should believe it.
Look beyond the surface to the source. If you cannot find that source easily and establish its agreed upon and broadly established integrity and credibility, tracing it back to its origins, in what should be respected research, then you are unwise to accept it, much less promote it to anyone else as anything more than opinion and hearsay.
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