Friday, December 7, 2012

Why Should I Trust Your "Agenda"?

I think most of what I'll be doing in this space will be providing context, nuance, and a scientific perspective on studies making the rounds in health and the environment. A recurring theme will be the cognitive gap between how a scientist reviews these studies vs. how they are presented in the media. Why am I so insistent on this? It's as good a place for a first real blog post as any other.

I think this post by Orac at scienceblogs is a good start, and helpfully illustrates why evidence matters.

One majoor (sic)—perhaps the major—difference between skeptics and cranks like antivaccinationists is that skeptics recognize human cognitive weaknesses that allow us to be misled so easily by spurious correlations. We realize that, far more often than we are prepared to believe, things really do happen by coincidence. When there are enough numbers, and there can be a lot of coincidences.

Scientists are trained in an often counter-intuitive thought process, one that simply doesn't come naturally to humans. This way of thinking even has its own language that is really the exact antithesis of the language used in journalism.

Science is, in essence, inoculation against these tendencies to draw false (conclusions) and to confuse correlation with causation, a weapon against the limitations of individual observations. However, it always interests me “what we’re up against,” because it goes very much against the grain to think scientifically. Our brains are not hard-wired that way. Learning to accept science over one’s own observations does not come naturally; so it is not surprising that so many people have a great deal of difficult doing just that. 

My goal will be to try to avoid condescending language and pejoratives, because that ultimately does nothing to inform people who aren't already part of the choir, but I think the gist of this idea couldn't be more spot on. Weird things happen, and often we really don't know what the cause is. To us, that's entirely OK. The challenge is why we do what we do, and it's unforgivable to let ideology and/or an emotional reaction guide us to an answer. Science, of course, is constantly used to promote an agenda, but it's allowed to largely because of what I like to call "single-study syndrome".

Scientists set a very high bar to be convinced of anything. Our first instinct is to essentially tear apart every study and claim that comes out, looking for reasons why its conclusions are limited, or possibly even worthless. Even if the conclusion seems on its face to be totally intuitive. Associations may or may not be meaningful, but they need to be shown as statistically significant (a whole other blog post) more than once, and ideally across a couple of different study designs (another idea for a blog post!). It's best to just go ahead and think like there are no real bombshells in science. Once the headlines fade away, there really aren't.

If you want to keep checking my blog, all I really ask of you is to accept, or even just consider, the two main ideas of this post:

  • Your instincts and personal experiences cannot be trusted to explain anything across the board for all people.
  • Neither can any one particular study.

I'm going to have a lot of fun explaining the latter, time and time again. I hope you'll enjoy reading it. 

No comments:

Post a Comment