Sunday, May 25, 2014

Bad Science

Those who wish to think that Climate Change is a fiction invented for political gain by environmentalists and left-wingers persist in using the term “bad science” to describe the scientific evidence confirming global warming. Pondering that term, I think it begs redefinition. “Bad science” has come to mean any scientific (or perhaps I should refer to it as supposedly scientific) study that has been manipulated to prove a point and that, in the opinion of the person(s) referring to it as bad science, lacks integrity. Or in some instances perhaps not purposely manipulated, just not done correctly or in some other way has been corrupted by the method.

Recently I had a conversation with my brother Dan about whether or not microwave cooking damages food. That’s a topic for another time. However, in the course of our conversation, Dan wrote in an email:
You have to ask yourself this question each time you research something – “Is the conclusion I am drawing supporting a belief I already hold or refuting it?” If it supports a belief you already hold, take it as a warning, because most people cannot get past their own biases – they think they’re doing research but actually they are only researching to find the articles that support their beliefs. You have to keep looking and force yourself to read articles that disagree by competent researchers. I’ve seen books of statistics and research supporting why more gun ownership makes us safer, and yet I discount it all instantly because my personal bias is too strong the other way. I have to admit that I have no idea what the truth is because my personal belief that I am right is too strong. The same is now happening with climate change. 
Point being, we find it difficult to get past our foregone conclusions when we research or use research or select research or believe research. Remember that according to the laws of physics, the researcher impacts the research study simply in the act of observation. With that in mind, how true is any scientific study? Makes ya wonder.

When something we don’t like to believe is proven by scientific study, we are inclined to truck out the “bad science” label to dispute it. Sometimes the “bad science” label fits and sometimes it doesn’t. In Freakonomics, Steven Levitt argues that we don’t even know what we’re looking at half the time when we look at data because the truth in the data is often misinterpreted or obscured. We have to ask ourselves, “What is this data telling us?” We humans have an uncanny ability to look straight at things we can’t comprehend and not see them at all. We do indeed create our own reality.

I think the term “bad science” should be repurposed. For me the term “bad science” conjures misuse of effort and brainpower by scientists. I think of inventions, discoveries, and products that are harmful, dangerous, and destructive. I think of misguided and misdirected endeavors. So in my world “bad science” would be the science invested in things like developing weapons, agents of chemical and biological warfare, chemical pesticides and herbicides, toxic substances that harm humans, fracking techniques, methods of torture, and ways to harpoon whales. Good science would be the science invested in growing organic food, building sustainable communities, healing the sick, understanding children’s brain development, perfecting mechanical tools to improve access and mobility for the disabled, and building electronic methods of communication that bridge geographic divides.

Why waste human ingenuity and brainpower on perfecting a bomb with the power to destroy the planet? That’s more than “bad science” in my book. That’s proof of the failure of human intelligence. Expending brainpower on making nuclear bombs is quite beyond the scope of morality even. It’s plain stupidity. The conversation about what science is worthy of pursuing and what science should be left buried in the ground is the real conversation about science. Dan’s point about bias will rear its ugly head pretty early in that conversation, I imagine. If only we could go beyond “good or bad” and move into the realm of healing or harmful, constructive or detrimental, building or destroying, then perhaps we would be able to redirect our scientific efforts so that all the work of our hands contributes to a better world. I wish.

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