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Using Dodgy Science to Make Even Dodgier Claims

November 3, 2009

Using Dodgy Science to Make Even Dodgier Claims

Science is broken into two main classes: exact science and inexact science. You will know pretty quickly if someone has any scientific knowledge when they are unable to tell the difference between the two. Exact sciences are ones like physics, chemistry and mathematics. The inexact sciences are things like biology, meteorology and psychology. They are considered to be not exact because unlike physics for example the laws are not accurate and can vary.

If someone starts to say that power equals voltage times amps they would be using watts law and that result can be repeated endlessly with no variation. However if some says that evolution proves this they are talking through their hat. The variables in biology are too vast to make such conclusions. Instead they will be talking in terms of likelihood and probability. Regardless of what scientific method that they employ there will always be room for some doubt. For those interested in the truth this can be both exciting and frustrating because the war of ideas may never be won. We may never know enough to answer conclusively many of the foundations of knowledge. Like the belief that world was flat there is always the remote possibility that a great pillar of knowledge is in fact wrong.

Figure 2: Direct causal relationships do matter

The unfortunate thing is that novices to science often confuse themselves easily as they read one study and conclude that because it agrees with their personal opinions it must be correct. Such thinking is the antithesis of science and undermines its objectivity, (without which science ceases to exist). Rationalism can exist by selecting evidence to suit an argument and in doing so it enters into rationalization. By selecting evidence to match the argument science is being bypassed.

Genetics is a wonderful science that has opened up endless questions how life develops and it also provides some answers. Yet despite the seemingly endless parade discoveries they are still many unanswered questions over very fundamental questions. Prejudice, both positive and negative, is often used to fill the gaps of knowledge. On the negative side we had the book called The Bell Curve that argued predisposition to social failure of African Americans. It argued that the genes of the black were the cause of their problems and would always be social failure as a result. On the positive prejudice side it also insinuated that Caucasians were somehow superior and deserving of their higher social status. The problem was that it was bad logic using questionable evidence to make such a claim. The evidence was cherry picked to prove the point.

Psychology is another of those vague sciences filled with unusually suppositions and mythically specific answers for complicated problems. We have had scandals in the past where false memories suggested by practitioners have been used to accuse innocent people of child abuse. The scandal of repressed memories swept through the US psychological fraternity and made world headlines just a decade ago. One such case was Nadean Cool who in 1986 was convinced by her psychiatrist that she was repressing memories of being in a satanic cult. She was convinced that she had been eating babies, raped, had sex with animals and witnessed her friend being murdered. Cool eventually sued her psychiatrist for $2.4 million.

Another fallacy is that a single study conclusively proves behavior in general. It is like finding a Roman Coin on the beach in Sydney then concluding that it could only have arrived if the Roman Empire came there. Such a conclusion would be laughed out of the room because there are so many other ways that the coin could have arrived. Yet we often see new stories and read magazine specials that use this same dubious logic. Mice may eat their young from time to time but it would be a very extreme leap of warped logic that would suggest that humans should do the same. We are after all not mice and do have the ability to reason as rational beings above our base instincts. Dogs eat their own poo but I would not recommend that humans follow suit.

The problems with reading science occur when the conclusions are selected before the evidence is cherry picked to match them. That is neither science nor honest. The real situation for the inexact science occurs pretty much in a state of uncertainty where discovery can change everything. Yet for people to make unshakeable conclusions based upon a non exact science requires a faith that would make even the most fundamentalist bible thumper look almost mainstream. Science ceases to be science at this point and becomes little more than another blind faith.

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