[S09] Scientific research

It is inevitable and also prudent that we make use of scientific research in our daily life. We might look up information about what to eat to become healthier, or we might want to find out what is the best way of learning a new language.

One thing we should remember is that science is a human construction. It is the product of human beings who do not know everything, and who can be biased. So here are a few things to bear in mind when we read scientific research and make use of such information.

  • Scientific theories progress through trial and error. As we learn more, old theories are rejected and improved upon. So we should expect that many things we accept as scientific facts right now might turn out to be wrong later on. Keeping an open mind is thus a good attitude. However, this does not mean it is irrational to accept scientific findings. What we think we know right now might be the approximate truth even if not exactly right. Also, although science might be wrong about many things, there are lots of other things which we can be quite confident about, e.g. the Earth is not flat, water contains oxygen and hydrogen, etc.
  • Very often scientific studies are carried out but not published or reported. For example, a pharmaceutical company might do an experiment to test whether a drug is effective, but does not publish the result when it fails to find a positive effect. This is something to bear in mind especially in the field of medicine. One paper reporting a positive effect in a clinical trial might turn out to be an unreliable anomaly if there are many other unpublished results with the opposite conclusion.
  • Results that can be replicated are of course more reliable. Recently some experts found that about 75% of social psychology experiments published in top journals cannot be replicated.
  • Scientists, like ordinary human beings, can be biased. Some might not be completely objective when it comes to evaluating evidence. Others might be incompetent or careless in running their experiments. There are also those who are downright dishonest and fabricate their results. So it is sensible to be skeptical of findings which have not gone through a rigorous peer review process.
  • Extraordinary discoveries that go against established theories in the field should be treated with caution unless they can be replicated by others and evaluated more objectively.
  • Science is often expensive. Scientists depend on an adequate source of funding to do their work. So some might be tempted to publish only results that are favorable to the companies that fund their work, and to suppress unfavorable evidence. So it is crucial for scientists to reveal the source of their funding and to avoid conflicts of interests.
  • We get a lot of information about scientific research indirectly through various news channels and social media. Very often the people who report such news might not be scientific experts and can easily get things wrong. For example, very often a discovery about a correlation between X and Y will be reported as a causal claim: X causes Y. But the scientists themselves might be more cautious. So if you have time, looking up the actual research publication might give you a more accurate picture. Very often the abstract of the article is available for free on the internet. Try to identify websites which offer more high-quality content. Do not put your trust in everything you read in online forums. Verify for yourself that the information is correct and cross-check with other sources.
  • Nobody knows everything about science. A scientist who is an expert in one area might not even understand fully the basic principles of a different area of science. So be cautious of experts who make big claims about some topic that is not in his field.
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