I think science is very cool. I’m not talking about technology or any of the applications of what science has discovered. Sure airplanes are cool. MRI machines are cool and on and on, but what I’m talking about is the process of science. I’m fascinated by the fact that human beings have developed a process that we can learn test and get answers to things that we didn’t understand before we started.
I reject the popular concept of scientists as just a bunch of know-it -alls sitting around gloating about everything that they already know. As Tyson said in my post the other day, “If you aren’t at the drawing board every day you aren’t in the game!” Science isn’t the list of facts that we collect it’s the process for learning those facts.
In Junk Science: How Politicians, Corporations, and Other Hucksters Betray Us By Dan Agin Ph. D., Agin shows many of the ways that science gets perverted by politicians, the media, religious leaders and the scientists themselves. The book is very thorough and covers many of the recent popular scientific discoveries and media controversies. Agin gives his take on what real science is behind the discoveries and then explains where and when those involved went from real science to bad science and then to junk science.
He make clear distinctions too. In order for it to be called real science it has to follow all of the rules. It puts away presuppositions, uses strict controls to avoid unintentionally biasing the results, is open and encourages others to duplicate their process and find any mistakes, and many other things. Bad science is frequently just when some of those protocols and procedures get sloppy. If the input gets sloppy the output can no longer be trusted.
Most of the book focused on the last category, junk science. All too frequently people with agendas other than honest discovery use a process that some observers mistake for science. My daughter gets a kick out of these so-called Ghost Hunters who walk around with insterments they don't really know how to use and then when something, anything happens that they don't understand they call it, "something significant". Sometimes these people have financial motives for going to the dark side(Andrew Wakefield and the Anti-vaccination movement) sometimes religious motives (Michael Behe and the Discovery Institiute) and frequently political motives (the Global Warming denialists). But regardless of their motives they all too frequently start with their conclusion and then look for evidence to prove it. This is backwards. With this attitude they are no longer doing science. They are doing junk science.
Again believes as I do that science deserves more respect than it gets in the public perception. I worry that in many ways we are going backwards. We are allowing religion and politics to define and even to trump science. I think that all three can have a place in a civilized society. I have no problem with a civilized debate on how to respond to a scientific discovery. But let’s not corrupt the science or deny it just because it may not be morally or politically what we’d like to do.
Science is just now starting to understand some processes that may have profound impacts on humanity. Stem cell research, for instance. Now I understand many of the ethic and moral concerns that have been raised by those opposing it. I agree that this should be the subject of vigorous debate. But leave the science alone. It stands outside the debate and should not be a part of it. Years ago doctors discovered a link to testosterone and hair loss. Identical twins where one had been castrated and the other had not the intact twin lost his hair and the castrated twin did not. Now is anybody recommending castration as a way to stop hair loss? Not that I’m aware of. You see in that case we had the science and we understood it. But we simply chose not to act upon it for social, political, or ethical reasons. But the science was not corrupted to make the arguments. In my opinion we need to have similar respect for the science behind many of the issues that are happening today. We can’t even begin to have a decent political discussion on global warming because so much effort is being spent on denying the science. The same goes for stem cells and several other top hot button issues. Let’s take the first step and accept the science as valid. Then we can have an honest discussion about how to react to the discoveries or even if we need to react at all.
It took me a while to get through this book, primarily because it is so thorough. I have no criticism at all of his points or his logic. If you’d like to read more on this subject I’d recommend reading Voodoo Science by Robert Park first. It isn’t quite as though but it’s easier to read and covers many of the same themes. Then come back and read Junk Science.
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