Ok, I know this is not the first time I’ve shared a John Oliver video from HBO’s Last Week Tonight. It’s not just that I am a fan (although I am), it’s that he’s like the only celebrity with a major platform from which he consistently shares accurate scientific information. From climate change to vaccines, vitamins to this report on “scientific studies,” he continues to be a major voice of reason (and humor) to concisely wrap up why the current social attitude about science is so often wrong.
Science as a body of knowledge, and as an epistemological process entails an overlapping family of procedures for updating our collection of facts, (as well as principles, laws, models, theories and hypotheses), and amending the conceptual infrastructure of which they are understood to arise. Questioning beliefs is important and is built into the foundation of both science and science-based skepticism. However, using incomplete, inaccurate, and sensational reports from a perceived authority to either deny or support a scientific fact does not a critical thinker make.
And it’s not just the media, or pop culture that is to blame. Academics themselves disrupt the very skeleton that progresses our knowledge of the universe by participating in that sensationalism. Pressure on scientists to publish (and publish often) earth-shattering new studies is repressing the tried and true (albeit more boring) process of examination, replication, and peer review. As the video points out, there is no incentive for funding replication studies, or even studying something that can’t make a good headline with a little massaging. Consciously or subconsciously, researchers may manipulate data or poorly design studies in order to further their career.
So, what’s the answer? How can one trust that any scientific study is reliable? Or should we just throw up our hands and say, “scientists don’t know what they’re talking about anyway, just do what makes you feel good.” Unfortunately, it’s not easy, succinct, or quick to become literate in any scientific area of study. That is true for scientists, and it is true for the lay public. It takes decades of deeply dedicated study, re-study, trying to prove your ideas wrong, then studying it more. There will be no amazing simple answers like “The cure for cancer may be hiding in your kitchen pantry!”
The best thing one can do is learn why certain hypotheses are credible based on the available evidence, and what makes them prevalent in that area of study. Understand the core of the scientific method, and when it’s being applied correctly. Skepticism must never be based on denying relevant proclamations simply to oppose mainstream consensus or the “academic establishment”, just as it must never be based on the perceived intellectual authority of a person in a white lab coat.
If a line of questioning is not motivated by actually arriving at plausible answers, then its function ceases to be about improving one’s objective understanding and becomes an act of mental masturbation. If that line of questioning is not even present in one’s quest for answers, the act of even having a brain is futile and wasted.