Benjamin Franklin said two things are certain in life: death and taxes. Another one we could add to this list is that on any given news website and in almost all print media there will be articles about health and nutrition that are complete garbage.
Some articles that run under the health and nutrition “news” heading are thought provoking, well researched and unbiased, but unfortunately not all. And to help you traverse this maze – alongside an excellent article about 20 tips for interpreting scientific claims – we will look at seven clichés of improper or misguided reporting.
Tim Minchin has written the foreword to The Best Australian Science Writing 2013. It’s reproduced in today’s Sydney Morning Herald: Science inspires, so don’t let your art rule your head.
Tim makes the point that there’s no foundation to the view of some artists that science has little to offer them. Here’s an excerpt;
At the heart of some artists’ anti-scientific world view is the suspicion science is unromantic. The beauty of the human form is best revealed with charcoal, not with a scalpel. Love should be expressed in a sonnet, not measured with an MRI. A sunset may be photographed or painted or reflected in song, but getting excited by its rate of fusion or the fact it represents pretty much all the mass in the solar system is seen as somehow unpoetic.
And further into it: the fruit of the tree of knowledge will rob you of paradise. Facts are the opposite of inspiration. Scientists are cold, boring, and amoral. If you reject the spiritual you will never access the sublime.
Of course, I’m building a straw man only to burn him. Science is not a bunch of facts. Scientists are not people trying to be prescriptive or authoritative. Science is simply the word we use to describe a method of organising our curiosity. It’s easier, at a dinner party, to say ”science” than to say ”the incremental acquisition of understanding through observation, humbled by an acute awareness of our tendency towards bias”. Douglas Adams said: ”I’d take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day.”
Science is not the opposite of art, nor the opposite of spirituality – whatever that is – and you don’t have to deny scientific knowledge in order to make beautiful things. On the contrary, great science writing is the art of communicating that ”awe of understanding”, so that we readers can revel in the beauty of a deeper knowledge of our world. Read more…
|This is one of ScienceOrNot’s Where does creativity fit into science? series. See them all here.|
All scientific activity is based on models. One of the most important creative tasks a scientist can embark on is the development of a powerful new explanatory model.
… creating a new theory is not like destroying an old barn and erecting a skyscraper in its place. It is rather like climbing a mountain, gaining new and wider views, discovering unexpected connections between our starting point and its rich environment. But the point from which we started out still exists and can be seen, although it appears smaller and forms a tiny part of our broad view gained by the mastery of the obstacles on our adventurous way up.
How would journalists report on an imminent comet collision?
That’s the question asked by philosopher Tim Dean at The Conversation on the eve of the latest IPCC Physical Science Basis report, The IPCC says “It is extremely likely (i.e. 95% confidence) that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.” Here’s Dean’s scenario:
Breaking news: scientists have discovered a comet that will collide with Earth in 30 years. Its impact will be devastating, killing millions, flooding coastal cities and disrupting civilisation as we know it.
Models predict the impact will cost the global economy at least US$4.8 trillion every year and maybe much more. This is around 5% of our global GDP, or more than three times Australia’s total GDP. Economists say the impact would trigger a massive global recession.
The announcement came from leading scientists working as a part of a United Nations team formed to assess just such an eventuality. They agree the probability of impact is 95%.
Preventing the impact will cost around US$1.7 trillion per year if the world acts immediately, with the cost rising with each year of inaction.
It certainly makes you think about the media coverage over the last few days. Doesn’t it?
Comet McNaught photo by John Wang on flickr.
|Let’s check the science: Are there any adverse health effects from tattoos?|
A while ago, some of my family told me about someone sitting next to them in a coffee shop who had tattooed eyeballs. Yes, the whites of his eyes were not white, but coloured. I’ve noticed, too, that large, colourful tattoos are becoming increasingly popular. This concerns me because I’m not sure about their safety. It’s not the small risk of infection during the tattooing process that bothers me. My concern is that tattoos involve injecting into the skin substances that are foreign to the human body, and that these presumably stay there for an entire lifetime. I was trained as a chemist, and I know that some pigments are pretty nasty as far as toxicity goes. At a time when many people go to great lengths to avoid ‘chemicals’ in their environment or food, how can others have them inserted into their skin? What are those substances and are they safe?
|This article assumes you are happy to accept science as the best way of discovering the truth about the natural world. If that’s not the case for you, why not have a look at Trusting the science first?|
A scientific model can be relied on when it’s had its tyres kicked, its log book examined, its mechanics tested, its body checked and it’s been taken for many test-drives.
|This is one of ScienceOrNot’s Hallmarks of science. See them all here.|
Scientists have most confidence in models that have been tested from as many different angles as possible. The great bulk of established scientific knowledge consists of such models. Much of the work at the frontiers of science consists of performing additional tests on the more sparsely-supported models.
In order to reach a reliable conclusion about how the world operates it is better to have multiple independent lines of evidence converging on one conclusion. That, of course, requires multiple studies.
Steven Novella, American neurologist, 2012.
A new study from researchers at the University of California Santa Barbara (available here) has found that if you are in a scientific frame of mind, your behaviour is more likely to be morally sound. The experiments used priming techniques to study responses of subjects to moral issues. In the words of the scientists:
Taken together, the present results provide support for the idea that the study of science itself–independent of the specific conclusions reached by scientific inquiries–holds normative implications and leads to moral outcomes.
The paper itself is concise and not difficult to understand, but if you’d like a more digestible summary, there’s an article at Scientific American.