Science is not intuitive

From the trenches of science, it’s easy to label evolution deniers and global warming skeptics as dumb or at least uninformed. But we should remember that the scientific method is not an intuitive process, and takes a lot of time to learn.

For one thing, the scientific method is based on probabilities, which humans famously misunderstand. We play the lottery because we have a chance of winning, even though that chance is vanishingly small. We tend to think of very large or small probabilities as less extreme than they actually are, so when scientists say there is a 95% chance (or even a 99.9% chance) that, say, smoking causes cancer, it is easy for us to simply hear “they’re not sure.” Intuitive science is based on stories and anecdotes, rather than quantifiable statistics. We might pray and then find out that our friend returned to health. So there’s “a good chance” that the one caused the other. Isn’t that the same as scientists saying “there’s a good chance” that antibiotics were the cause of her recovery?

For another thing, it’s not immediately obvious that we need controls and placebos. If we want to find out whether an intervention works, why would we do an experiment that doesn’t actually use the intervention? Worse, isn’t it morally wrong in many cases to not give the intervention? In order to prove that an educational or healthcare strategy is effective, we have to not use the strategy in some classrooms and hospitals. Scientists are monsters!

These are just the first few tricky aspects of science that come to mind. As I re-read the Intro Stats textbook, I’m reminded how subtle a lot of this is, and how even professional scientists can sometimes get it wrong. That doesn’t mean we should be skeptical of science as a whole, though science itself relies on a healthy skepticism of individual results (another subtle distinction!). It does mean that scientists and journalists should try to explain the scientific process, over and over, day after day, when presenting results to the public. Because if you’re not doing science every day, it’s easy to forget how it works.

I hope to do what I can to help everyone do more science every day.

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