Science on the Internet: Why we are left to our beliefs

As we stumble through the internet, we occasionally find a piece of real, reliable scientific information, facts and figures linked to their sources where one can read their methodologies, possible biases, and perhaps even evidence possibly contradicting its conclusions. Occasionally, we can come away from a sea of salt with a grain of truth.

Mostly, we’re stuck with mangled information, questionable or missing sources, and truths distorted through politics, incompetence, or both. Sensationalist media take thought provoking hypotheses or unexpected results from experiments to make grand claims about the origin of the universe or the fundamental Americanness of human nature. But we aren’t all scientists. We can’t all find sources, read 35 pages of data and parse methodologies and be satisfied with the scientific conclusion “perhaps, maybe, if…” We need a montage to make the tedious work of research and experimentation glamorous and paraphrase decades of work into two or three paragraphs we can read on the can. But how do we know which montage to trust?

Short Answer?

We can’t. Even elite, peer-reviewed journals let bad science slip through the censors now and then, and even solid, careful studies can come to false conclusions. Still, we do have at least one rule to distinguish science from baseless speculation:

If someone uses science to tell you something is specifically, absolutely true, they aren’t using science.

 

All right. The Earth is round. (Well, spherical. Ish.)  Water boils at 100 degrees Celsius, at sea level, (assuming normal atmospheric pressure). Objects fall at a rate of (about) ten meters per second squared, (on earth, in a vacuum). Okay, but, in general, scientific knowledge rarely achieves these levels of certainty.

So What’s a Consumer of Science to do?

Learn the basics; trust your judgment; and understand that most of us are less critical of evidence supporting our opinions. Statistics without a margin of error are fantasy. Statistics with a margin of error can only tell us so much.

So, we have many decisions to make; will you accept truth as defined by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time, Maxim, (or TrainBust)? When you make your decisions, understand that they are decisions you’ve made, and not an absolute mandate of absolute truth.