Science Is Not On Your Side


Science is not on anybody’s side. I know: how does a science communicator justify this stance? It’s fairly easy, but we have to ask a classic question in an abstract way. What does the existence of science fulfill?

The Purpose

Science tells a saga that must be followed from its beginnings (or as far back as one can fathom) in order to be fully understood. Exploring one piece of the story only provides a snapshot of the total research that led up to that point. It’s the same with résumés; the best are typically shorter, but it’s not possible to encapsulate your entire body of experiences in one or two pages.

On that note, I believe that no one person, except for historians of science and groups of researchers, come close to understanding science in its entirety. The more we learn, the more we recognize how much we don’t know. Disparaging, right? Maybe a little exciting if, like me, you love to learn.

But I say all of this to set the scene. Science does not need to be understood to that degree. Science builds upon past research and has since the first discoveries were documented and used for society. As such, even though one discovery is a snapshot, it can be a starting point. These are the two ways to explore science — moving backwards to understand historical research and moving forward to understand its implications.

What we are not allowed to do is cherry-pick data points and piece together an unrelated interpretation. That is, by definition, the creation of a story. But science tells its own story, which we are meant to follow.

In this, science reveals its purpose. Science provides a method and a body of study that should be passed throughout the ages to the public. Nothing more, nothing less.

The Problem

Science fulfills the human need for knowledge. Society, generally, understands that science and scientists are authorities on the state of society (social sciences) and the world (natural science). But navigating through the world, either on the streets or on the internet, we often find people saying that science agrees with their agenda or opinion.

Science does not bend to an opinion. Scientists have lost their labs and jobs over injecting their opinions and biases into studies. It is a breathing body of knowledge, however it is not alive. It does not have the capacity to choose what it believes. In this, those that use it to suit an agenda are misunderstanding its objectivity. The question is: does your agenda agree with the literature?

“But Matthew, you’re splitting hairs. What’s the difference between saying ‘the science agrees with me’ and ‘I agree with the science’?” That question is the problem. It makes all the difference. It is far more powerful to state that your agenda is based on science than saying that the science supports your agenda. Why? Well, say that I was a skeptic of climate change.

Image via Petit et al., (1999)

Image via Petit et al., (1999)

If you looked at this set of graphs, which I conveniently cherry-picked from a paper, what would you conclude? Likely that climate change isn’t something to be concerned about. After all, according to the infographic, the temperature changes between a range of 10 degrees Celsius over 400,000 years; the Earth getting warmer and eventually colder must be natural. If I were to use this graph to explain that climate change is being blown out of proportion, I would likely be able to bring hundreds of thousands of people onto my side off the “authority” of this data alone. That would be me saying that the science supports my opinion; I might even go as far as to say that what I’m saying is factual.

But what’s missing here?

That’s right: the entire paper. I just pulled a graph from a paper, and I’m relying on you not looking into that paper, which I, myself, may or may not have looked into, to support my point. In other words, I took a piece of the full story and crafted my own fable with it. When doing that, I no longer have the right to say that my words are backed by science because I am no longer using the conclusions of the original literature.

It goes even further. When you do look into that paper, you realize that, no, science doesn’t support my opinion at all. It shows: (1) the paper was written in 20 years ago — 1999, (2) the study did not have a global reach, but it was done on a single ice core in one of the coldest places on Earth, (3) the purpose of the study was not to critique climate change, but show the levels of carbon dioxide and methane of the past 400,000 years, and (4) despite not having anything to do with climate change, the authors still mention the unprecedented levels of carbon dioxide and methane.

Yikes. Now, what if you took it a step further and wondered what the carbon dioxide and methane looked like closer to today and on a global scale?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows that we’re not even close to the 280 parts per million carbon dioxide and 700 parts per million methane limits in the graph. We’re double that in the case of carbon dioxide and triple that in the case of methane.

The Reality

In my scenario, one thing makes itself clear. The study is the authority. What I should be taking as my opinion should be based on that authority. When the roles are reversed, and I create the story, I present myself as the authority. The science becomes flexible because my opinions are flexible. In our society, flexible science leads to catastrophe — medicines that are toxic, structures that are not properly constructed, diseases that can’t be cured.

When the story of the science is told, with all of the research done and confirmed by other researchers, my shoddy story, and, by extension, my argument falls apart. My argument was not based on science. I manipulated science to suit my needs. Maybe if my argument was based on science instead, it wouldn’t have.

Science is not on your side. It’s not on my side. It is an independent body for us to learn from.

Petit, J. R., Jouzel, J., Raynaud, D., Barkov, N. I., Barnola, J.-M., Basile, I., … Stievenard, M. (1999). Climate and atmospheric history of the past 420,000 years from the Vostok ice core, Antarctica. Nature, 399(6735), 429–436.

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