Failure lies at the heart of scientific progress. And that includes how people respond to scientific ‘news’. In short, don’t believe everything you read.
True scientists actually don’t believe anything they read. Even if they like and want to believe something is so, they know that ultimately their work can only disprove something, but never prove it. They can usefully add to the body of data and information supporting a hypothesis, but that is all.
Unfortunately, the general public does not approach its ‘science’ with the same degree of scrutiny. This fact was underscored by this week’s ‘news’ about the notorious ‘MMR-Autism link’ as ‘an elaborate fraud.’ The shock to me was not the damning findings, but that this report was news at all. The publicly available data has been pointing in this direction since 2003. Unfortunately, accepting a nerve-touching speculation attaches itself to the public’s mind easier and faster, than more considered examination of the facts.
‘Scientific Method’ has been the heart of the 20th century’s explosion in technology. Everything before that was essentially just clever tinkering. Ultimately, all true progress in health and welfare in the world has come from this powerful concept. Despite this powerful track record and set of credentials, people continue to actively abuse and passive neglect the very concept of science in daily life.
Ben Goldacre has been champion of scientific method defending its onslaught by media and commerce. In so doing, he has been embracing failure for most of his career. Embracing the core of scientific method that only the very highest standard of double-blind, controlled, peer-reviewed, objective analysis can even begin to call itself ‘maybe true’. His book, ‘Bad Science’ is a must read for anyone who is ‘too embracing’ of all and any sort of cure or remedy proposed. For a treatment to be accorded the respect of endorsement, first it must embrace failure. It must subject itself to the most rigorous tests that take every opportunity and angle to get it to fail.
One great example, which he explores, of the need to embrace failure in the scientific community itself is ‘Publication Bias’ which is “Positive results bias, a type of publication bias, occurs when authors are more likely to submit, or editors accept, positive than null (negative or inconclusive) results.” In short, when people ‘find something’, they report it. If they don’t find anything, then they don’t (‘the file drawer’ effect). But in science, negative results or inconclusive results (failures to some) are powerful contributions to the body of knowledge. The MMR-Autism scare was a prominent example of this played out in mass media. The report that there might be a link was big news worthy of headlines. But when many other researchers came forward with investigations that did not find the link, the papers found it not worthy to print.