lies, damned lies, and science

That’s the eye-catching title of my current reading matter – the book Lies, Damned Lies, & Science by Sherry Seethaler. And reading it led to the following musings:

Science is complex. Yet too often it’s presented – in the media, but also in textbooks & science classes – as a series of stand-alone facts (in the case of many media reports, one could probably say, ‘factoids’). Talking about science in this reductionist way is doing a real disservice to our students, & in fact to society as a whole.

Science isn’t simply a pile of facts to learn, or ‘recipes’ to follow. In fact, ‘cookbook’ science is a disaster if you are trying to explain what science is, because it teaches that you ‘do’ science in a series of steps and that there’s only one right answer at the end of it all. Yet anyone working in science knows that in testing an hypothesis you don’t know the answer, although you will have made a prediction about what it might be. And that individual bits of information don’t stand alone but are part of a more complex whole.

But alas! presenting ‘science’ as a series of facts or soundbites simply reinforces a reductionist approach to the subject. It conceals the complex, nuanced, uncertain nature of the whole enterprise. It gives people the impression that controversies exist when this often isn’t the case; that because scientists are arguing about data or the impression of that data, scientists don’t know what they’re doing; or that scientists just can’t make up their minds (as yesterday’s much-touted ‘discovery’ is shown – by science – to be nothing of significance, or even simply wrong. And the unfortunate endpoint of all this is the rise & spread of the attitude that because scientists can’t agree on an issue, then science doesn’t really have much to tell us & that all opinions on the matter are equally valid. (They aren’t.)

Anyway, Lies, Damned Lies, & Science addresses all this & more. To me the book’s key strength is that it describes a unique set of elements that need to be taken into consideration when reasoning about a complex science-related issue… and explores ways to achieve more nuanced and balanced perspecitives on a wide range of issues. If I had my way (!) it would be required reading for anyone teaching or studying science – but I’ll settle for a place on the science shelves in the school library 🙂

S.Seethaler (2009) Lies, Damned Lies, and Science. Pearson Education Inc.


Ken’s latest Open Parachute post is also very relevant here. As is Orac’s latest, entitled How can one know?

And this might also be relevant 🙂

song chart memes

8 thoughts on “lies, damned lies, and science”

  • [off-topic…]
    In Dunedin we have this chiropractioner who has taken out an advert in a local rag titled “The swine flu vaccine that you can have today”. *Sigh*. He basically starts with pointing to the observations that most of those that have died from swine flu have health complications, then segues off in a series of steps to imply that chiropractic, erm, “medciine” could prevent swine flu. Among other things his article “overlooks” that most people who catch swine flu have no other health issues, they just catch it regardless!
    He’s done similar adverts in the past, they all seem to rely on scare-mongering in one way or other.

  • Orac is one for that sort of thing. This week our quack is trying to play up the measles scare, even though it’s not in Dunedin, and is basically accusing the NZ health people of lying about the MMR vaccine. It seems it runs a serial anti-medical science column in the guise of an advertisement.

  • Alison Campbell says:

    Mmm, we get similar stuff in one of the local free rags – this week it’s ‘cure your arthritis by upping the amount of antioxidants in your diet’. I wonder if they’ve thought that one right through – too much in the way of antioxidants & your respiratory chain might grind to a halt…

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