How can we tell is information that purports to be scientific is actually scientific? Here is one perspective.
This video was produced in January 2013 for my research methods seminar (SOC 334) at Queens College in the City University of New York. If you are enrolled in this class, you must also complete the assigned readings and exercises. Instructions will be posted on my web site and on Blackboard.
This video is part of an experiment in teaching with technology. In the coming semester, I plan on releasing other videos and an overview of this experiment. If you are interested, please visit my web site (www.josephncohen.org) and share your questions, corrections, thoughts or criticisms. I appreciate any feedback or advice on the video’s content (admittedly poor) production, or the format of moving my lectures to sets of short (5-10 minute) streaming videos.
Science is one of society’s most trusted institutions, and that trust can be manipulated. People can use the appearance of science to push ideas that really have no serious scientific basis. Sometimes, all it takes is a white lab coat, fancy equipment, or complicated looking equations. But don’t be fooled. You can buy lab coats and fancy equipment on eBay, and anyone can write complex equations. Just because it’s complicated doesn’t mean it’s right.
Much of the information we are exposed to presents itself as scientific. In this context, I describe four basic principles of science. Knowing these principles can help you figure out whether or not a purportedly scientific piece of information is genuinely scientific or merely posing as such.
Don’t confuse the idea of scientific information with factually accurate information. Many pieces of scientific information are incorrect. Think of scientific information as something produced by a specific method. This method can be flawed, but almost any information-producing process can create inaccurate information. Science, however, has a good track record.
How can you tell if a piece of knowledge is scientific or not? Most information isn’t purely one or the other. Perhaps a better question is: how can you determine if a piece of information is more or less scientific? One way to consider this is by its adherence to four basic principles: skepticism, empiricism, objectivity, and control. The more information adheres to these principles, the more likely it is to be genuinely scientific.
Skepticism means doubting the truth of something, whereas faith involves assuming the truth of something. Everyone is skeptical of ideas they disagree with. Scientific skepticism implies some level of doubt about one’s beliefs and conclusions. Good scientific explanations attempt to disprove themselves.
Empiricism is about basing judgments on observable evidence. Empiricists don’t just accept ideas because they make logical sense or because many people believe them. They need tangible evidence that something exists in the real world.
Scientists maintain an ethic of objectivity, meaning they strive not to be influenced by personal emotions or biases. Everyone has biases and is influenced by emotions, but science makes a genuine effort to minimize these.
Science uses controls. These are procedures that ensure scientists aren’t jumping to conclusions and that others can verify their work. They also try to minimize errors or biases.
The primary goal of this lesson is to help you assess how scientific a piece of information is. Consider religion, for example. Religion is based on faith, not skepticism, and often doesn’t rely on empirical evidence. But, remember, just because something isn’t scientific doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Another example is anecdotal evidence. It might be empirical, but without controls, it isn’t very scientific.
We often see claims like “four out of five dentists recommend” in advertisements. These might be based on surveys, but they might not be entirely objective or controlled.
We place a lot of trust in science, and this trust encourages people to mimic the appearance of science. But appearances can be deceiving. Information has varying levels of scientific credibility. When presented with information claiming to be scientific, ask if it possesses skepticism, empiricism, objectivity, and control. If not, then the individual might be mimicking a scientist, not genuinely acting as one.