Mavericks?

Kids – come to that, people in general – love to feel that they’re the only one with the right answer. Proving somebody wrong gives us a sense of triumph. I suppose you could argue that as humans have evolved to battle with their wits rather than their fists, winning arguments is just another way we demonstrate our fitness to reproduce. Ignoring such a basic human characteristic will cause us problems, but we must also recognise how poorly this conditioning prepares our students for science.

Scientific disagreements are not settled by ‘winning an argument’ in the conventional way. Science is about accurately describing the real world, and as Philip K Dick wrote, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” It can be difficult to convince a student that settling a question in science is about evidence – and this is only emphasized when you explain that all ideas in science are subject to change if more evidence appears. Pupils who begin to appreciate this are taking huge steps in their understanding of how science works, and are doing so despite a very different view of science held by many adults.

Science as described in the media seems to be about facts. Those who disagree with accepted scientific ideas are described as ‘mavericks’, and simply by challenging widely-held viewpoints many will see them as admirable or interesting. These mavericks, or their advocates in the media, rightly point out that many of today’s accepted theories started out as being ridiculed by the prevailing scientific opinion. (Wegener’s ideas about continental drift, what we now explain by tectonic plates, is a well-known example.) These scientists – and of course their equivalents in other fields – are now remembered as having fought mainstream opinion. But we remember them because they turned out to be right! It’s like the recent headline  about a 2m lottery win; they used a system to get it. We never hear about the millions of other punters who failed despite having a ‘system’. This is an example of confirmation bias. In the same way, we rarely hear about the amateur and professional scientists who held on to their own pet theory, long after the evidence showed they were wrong.
 
With anything scientific, if you have evidence it usually turns out to be pretty hard to ignore the facts. Delays usually happen when a scientist has only part of the puzzle. Wegener, for example, did not have a plausible mechanism to explain continental drift; you could say that he had circumstantial evidence but no motive. The thing is that it’s a lot easier to talk about being oppressed, and the scientific paradigm, and people ignoring evidence, than it is to find convincing evidence which contradicts what everyone else is doing. Occam’s razor isn’t always right, but it is a pretty powerful way to weed out the idiots, fakers and other con-artists.

Adherants of homeopathy love to talk about ‘quantum principles’ and the ‘memory of water‘. Point out the huge theoretical weaknesses of their pet theory, however, or the lack of any good high quality evidence of it working beyond placebo, and they stop being quite so vocal. AIDS denialists (those who are convinced that the set of symptoms we call AIDS isn’t caused by HIV, but instead by lack of vitamin C or, bizarrely, the use of AZT) are, like many other similar monomaniacs, much better at quoting particular studies that support them than at taking in the broad sweep of evidence. The same is seen with climate change ‘skeptics’ – aka denialists – who cherrypick data that suits them, ignoring the rest. The BCA did just this when they finally released their “plethora of evidence” last year, to remarkably swift analysis and mockery from the blogosphere. (I wasn’t there – actively, at least. I was cheering from the sidelines.)

It’s one of the things that can be very frustrating when the media – the BBC is particularly bad on this one – try to present the ‘two sides of the argument’. They give equal air time, and apparently equal weight, to (a) the representative of the NHS who has spent 30 years on vaccination research and (b) some worried mother who ‘just knows’ that her son’s diagnosis of autism must be linked to the MMR jab he had the same year. It makes a better narrative, a story that journalists (and the rest of us) love to hear – brave underdog fights off huge corporation and wins due to being pure of heart. Of course, it’s not always right. But it gives many people, including our students, the impression that scientists can’t make up their mind and we don’t know anything for certain.
 
It’s like a kid telling his Mum, “yes, I got an A in my past paper” and me pointing out that he got an A in 1 paper of 4, and that the past four modules are all C grades. Sometimes an outlier or anomaly tells us something really interesting is going on (if I drop a pencil 1000 times and even once it floats silently instead of falling to the floor, something very weird has happened). The example I often give to students is plotting the level of noise in a car against speed. It’s not a smooth pattern; it will spike at (what we now know are) resonant frequencies, when the parcel shelf or whatever starts rattling. Here the anomalies are interesting, especially to engineers who then try to solve the noise problem before the customers complain. But sometimes that anomaly is because we screwed up the method, or because a kid guessed better than usual on a multiple choice test.
 
The general public doesn’t have the knowledge or skills to assess the quality of the research. It’s worth pointing out that there are some fantastic sites offering just these skills; NHS: Behind the Headlines is one and more specifically their excellent article teaching you how to read articles about health news. Sadly, most people feel that they don’t have the time, patience or ability to do so, despite it taking less time than watching England lose at the football, again. This means it’s very easy to pull the wool over their eyes, or over the eyes of a journalist, and make it seem like the scientific community is split 50/50. MMR vs autism, evolution vs (un)intelligent design, conspiracy vs moon landing, homeopathy vs placebo… Most scientists know where they stand. In most cases there is a clear consensus on the big issues – the disagreements (which are many and frequently bitter) are about details. Important details, yes – but often not something newsworthy. They disagree on the tenth decimal place in a fundamental constant, or on the precise mechanism for how a small but vital part of the immune system fails when HIV infects a human being. Journalists don’t like telling that story, because it’s boring. Man bites dog is more fun.

The idea of a lone maverick, righting the wrongs of an uncaring establishment, is a popular one. It is, on many levels, an appealing one. Sadly, that does not mean it is a correct one. Journalists who perpetuate the idea that science is always about a struggle between individual people, between personalities, do us few favours in the long run. Andrew Wakefield has made the most of the attention he received, meaning that even now he has fans who refuse to hear about his many transgressions. He is far from the only example. In such cases the media often deserve, but rarely receive, a portion of the blame. In the classroom, we must be careful to focus on the ideas, the evidence, rather than who is saying what. And somehow we must do this while still pointing out that some sources are more reliable than others! 

In general, I find my students seem to think I’m pretty sceptical. In fact, most of them think I’m cynical. Now, some of that is from spending my working life surrounded by teenagers. But in general, I’m quite happy to be seen as a ‘skeptic’ – because although I may not be a scientist in practice, I would like to think I am one in spirit. What can be closer to the scientific method than asking for evidence? The more unlikely something is, the more evidence I would need. I explain to my students that I would like three things from them, by the end of their courses. I want them to be curious, asking questions and able to start looking for the answers themselves. I’d like them to be untrusting of authority, always searching for the most likely explanation, not taking the world at first glance.

Oh, I said three things, didn’t I? Well, it would be nice if they passed some exams as well…

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