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[P]
Standards Of Proof

By jd in Media
Wed Feb 28, 2001 at 08:07:32 AM EST
Tags: Science (all tags)
Science

This press release from the Ames Research Center, NASA, claims that meteorite ALH84001 contains evidence of life having existed on Mars. But does it?


They're not the only ones to have made claims that have left the rest of the world perplexed. Hyperdilution made it into the normally-reputable science journal "Nature", and Cold Fusion claims from Utah rocked the world... for a while.

The "scientific method", which was so brutally-drummed into many of us at school seems remarkably absent from these major claims made by otherwise reputable scientists. This is not to say that they are "right" or "wrong" -- even a stopped watch is right twice a day - but rather that there is something distorted in the entire approach.

Popular science claims are made by many organizations and institutes, intending to appeal to your average person. Many turn out to be pure fiction and/or the result of corruption, politics and a craving for fame.

Many "studies" on the safety of food products are paid for by the manufacturer. Somewhat of an incentive to give a result they'd prefer. They're not the only ones, either. Even the ever-present Oprah Winfrey was effectively silenced over her concerns on the possibility of BSE in America. (The lawsuit eventually finished in her favour, but I somehow doubt she's planning any updates in the near future.)

Where do the rigors of scientific proof end and the pressures from the "real" world begin? At what point can an agency or company reasonably expect to put it's own slant on the results? And at what point should scientists and those in the media who deal with science just say "NO!"?

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Poll
How should science be presented?
o The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth 8%
o Raw data, and basic interpretation 28%
o As it is now, but more extensive peer-reviews 11%
o Compulsory peer-reviews, in all media 9%
o Open Source -- science doesn't belong to a person 17%
o Fish 'n' Chips 25%

Votes: 96
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o press release
o Also by jd


Display: Sort:
Standards Of Proof | 40 comments (30 topical, 10 editorial, 0 hidden)
Scientific Method? (4.14 / 7) (#6)
by Signal 11 on Tue Feb 27, 2001 at 02:46:22 PM EST

The scientific method isn't really a negotiable thing if you want to say something is scientifically valid. Science doesn't say religion is wrong, for example.. it just says there's no real empirical evidence that miracles happen every day or that God is watching all the time - like when you when you masturbate. Quantum physics even tells us if God is observing, he has automatically compressed the wave function of whatever he is observing. Maybe God isn't all knowing afterall... but we're getting off topic.

Things can be discovered without using the scientific method which is later accepted as "scientific fact" (I use the term cautiously, see below). Many things have been discovered quite by accident, and new discoveries often start with the words "That's odd..." and not "Eurika!" (I found it). In addition, many things which could not be explained at the time can later be explained and shown to have existed prior to the "discovery" in pre-existing records once the state of the art advances.

Science is a way of thinking and a methodology. It doesn't claim that it's any more correct than, say, theology. Science is one way of getting information, it's not the way. Science, IMO, is a very reliable method of getting information about the physical world. I wouldn't use it, however, to explain why my friends are all schizophrenic or why I feel a certain way - I need to use different methods than science to answer those questions.

In conclusion, "scientific fact" is really just a way of saying:

  • We can reproduce the results.
  • We have an explanation of the results which we feel makes the "most" sense.
  • We have a general conscensus amongst ourselves that this is the correct conclusion, given the (reproduceable) facts.

Science isn't "right" - nothing can really ever be known with absolute certainty (see: law of noncontradiction), but we can approximate it. I guess that's where theology got lucky - unlike scientists, theologians can simply say "Take this on faith, it's true no matter what" and build a logical framework. Science is constantly threatened by new facts which can radically alter our view of the world. Every day we find something new which contradicts what we thought we "knew" earlier. Perhaps that is why religion is so attractive - it offers a certainty about the world which science cannot make a claim to. The only comparative framework we have to that is mathematics, which is ultimately based on assumptions which we too take on faith.




--
Society needs therapy. It's having
trouble accepting itself.

evidence and proof (4.50 / 6) (#7)
by Delirium on Tue Feb 27, 2001 at 02:46:28 PM EST

You seem to be confusing "evidence" and "proof." You really can't ever prove anything in experimental science - there's always the possibility that some unforseen exception will mess up your theory that has so far worked in every other case. You can however garner great deals of evidence to support it. Whether NASA's findings do indeed provide evidence of life on Mars I don't know, since I haven't read enough about them. It seems likely that they do, and what you're arguing is that they don't provide very much evidence.

Well, to be fair... (3.66 / 9) (#9)
by trhurler on Tue Feb 27, 2001 at 03:02:35 PM EST

While they haven't "proved" that life exists or existed on Mars, they did find a structure in the rock that, insofar as we know, does not exist independent of life. That's a pretty solid bit of evidence. We're almost certain that this structure doesn't exist on earth except where produced by microorganisms, and we have no reason to believe that this isn't true of Mars. The only downside is that we have no particular reason to believe that it couldn't exist on Mars independent of life, except for the fact that Mars and Earth are both planets. Saying it is a certainty is a stretch, but saying it is probable that life once existed on Mars seems quite reasonable; at one time, Mars was rather Earth-like after all.

Personally, I wonder why everyone's so eager to find out whether there was life there a billion years ago or more; it is virtually certain there isn't any now, after all.

--
'God dammit, your posts make me hard.' --LilDebbie

You're probably wrong (4.00 / 2) (#24)
by Eloquence on Tue Feb 27, 2001 at 11:45:14 PM EST

it is virtually certain there isn't any now

I wouldn't be so sure about that. People have only scratched the surface, literally -- and that's where we can be absolutely sure not to find any life, because Mars has no atmosphere. But in the subterranean caves of Mars, and in the probably existing underground seas or oceans, life may very well thrive, in much more complex forms than the bacteria suggest. We can only find out by sending more sophisticated probes and, finally, humans. And unless the mission fails, we will certainly learn a lot from doing so.

Also keep an eye on Europa. That underground ocean looks very promising.
--
Copyright law is bad: infoAnarchy Pleasure is good: Origins of Violence
spread the word!
[ Parent ]

Am I? (3.00 / 2) (#31)
by trhurler on Wed Feb 28, 2001 at 10:58:54 AM EST

What makes you so sure Mars has any significant subterranean features with water supplies? As far as I can tell, this is merely the wishful thinking of people who want there to be life on Mars.

As for Europa, I'd prefer not to even comment, but suffice it to say that I'm willing to bet there's nothing living there, and if there is, I am also willing to be that it isn't more complicated than some funky anaerobic bacteria. Among the reasons are radiation, temperature, and the fact that we haven't actually even verified that what's under Europa's surface is water, rather than some other liquid, or that it is free of lethal contaminants. People are far too eager to suppose what they don't know sometimes...

--
'God dammit, your posts make me hard.' --LilDebbie

[ Parent ]
Of course... (3.50 / 2) (#32)
by beergut on Wed Feb 28, 2001 at 11:09:08 AM EST

... we can't be sure until we actually see what's there, but remember: Oxygen was a lethal contaminant to early life on Earth, which is why they expelled it. Other life forms adapted to use it.

Life may not be hospitable to us, but you can be sure that there is a possibility that some organism could make use of those contaminants as, say, food.


i don't see any nanorobots or jet engines or laser holography or orbiting death satellites.
i just see some orangutan throwing code-feces at a computer screen.

-- indubitable
[ Parent ]

Several reasons (5.00 / 1) (#34)
by Eloquence on Wed Feb 28, 2001 at 03:47:30 PM EST

What makes you so sure Mars has any significant subterranean features with water supplies?

Several reasons. As for water: We have definite proof that there is water on Mars: The north pole at certain temperatures completely consists of water, and the atmosphere is permanently soaked with as much water as it can carry which goes down in crystal form in the evening on the whole planet. We have also found water contained in glass structures within Mars meteorites found on Earth. And there's the NASA analysis that has revealed recent liquid water on Mars, which is equivalent in geology terms to "today". No water below Mars' surface seems very unlikely at this point. As for caves, we have definite proof that there are caves on Mars, as can be seen in Mars' "chaotic terrain" -- large collapsed structures that formerly contained very large cavities. There is also the question where Mars' former atmosphere went, with the answer possibly being "below the surface", CO2 chemically contained in stones and rocks, which would form an undergrund much more cavernous than Earth's.

As far as I can tell, this is merely the wishful thinking of people who want there to be life on Mars.

I disagree, science is about finding truth, not about finding an answer that pleases us. So far, all evidence points in a direction where life is possible, although other factors have to be considered: How large does your pool of individuals need to be for life to transcend the singlecellular phase? The Kambrian explosion on Earth took several hundred million years, with most of our surface covered by water. OTOH, this delay may have been caused by the early restlesness on Earth, before it formed today's atmosphere: huge meteorites constantly bombarding the planet. And a much a higher amount of volcanism, too.

With the current facts as support, if humans want to learn the truth about life in their solar system, they have no choice but to explore it, the sooner the better. Even if all evidence so far had not pointed in the direction of life, it is clear that with the simple nature of the missions we have dispatched so far, immediate further research is necessary. It appears to me that those who do not want these mission are afraid of what may be found.

The "National Missile Defense System" is known to be a fake to steal US taxpayers' money for a large industry. With the money this thing costs, a manned Mars mission could be paid for, even according to more conservative approaches. Humanity doesn't seem to be quite ready for the stars yet (or the planets even).

(Europa:)

Among the reasons are radiation, temperature, and the fact that we haven't actually even verified that what's under Europa's surface is water, rather than some other liquid, or that it is free of lethal contaminants.

We know that Europa's surface is made of frozen water (spectral analysis), so anything else but water underground seems highly unlikely if not impossible. As for "lethal components", which ones would that be? You will find organisms resistent to any poision you can brew, and if you can create one that kills them all, adaption will not be far away. As for temperature, there is a large amount of volcanism on Europa, so this should not be a problem. As for radiation, the ocean exists several miles below the ice surface and is safely protected against it. In fact, because of its safe protection against meteorites and its nice, warm deep-sea conditions, Europa may be in many respects a better harbor for life than even Earth itself. (See this article for some examples of deep sea life near hot springs on earth.)

People are far too eager to suppose what they don't know sometimes...

Criticism and questioning are a necessary part of science, permanent rejection, however, is not -- it is the exact opposite of the curiosity that drives scientists in the first place. Much of the criticism against life on other planets seems to be primarily motivated by emotion, not by fact, thanks to mass media that have portrayed Mars as a cold, dead planet.
--
Copyright law is bad: infoAnarchy Pleasure is good: Origins of Violence
spread the word!
[ Parent ]

Well, (none / 0) (#35)
by trhurler on Wed Feb 28, 2001 at 05:13:54 PM EST

My point is not that there can't be life there. My point is that while there are many very good reasons to explore the solar system, expecting to find life is probably not one of them, especially because then if it isn't there, everyone will say you wasted time and money for nothing - the answer to "is there life on Mars?" isn't really yes, no, or even "probably" or "probably not," but really amounts to "maybe." In the end, for all our evidence one way and another, that's the answer until we go and look. I agree, we should go and look - but the search for life should be one reason, rather than the reason to go.

Personally, I'm well convinced that there is life somewhere other than here, but I'm unwilling to commit to saying where, and I'm not interested in any argument that presupposes that there is or isn't life in this or that likely spot until we've gone and looked for ourselves. Mars, life or no life, has a lot of promise for us, as do many other locations in the solar system - why hang the hopes of your exploration future on something that might not work out when there are so many things we know we stand to gain?

--
'God dammit, your posts make me hard.' --LilDebbie

[ Parent ]
Your biology and geology are out of date (none / 0) (#38)
by plonk on Thu Mar 01, 2001 at 12:33:41 PM EST

Martian terrain is consistent with the presence of liquid water and/or ice on the surface in the recent past. It all had to go somewhere, and the best guess is that it went into the ground. Also, water is known to be present in large quantities in the Martian north polar ice cap, through thermal spectroscopy performed by a number of different spacecraft. Mars is not volcanically dead, not yet. It is reasonable to assume, therefore, that there are geothermally heated resevoirs of liquid water locked up in deep rocks on Mars. On Earth, such resevoirs can and do contain life, in the form of bacteria. If life exists on Mars at all, these are the places where it could exist. And the only way to confirm that is to go and drill for life all over the planet. On Earth, life thrives in the damnedest places. We have found thriving bacteria in geothermal vents, inside solid rock, both near the surface and kilometers undeground, in Antarctic ice, and in hard radiation environments. Life is ferociously tough and adaptable. The only requirement is liquid water in some form. And it turns out that liquid water is not as uncommon in the solar system as you might suppose. This brings me to the possibility of life on Europa. Due to Jupiter's tidal forces, it is probable that there is liquid water under the icy surface (composition confirmed by thermal spectroscopy conducted by the Galileo spacecraft). There are a number of surface features that seem to bear out this conclusion. If this is true, then the ice is probably still hundreds of meters to a kilometer deep. That's more then enough to shield out the 540 rem/day dose at Europa. Whatever the composition of that subsurface sea, it is a sure bet that some bacteria could evolve to cope with it. Your crack about 'funky little anerobes' makes it clear that you fail to grasp the signifigance of extraterrestrial life in any form. It would be a titanic discovery; it would tell us that anywhere there is liquid water that there is likely to be life, no matter how hostile or uninviting the place is to humans. And that therefore our universe is awash with life.

[ Parent ]
Death on Mars (none / 0) (#40)
by davidduncanscott on Thu Mar 01, 2001 at 01:49:33 PM EST

Personally, I wonder why everyone's so eager to find out whether there was life there a billion years ago or more; it is virtually certain there isn't any now, after all.
You really don't see why?

Right now, we know that life exists on one planet in the entire universe. Based on our one-point data set, it's about equally plausible that we are unique, or that every planet has life and MTV and everything.

Finding that Mars once had life, even if it doesn't anymore, changes that range of possibilities. I can buy a universe with no life at all (but since I'm here I can rule that out), a universe with just one example of life, or a universe with many examples, but just two, and those in close proximity? That I can't buy.

Extinct life on Mars strongly suggests life somewhere else. That's important.

[ Parent ]

context, and enough info (4.83 / 6) (#10)
by ana on Tue Feb 27, 2001 at 03:03:45 PM EST

I'm always apalled at how little information about a given scientific publication makes it into the popular press. Here, for example, one crucial fact that's missing is relative sizes of the structures in the meteorite and modern earth-based life. When this same meteorite was cited several years ago as having fossilized bacteria in it (little rod-shaped stone things), it turned out that the little rod-shaped "fossils" were about 100 times smaller than the smallest known bacteria on earth; so small in fact that it's difficult to see how all the machinery we expect to find keeping a cell alive would fit.

Which brings us to context: this is not the first time a claim of life from Mars has been made about this particular meteorite. The science journalist should tell us how this alleged discovery fits into the ongoing dialog about the issue.

It is nice that there's a link from the page you link, which gives us the whole text of the scientific article.

Interesting poll option, by the way, for "compulsory peer review in all media." It would help a lot if the journalist, before any editor anywhere would agree to take a science story, had to run the already written story by another scientist in the field for comment and criticism (and then the editor gets to see the comments). Very often science stories are laughably wrong, even in reputable newspapers like the New York Times.

One more rant-let: I don't think I've ever heard a working (physical) scientist mention "The Scientific Method." There's a lot of discussion about what constitutes evidence (statistics, etc.) and an understanding that you can't prove ideas but only disprove them, and other such things.

Ana

Years go by; will I still be waiting
for somebody else to understand?
--Tori Amos

Xenobiology vs. Geology (4.25 / 4) (#12)
by SIGFPE on Tue Feb 27, 2001 at 03:15:06 PM EST

There's a certain amount of overlap with my earlier story "What's up at NASA". (Sorry, I'm having trouble making links to earlier stories...I just get the front page.)

Think of it this way. If NASA don't send a probe to Mars to look for alien life signs what do you think the probe will spend its time doing? Geology probably. Now what government is going to spend a billion dollars on a pure research geology experiment?
SIGFPE

But so what? (4.00 / 2) (#16)
by error 404 on Tue Feb 27, 2001 at 03:57:37 PM EST

They get there, dig up rocks, sniff air, check things out. The search for life and the geology largely involve the exact same procedures.

Heck, I don't care if they go there to build a shrine to the old war gods, as long as they get there and do the science. Um, actualy, if they go to Mars to build a shrine to war gods, I'll be busy digging a bunker, but I'll still be glad they are going.


..................................
Electrical banana is bound to be the very next phase
- Donovan

[ Parent ]

Quite right (4.00 / 1) (#17)
by SIGFPE on Tue Feb 27, 2001 at 05:27:26 PM EST

The search for life and the geology largely involve the exact same procedures.
Precisely. But NASA need to present it as one thing rather than the other to get funding. They can't present it as the search for ET if there's no evidence of ET. So they have to conjure some. And even though I think this is morally wrong I think I support them.
SIGFPE
[ Parent ]
caveat emptor (4.00 / 6) (#14)
by eLuddite on Tue Feb 27, 2001 at 03:29:18 PM EST

Hyperdilution made it into the normally-reputable science journal "Nature", and Cold Fusion claims from Utah rocked the world... ...for a while.

I dont think publication in Nature is contingent upon prior peer review and it was science that debunked cold fusion, not journalism.

And at what point should scientists and those in the media who deal with science just say "NO!"?

You dont seem to be drawing a clear enough distinction between science and journalism. Science is subjected to peer review, journalism isnt. I dont think scientists have any responsibility to journalism. Scientists should mix chemicals and report on the bang to other scientists. Nothing they say is going to convince my aunt that extraterrestrials dont walk amongst us, anyway; she has very "low burden of proof," in your words. She is not science's responsibility.

Popular science claims are made by many organizations and instutes, intending to appeal to your average person. Many turn out to be pure fiction and/or the result of corruption, politics and a craving for fame.

Well, until we have a better standard of science education, its buyer beware, I guess. A lot of smart people lost a lot of money in dot coms despite the science of economics, right?

---
God hates human rights.

Cold fusion was an example... (5.00 / 3) (#18)
by iGrrrl on Tue Feb 27, 2001 at 05:45:04 PM EST

...of speaking to the press before peer review. The university decided, iirc, to hold the press conference before the first paper had gone through peer-review channels. Pond's and Fleishmann's biggest mistake was to permit the sensationalism.

That's part of the problem in science reporting, as I see it -- a combination of clueless reporters who get things wrong and of press-hungry companies or institutions that rush to publicize discoveries before they are reviewed. "First published in the New York Times" is always said with a sneer in my circles.

--
You cannot have a reasonable conversation with someone who regards other people as toys to be played with. localroger
remove apostrophe for email.
[ Parent ]

Interesting question (4.25 / 4) (#19)
by Philipp on Tue Feb 27, 2001 at 05:57:59 PM EST

You raise a lot of interesting issues...

First let's pull out Popper, who introduced the term "Falsification". Basically, if you make a hypothesis that fits all available facts, it can be scientifically considered true. There can be many competing hypotheses that fit a given set of facts. How do you know which is true? If the hypothesis differ, they predict different outcomes for an unobservered possible situations. You make an experiment that tests exactly this situation. The result will refute (or falsify) some of the hypotheses, and you are left with one. Repeat, if neccessary. Or cook up new hypotheses.

This has a couple of interesting consequences: Firstly, we never really know, if a hypothesis is true, we only know if it is wrong. Secondly, there are very often many different hypotheses that fit the available data.

And here a lot of trouble begins. Very often we just cannot do all the experiments that would falsify certain hypotheses. This is especially true in the social sciences. You just cannot say, communism would if you would do it so-and-so, because it is hard to get the millions of willing participants for a century-long study. Even for physics, there are constrains because experiements may get very expensive.

So, very often in science you are left with hypothizing about facts, and no viable facts to verify your hypotheses. So, what do you do? You pick the simplest one, because science is beautiful. Now you can start endless arguing what is the simplest... A lot of stuff that is passed on as science in the main stream press is educated guesswork.

There is a book by John Horgan, "The End of Science", where he visits a bunch of scientists and concludes that we are at the end of scientific progress. To resolve the remaining questions, experiments become impossible or too expensive.

Now, I don't want to open the can or worms "research paid by corporations or other parties with strong interests on the outcome". I also don't want to say that all science is bunk. If done by responsible, smart people, it is very often as good we can get. But is it truth?

alias kn 'killall -9 netscape-communicator'

Popper (4.50 / 2) (#27)
by TheEye on Wed Feb 28, 2001 at 03:51:04 AM EST

Glad you brought up the man, but I cannot help but disagreeing with you slightly or your presentation of the subject.

First of all, nothing is ever scientifically true --- this is part of the problem in the first place. Only math knows true or false.

The other thing is that, IMHO Popper never intended the falsification to be a litmus test for hypotheses. Instead, he tried to answer the question of what it is in theories that makes them to be considered scietific theories. The answer he came up with was that scientific theories should be falsifiable, as opposed to non-scientific theories. Nothing about true or false there.

So, in this view, the "sociological theory" of communism in not scientific at all since it cannot now and never will be falsifiable. Same goes for Freud's psycho-analysis mumbo-jumbo. This is not to say there is no science in either sociology or psychology. You just have to look a bit harder ;^)

A lot of stuff that is passed on as science in the main stream press is educated guesswork.

You would be amazed as to how much published in 'respectable' scientific journals is just that: educated guesswork. It should be falsifiable guess-work, though...

And as to John Horgan; he is just a narrow-minded idiot who refuses to look beyond the short-term obvious. Or at least poses to be in order to sell books...

Thanks again for bringing up the subject.

<()>

I said X-files, Scully, X files. Now put pack your clothes on.

[ Parent ]

How often do the media ever get it right? (5.00 / 7) (#20)
by iGrrrl on Tue Feb 27, 2001 at 06:20:49 PM EST

There are a number of issues here, but the naive nature of jd's stance is best summed up in his last question:
And at what point should scientists and those in the media who deal with science just say "NO!"?
The media who deal with science are usually people without serious scientific training (and a bachelor's degree isn't serious enough in this context), and who have a deadline to make. Let me address the second part first.

Many reported "studies" come directly from PR departments, which get passed on as news, uninvestigated. Often such articles consist mostly of direct quotes from the press release, and do not come from investigative reporting.

A new book addresses this subject Trust Us, We're Experts:How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles With Your Future by Sheldon Rampton, John Stauber. Here is a quote from The Connection's website, describiing the subject of the book.

Whether it be a professor or a pediatrician, a
watch dog group or a think tank we are always
ready and willing to put the public trust in the
hands of the so called experts who speak the
language of scientific authority and unbiased
neutrality. But if you look past the lab coats
you'll discover that more often than not the
credentials are bogus and the bias is bought
and paid for.
As for the cluelessness of many media science writers, I know that the reporting on biomedical research quite often either 1) gets important details wrong, 2) sensationalizes the claims, or 3) misses the point entirely. These writers often either know they haven't the background to understand the work (and thus simplify an already simplified press release), or they think they do have the background (and thus mangle the interpretation in the best tradition of "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing). In smaller media markets, one science writer may be asked to handle everything vaguely scientific. Who can be good enough at physics, geology, biomedicine, and environmental science all at once?

As for the journal Nature's decision to publish the "hyperdilution" paper: The choice was sound and probably supported by peer review, even though other scientists may not be able to subsequently reproduce the data. If the experiments were performed as reported, they supported controversial conclusions in support of homeopathy theories. Controversy and disagreements help to shake out the more consistant truths. Academic journals are more often slammed for refusing to consider views outside the norm.

Good scientists rarely give their work its first public airing via the New York Times, and it is a credit to the French group that authored the "solution memory" (hyperdilution) paper that they sent it through peer review. Whether the editors at Nature decided to publish over reviewer objection, I don't know.

And I don't know what to do about the crap which enters the media as "scientific fact." At best, we can hope that Rampton and Stauber's book opens the public eye to the prevalence of industry-sponsored "research". We can also hope that science writers get better training. Frankly, I like ana's suggestion for review of even popular science articles.

--
You cannot have a reasonable conversation with someone who regards other people as toys to be played with. localroger
remove apostrophe for email.

bachelor's is plenty (4.50 / 2) (#22)
by Delirium on Tue Feb 27, 2001 at 07:25:06 PM EST

The media who deal with science are usually people without serious scientific training (and a bachelor's degree isn't serious enough in this context), and who have a deadline to make.

While I agree that journalists are generally underinformed about scientific matters, I don't think "a bachelor's degree isn't serious enough." The problem is that most journalists don't have *any* science degree. A bachelor's degree in a science-related field would be sufficient to enable them to do their job as journalists - after all they are supposed to merely report on the news, not actually do the scientific work, so I think it's rather unreasonable (and unnecessary) to have a person with a PhD in science as a science journalist, especially since it's nearly impossible to get a PhD in every single field working for your magazine/newspaper (after all, a PhD in microbiology is really no more qualified to comment on petrochemicals research than any other person with a bachelor's in science is). All you really need is someone who understands science well enough to make basic judgements and to know how to find experts in each field; to do things like rely on peer-reviewed journals rather than press releases and such.

[ Parent ]

Why more than a bachelor's (4.66 / 3) (#30)
by iGrrrl on Wed Feb 28, 2001 at 10:48:59 AM EST

Delirium's argument against my contention that a bachelor's isn't quit sufficient may best be summed up in this parenthetical statement:
(after all, a PhD in microbiology is really no more qualified to comment on petrochemicals research than any other person with a bachelor's in science is)
In many ways I have to agree with this thought. There is nothing so specialized as a newly-minted Ph. D. However:
All you really need is someone who understands science well enough to make basic judgements and to know how to find experts in each field; to do things like rely on peer-reviewed journals rather than press releases and such.
That's the rub. When I was a mere B.S., I thought I had the judgement. After all, my degree required not only a broad base in biology (ecology to molecular) but also chemistry and physics. I was wrong. For most undergrad science degrees, the laboratory work is proscribed. It serves as hands-on learning, but it is the palest imitation of actual bench work in science. Sure, the hand motions may be the same, but the thought processes are entirely different.

This change in thought process was the thing that most blew my mind in my early years of graduate school. A good working scientist learns doubt and learns to live and work within uncertainty. This is not taught in didactic undergraduate classes. Besides, the press doesn't want uncertainty. It wants a straightforward story told in declarative sentences.

Because of the desire for simplicity -- they have to tone down the tech for the masses, right? -- journalists tend to like the scientists most willing to make straightforward declarations. By my experience, those are not always the best scientists.

In my ideal world, science journalists would at least have a research (not coursework) Master's. If their training is good, it may help them develop a "bullshit detector" that will cross disciplines. Barring that, having the articles in question checked over by scientists, as ana suggested, would also be good.

I participated in the making of a viewbook for the graduate school here, and the writer, while a fine writer, nearly always mangled the science. They had set up this process so that the scientists she wrote about had final copy edits, and the results of them editing her more simplified presentation gave us a product which was both readable and accurate. The situation was ideal, but as I said in my original post, most media situations are quite non-ideal

--
You cannot have a reasonable conversation with someone who regards other people as toys to be played with. localroger
remove apostrophe for email.
[ Parent ]

undergraduate science (none / 0) (#36)
by Delirium on Wed Feb 28, 2001 at 08:32:12 PM EST

Well, I suppose it depends on the quality of the undergraduate education. My limited undergraduate science experience (I'm a computer science major so the bulk of my time is not spent in science lab courses) has given me at least a decent understanding of experimentation and error analysis - certainly better even at this stage than what you see in most science-related mainstream media articles. I would imagine that the biology, chemistry, or physics majors at my school or a comparable one would have a much better knowledge of such matters than I would, to the point where they would be fairly qualified to write scientific articles for mainstream media. After all, the science, as you noted, does have to be "dumbed down" at some point - you cannot publish a full-fledged scientific article worthy of a chemistry journal in the New York Times; it has to be put in terms that your average layperson can understand.

So I suppose the quality of the undergraduate education is where we disagree then; I feel that at most of the better-quality undergraduate tech-related schools an undergraduate with a science degree has the requisite skills to be a science journalist. At the very least, he or she is far more qualified to be such a journalist than the typical person who currently fills the job is.

[ Parent ]

Since we need more Real Scientists to write... (3.50 / 2) (#25)
by elenchos on Wed Feb 28, 2001 at 12:11:59 AM EST

...why don't you write something on this for K5? The Skeptic's Dictionary has the Extropy Institute on their "to do" list, but it isn't even near the top. What if you did a little research on them and submitted an article on it here, since they keep begging for our attention? Their persecution complex on "superlongevity" could use some discussion, since that was just pooh pooed by the "Ivory Tower" scientists. That's only one example. I would have also liked to hear what a real scientist had to say in the silly animal rights discussion we wallowed in a few weeks ago. Just about anything you wrote on the subject of what the public should believe in science reporting would be a huge leap beyond what we currently have.

Of course you don't have time. But that is exactly why unqualified people end up in science journalism. How many people with advanced degrees in science do you know that want to go into journalism? It is really a shame.

Adequacy.org
[ Parent ]

The problem... (3.33 / 3) (#23)
by physicsgod on Tue Feb 27, 2001 at 08:13:49 PM EST

Isn't with scientists or the scientific method. The problem is with idiot reporters who read something like "we were able to increase the group velocity of a light pulse over c in a non-dispersive (I think that's the right word, but my brian just stalled on me) medium." and the next thing you know "Scientists break light-speed limit" is on every headline across the country.

The obvious solution would be to kill all the stupid reporters, failing that we should at least educate them.

--- "Those not wearing body armor are hereby advised to keep their arguments on-topic" Schlock Mercenary
Journalists (3.00 / 1) (#26)
by FeersumAsura on Wed Feb 28, 2001 at 03:26:45 AM EST

The obvious solution would be to kill all the stupid reporters, failing that we should at least educate them
I think the better solution would be just to kill all reporters. I've thought of the beast which describes them. This imagery does work better if you've read a bit of fantasy.
Imagine a small creature will tough leathery skin, sharp pointy teeth and emmiting a faint smell of sulpher. It's skull is open to the world and we can maggots crawling about in the space where the brain traditionaly grows. It sits there ripping apart people and feeding on them while saying it's for the good of it's public. Mostly it's eyes are covered by cracked and distorted mirrors so that all it sees it disstorted and evil. That is a journalist.

I'm so pre-emptive I'd nuke America to save time.
[ Parent ]
Science, proof and the media... (5.00 / 5) (#28)
by joto on Wed Feb 28, 2001 at 05:31:36 AM EST

Oh, but wait. You can't talk about science and proof. Proof is something we will never find in science. It would be a great boon if it were possible, but it isn't. In order to use proofs, you need axioms. From axioms, we can use deduction and come up with new ideas. These ideas can then be proven to be true, if we consider the given axioms and the rule of inference to be valid.

However, there can be no such thing in science, as the whole point of science is to figure out what would be a good set of axioms for such a deduction. If we fix the axioms now, we can no longer rely on experiment, as they might invalidate the basic foundations of science. This would of course be a very stupid thing to do, as science is intended to describe nature, and when nature does something else than science would predict, we should take it that nature is right, and current scientific theories are wrong. This, of course, should be regarded as the only axiom of science.

There is of course three other problems with science, so two new axioms are needed. The first problem is that we must believe there is such a thing as a real world, existing outside our minds, and that we can measure the properties it have with some reliability, and use this as a description of the real world. The second problem is that science relies on induction. There is no logical reason to believe that just because something happens again and again during experiment, it will continue to do so the next time we try, (or when nobody is looking). The third problems is that we must believe that the outside world is governed by some set of rules, that it is possible for us to find. If we are looking for proof, we won't find it.

Ok, so scientist remain pretty about their results, don't they? How can they then feel sure without proof? Well, the truth is, they shouldn't! And in fact, most of them aren't! There are some scientific theories that over the years have established themselves as a good description of either the world, or the laws that we assume must govern it. Most scientists believe these to be a good description of nature, but wouldn't take them as axioms. We might find other evidence later that shows inconsistensies in these theories with the actual behaviour of nature. So really, nothing in science is settled, and nothing can be proven.

So then, how does scientific discovery work? Shouldn't we try to use proofs of some kind? No we shouldn't! The scientific method deals with one construct only; the hypothesis. After observing a regularity in nature, a scientist might propose that there is some law of nature governing this behaviour. In an attempt to describe this law of nature, he forms a hypothesis. The hypothesis will try to explain why this happens, and ideally, it should also predict other behaviour of nature we haven't earlier observed, that it would (at least theoretically) be possible to conduct an experiment to test.

The ability of a hypothesis to predict other behaviour than it attempted to describe is important. If it doesn't, we have no way of increasing our confidence in it. Any variation of the original hypothesis (and there are infinitely many of them) would explain the original phenomenon just as well, and we would never know which one to choose. Even more important, we have know way of knowing that it is false. If we cannot (even in theory) conduct new experiments that show a hypothesis to be false, it should be considered worthless for the purposes of science.

To sum up. Scientists observe nature. They form a hypothesis trying to describe it's behaviour. The hypothesis will be of a general nature that can also be used to predict other behaviour of nature. We conduct a new experiment, testing if this behaviour occurs in nature as well. If it does, the hypothesis is strengthened, and more people will start believing in it. If it is not, the hypothesis is proven wrong, as it disagrees with nature.

Ok, so proof occurs in science, but only to prove an idea wrong, not to prove an idea right. Still, I feel pretty confident about those parts of scientific knowledge that has been tested, and retested for centuries.

Of course, you can never expect the popular media to understand this. Heck, most media people wouldn't even understand what an experiment is. If you read popular media reports on science, you will see that when they describe scientists doing an experiment, they really describe it as some sort of demonstration. An experiment will be a failure only if it fails to produce valuable data. On the other hand, a demonstration has failed when it fails to convince the viewers that the hypothesis of some authority must be right.

Science itself works ok, most of the time. Given the scientific progress of the last century, you would be an idiot to proclaim anything else. Popular media, however, is not interested in science, as most people aren't. Popular media is interested in creating sensations, so when scientists try something controversial, it is bound to find the press. Thus most everything that you read about science in the popular media will have to be from the most unreliable parts of science.

Is there really no 'proof' in science (3.00 / 1) (#33)
by SIGFPE on Wed Feb 28, 2001 at 02:11:54 PM EST

However, there can be no such thing in science, as the whole point of science is to figure out what would be a good set of axioms for such a deduction
I think this is both profound but not quite right. You correctly describe mathematical proof and you are right to state that this is not what we mean by 'proof' in science. But to then use this to say that there is no such thing as proof (at least no positive proof) in science is to think that the only type of proof is mathematical proof. 'Proof' has a wider meaning.

I think I can sum up what I mean by a trivial example: If an astronaut goes to Mars and finds a bunch of 6 legged scaly green gazelles that use an alternative genetic mechanism to DNA then most people would say that there was life on Mars.

So what I'm trying to say is that although discussing issues in the philosophy of science is a commendable activity it's not really relevant to the issue in hand and clouds the issue. When a scientist claims he has proved that there was life on Mars he is actually using 'proof' in exactly the same way as your average member of the public.

In fact by saying

Ok, so proof occurs in science, but only to prove an idea wrong...I feel pretty confident about those parts of scientific knowledge that has been tested...for centuries.
aren't you admitting that you have your own standard of proof that allows you to 'feel confident' about something but which is not in fact the same type of proof that you have just chosen to write about?
SIGFPE
[ Parent ]
observations and theories (5.00 / 1) (#37)
by kataklyst on Wed Feb 28, 2001 at 10:41:16 PM EST

I think you're missing the distinction between observations and theories. Some questions can be answered by direct observation and some cannot. I observe that there is life on earth. The axioms mentioned in the parent post allow me to "prove" that these observations are valid. We didn't observe how life on earth came to its current state, so we can only theorize on this subject.

As for the meteorite, the scientists observed magnetite chains and theorized that they result from life on Mars. They likely have personal beliefs on the matter, but I don't see where they claim to have proved anything but the existence of the chains. Scientifically, all they can do is argue that the theory of life on Mars is the best knows explanation for their observations. Just look at the title of the press release.

[ Parent ]

Theory/observation (none / 0) (#39)
by SIGFPE on Thu Mar 01, 2001 at 12:53:35 PM EST

I think you're missing the distinction between observations and theories
If I am it is because they are confused. Do we directly observe atoms or is the 'atomic theory' just a theory? I would say it was once a theory but is now observation. Some would disagree and say it is still theory. Those who agree that it is now observation feel justified in saying that the 'atomic theory' is now proved.

"Theories can never be proved" is just some sophomoric dogma that people unthinkingly repeat.
SIGFPE
[ Parent ]

Blinding the line between science and journalisim (3.50 / 2) (#29)
by Rasvar on Wed Feb 28, 2001 at 09:14:59 AM EST

The whole premise here is bad. It is assuming that everything published with a press release is junk science and has not followed good science. This is absurd.

One point you are missing that publishing an item in a scientific journal is opening an item up for peer review. It puts the information and data out in the open for all to see, study, investigate, criticize, debunk or support. These items are published, in many ways, to obtain feedback. There was nothing in the press release that claimed proof that their was life on Mars. It offers evidence to support the theory. They posted the data and information for review.

I will admit that I am skeptical of an industry sponsored study when it comes to consumer products. I am skeptical of a lot of things. I am not going to condemn something as "junk popular science" just because it had a press release. I'll be honest, I am skeptical of the latest claims of the UN Global Warming group. I base that on my own opinion that their computer models are flawed. Do I think they skewed the results toward their arguments? Possibly. You can play with numbers and make anything support your argument some times. Is it junk popular science? I can't answer that, it is still a work in progress.

Simply put, to accuse scientist of doing bad science simply becuase it is published is naive and ill-informed. Sometimes the only way to confirm or deny a theory is to open it up to others. Publishing data is a way of peer review.

Standards Of Proof | 40 comments (30 topical, 10 editorial, 0 hidden)
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