The Pandemic Issue

entific breakthroughs are a noble attempt to give the public a taste of good science, but they do nothing to help you distinguish between them and the pseudosci- ence being purveyed on the neighboring channel and its “scientific investigations” of haunted houses. Similarly, attempts to inculcate what are called “scien- tific habits of mind” are of little practical help. These habits of mind are not so easy to adopt. They invari- ably require some amount of statistics and probability and much of that is counterintuitive—one of the great values of science is to help us to counter our normal biases and expectations by showing that the actual measurements may not bear them out. Additionally, there is math—no matter how much you try to hide it, much of the language of science is math (Galileo said that). And half the audience is gone with each equation (Stephen Hawking said that). It’s hard to imagine a successful program of making a non-sci- entifically trained public interested in adopting the rigors of scientific habits of mind. Indeed, I suspect there are some people, artists for example, who would be rightfully suspicious of changing their thinking to being habitually scientific. Many scientists are frus- trated by the public’s inability to think like a scientist, but in fact it is neither easy nor always desirable to do so. And it is certainly not practical. There is a more intuitive and simpler way to tell the difference between the real thing and the cheap knock-off. In fact, it is not so much intuitive as it is counterintuitive, so it takes a little bit of mental work. But the good thing is it works almost all the time by following a simple, if as I say, counterintuitive, rule. True science, you see, is mostly concerned with the unknown and the uncertain. If someone claims to have the ultimate answer or that they know something for certain, the only thing for sure is that they are trying to fool you. Mystery and uncertainty may not strike you right off as desirable or strong traits, but that is precisely where one finds the creative solutions that science has historically arrived at. Yes, science ac-

cumulates factual knowledge, but it is at its best when it generates new and better questions. Uncertainty is not a place of worry, but of opportunity. Progress lives at the border of the unknown. How much would it take to alter the public perception of science to appreciate unknowns and uncertainties along with facts and conclusions? Less than you might think. In fact, we make decisions based on uncertainty every day—what to wear in case of 60 percent chance of rain—so it should not be so difficult to extend that to science, in spite of what you were taught in school about all the hard facts in those giant textbooks. You can believe science that says there is clear evidence that takes us this far… and then we have to speculate a bit and it could go one of two or three ways—or maybe even some way we don’t see yet. But like your blood pressure medicine, the stuff we know is reliable even if incomplete. It will lower your blood pressure, no matter that better treatments with fewer side effects may await us in the future. Unsettled science is not unsound science. The honesty and humility of someone who is willing to tell you that they don’t have all the answers, but they do have some thoughtful questions to pursue, are easy to distinguish from the charlatans who have ready answers or claim that nothing should be done until we are an impossi- ble 100-percent sure. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery. The problem, as we all know, is that flattery will get you nowhere.

Stuart Firestein is Professor and former Chair of the Department of Biological Sciences at Columbia University in New York. He is the author of Ignorance and How it Drives Science (2012) and Failure: Why Science Is So Successful (2014), both from Oxford University Press.


Pseudoscience Is Rampant: How Not to Fall for It


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