Monday, 12 March 2012
QEDcon panel talk: Science vs Skepticism
The panel was made up of David Briggs, Steve Jones, Dr Austin and Mark. It focused on questions regarding the role of scepticism in science, the influences of religion, reporting science, journalists impression of science, and communicating science via press offices.
What is the role of scepticism in science?
The answer from everyone on the panel was that its an essential aspect. Scepticism is about not fooling yourself when you're the easiest person to fool. Scepticism in everything you do helps you try to keep that in check. But we're all human and fallible.
Which fields are the most/least sceptical people and why?
Again, all the panel pretty much agreed. Those things closest to human values, e.g. Psychology. Steve Jones said that the currently brain science has wonderful technology but no ideas. But everyone agreed that with emotional involvement comes the breakdown of scepticism (and therefore bad science).
Scientific fraud, what are the motives and cases? How does the public know who to trust?
David Briggs - as an early career scientist your success depends on research results, and therefor it's easy to "over egg the pudding". If you overstate the impact of your results, you can get more from this with regards to your career, funding and progression. It,s the thick end of this wedge to falsify data and results with the goal of getting publications accepted. However, peer review & replication can detect overstated results and science eventually catches and exposes this.
Steve Jones - 85% of science news items reported in the media come straight from press releases. Journalists are not doing their job! A certain science editor once thought that every time a scientific discovery made the scientist put out a press release. Journalists assume that scientific papers are honest. But only around one case in a thousand is proved not to be.
Dr Austin - In the history of science fraud has always been around. It's ultimately the consequence of human beings taking short cuts. The easiest paper to publish is to confirm already expected results empirically.
Question from the audience: How do you approach the public when it has "run off" with an incorrect idea?
Steve Jones - very difficult. "Scientist find the gene for" is usually a misunderstanding of the research. In a Pisa international survey on scientific understanding, the British population do poorly.
Dr Austin - Don't know, just keep trying at all levels to dislodge the untruths. Have to understand how these ideas co exist. Government conspiracies etc. try educate and counteract erroneous reporting.
Steve Jones - At a private eye lunch, Ian Hislop asked Andrew Wakefeild when he thought he was going to win the Nobel prize for his discovery linking MMR to autism (before this discovery was discovered to be fraudulent). Reporting this study in the papers led to a reduction in those getting their children vaccinated. Those who were vaccinated and their children happened to also be autistic saw a false link, which perpetuated the idea. It's easy for a parent to persuade themselves there is a reason for their child to have autism.
Dr Austin - A subgroup of scientists (dark side) intriguing, select group brought up buy people who believe in mad ideas and conspiracies. Scientist who used to be respected and turned. They are all people who when you talk to or debate resort to the "if you were clever enough you would understand it". They have a "too smart to be fooled" mindset.
Question from audience: Is there a major difference between male and female scientists when it comes to fraud?
Unanimous answer from all panel members. No evidence either way, more male names than female but just more male scientists. No bias detected and we wouldn't expect any.
Comment to what part lobby groups against science. Promoting fraud?
Steve Jones - There is concern. News has false balance. A scientist is pitched against a spokesperson for the "other side" that believes differently. They give an evidence based view against a belief based view, and end with "well the debate goes on". Same time and respect given to each of the guests. One scientist one lobbyist/believer/crazy. Don't take lobby groups seriously.
Dr Austin - accused of being on pharma pay roll. Funding is a potential source of bias. Know biases exist, steps are taken to deal with this as we can see the biases and open about funding sources.
Question from audience. An argument in favour of alternative medicine goes along the lines of "if a scientist doesn't know how something works, therefore they think it can't work". What are the panels comments?
Dr Austin - Unfair representation of the scientific argument. What is really being argued is that if you accept this postulation, we have to dump an enormous body of evidence that is contradictory to the claim. Also, how do you propose that this works exactly?
Steve Jones - We don't know how many things works, e.g. Aspirin. Best thing to say is I don't know. You certainty can't claim something works with no evidence. We need evidence that it works, not the complete understanding of it. Did you hear about the homeopath who forgot to take his medicine and dies of an overdose?
David Briggs - You have to ask how likely is it that something will work? Given what we know about the universe.
Dr Austin - We many not entirely understand how something works, but we do have a very improving understanding of the ways people fool themselves. What is more likely, that the laws of chemistry, biology, physics are broken, or that you have fooled yourself? Partly what we're saying is that there are a lot of things that we do understand which give no support to what you claim. More probably fooling yourself.
Please note the above was written from notes and may not be entirely accurate.