Scientific ‘truth’ is a shifting target

In his Feb. 3 Herald column, Garth Buchanan writes that scientific assertions available on social media are likely neither grounded in scientific method nor statistically accurate and tend toward self-reinforcement. I expect he’s right.

However, what is the science layman to do? Buchanan holds a doctorate degree. and has worked in scientific design and mathematical analysis of scientific results. Few of us have any understanding of statistics. When I took a statistics course in graduate school, it seemed that half the class was scared stiff of the material. Even fewer high school- or college-educated folks have the ability to analyze scientific data. Besides, as Buchanan points out, peer-reviewed research is hidden behind a subscription fee and likely unavailable to the layman. Few can afford to spend their precious time to educate themselves or to spend the money to access the research.

Nor is peer-reviewed research a sure bet for truth. An article in the most recent Discover magazine recounts research to isolate a virus thought to cause chronic fatigue syndrome. Peer-reviewed articles offered competing views. Ultimately, a 7- to 10-year-old man-made contaminant was shown to have caused the problem with the original research.

Other problems can crop up. Big businesses conduct and pay for research, but it’s hard to resist temptations to: a) withhold unsupportive data; b) not publish the data at all; c) completely make up data; d) pressure scientists to produce positive results or e) report results prematurely. Unethical scientists might take shortcuts themselves if pressured to publish or they’re looking for 15 minutes of fame.

Medical research probably has the most immediate impact on people’s lives, because pain, illness and death can result from flawed research. It probably doesn’t make much difference in people’s ordinary lives if we find the Higgs boson or water on Mars or map an elephant’s entire genome.

We should remember that truth can be a shifting target. I’ve had the feeling when reading Buchanan’s column that he knows the truth. And he comes across as a shill for big business. A bit of humility wouldn’t hurt.

Ross A. Worley