Loss of scientific thinking: What are some signs?

The combination of the appearance of professional respect for scientific rigor coupled with professional contempt for scientifically rigorous behavior is toxic, a poison that infects more activities in North America than the few I have pointed out here.

In Dark Age Ahead, published in 2004, Jane Jacobs discusses five major signs of cultural failure. It’s the last book the long-time journalist ever wrote, and it reads like a final warning.

The abandonment of scientific thinking is one type of cultural decay. Individuals and institutions have long had a tendency to avoid scientific inquiry, accept surface appearances without question, and use scientific data and terminology inappropriately. What’s worrisome is when there aren’t strong forces counteracting the decay.

When reading this section of Dark Age Ahead, I started thinking about examples I’ve come across in articles and other media that demonstrate an appreciation for a scientific veneer but not for scientific thought. Like the following:

Graphs that don’t mean anything. They’re posted without a credible source for their data. Their axes are left unlabeled. (Maybe they’re not as bad as this masterpiece, but they aren’t much more informative.)

The words ‘natural,’ biology,’ and ‘universal’ overused as a way of shutting down inquiry or selling something as an unshakeable truth. “That’s just the way things are. It’s natural for people to act like this. These are universal beliefs. It’s biology.” (We’re not supposed to ask, “Is this really true? Are these thoughts/feelings/behaviors really uncontrollable and impervious to cultural influence? What do you even mean by ‘natural’?”) Or consider the use of ‘natural’ as a fuzzy, feel-good adjective. (When applied to ‘health foods,’ for instance.)

A poor understanding of science as a process. Scientific research is painstaking and messy. The work is an ongoing process. Studies need to undergo review and get replicated. On any topic, a body of work builds over time. Many researchers contribute to it, question results, investigate it from different angles, struggle with biases, and unearth new mysteries. To evaluate an experiment, it’s critical to understand the methods and analyses.

Unfortunately, many people look to science like a vending machine that will spit out their chosen conclusion. They want a quick, indisputable answer that confirms their opinion. If it doesn’t, the scientific authorities they’d turned to suddenly become know-nothing frauds or eggheads who are out of touch with reality. The science gets dismissed in an indiscriminate way – not based on the methodology of an experiment and its rigor, but only because it didn’t produce the favored result.

When scientists do come up with the favored result, their work gets imbued with an unscientific ‘aura of science.’ Once the aura descends, no one should think about the work itself and how the researchers derived the findings.

A lack of probing questions. Jacobs discusses a public health investigation conducted in Chicago after a heat wave. The researchers linked a higher death rate to factors like less A/C use and access to water. Jacobs reports that the work just stopped there, without apparent signs of curiosity or acknowledgement of unanswered questions. Did anyone ask, “Why?” What led to certain seniors staying in a boiling apartment, running out of water, and not answering the door if neighbors bothered to check on them? (Subsequent work, conducted by a grad student, compared neighborhoods. When looking at two neighborhoods, where the death rate for senior citizens was significantly higher in one than in the other, the work pointed out how communal factors influenced the seniors’ choices – not necessarily which neighborhood was wealthier, but the strength of the community in each.)

What role does scientific thinking play in your written work?

Whether or not we’re headed for a ‘dark age,’ the book still illustrates patterns of behavior that damage our ability to better understand the world and improve quality of life.

When it comes to written work, consider whether you rely on scientific thinking when you need to. Science journalism, for instance, often suffers from exaggerated, misleading stories. Business articles may share graphs or numbers with little or no context. Opinion writers may automatically accept anything that favors their point-of-view.

You don’t have to be a scientist to think like one. You can consider the evidence you’re dealing with and its strengths and limitations. Doing this isn’t easy, but it’s worthwhile. Writing in a more thoughtful way shores up standards and raises the level of conversation with your readers. You’ll still make mistakes, but you’ll also learn a lot and reach your readers in more meaningful ways.

– Hila

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