How to Know If You’re Scientifically Illiterate

How to Know If You’re Scientifically Illiterate March 28, 2019

I wrote about this a long time ago, but I thought I would put it in a more accessible and easily consumed video because I feel the message is so important. How do we know if we understand “science” properly? How do we eliminate our own personal bias when it comes to learning new things? How can we tell if what we’re reading is true or not? What makes something a fact? These topics and more are covered in this week’s YouTube video about signs you might be in desperate need of some scientific education. Of course, in the intro, I include the disclaimer that I am no expert myself, even and I’ve still got so much to learn.

In any case, here is the video version of 8 Signs You Might Be Scientifically Illiterate:

Let me know what you thought of this, and scientists out there, feel free to point our mistakes and/or expand on some of these topics I bring up in the video.

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  • Okay, you’re clearly scientifically literate (and I say that as a professional scientist). I’m not even going to use the term “wrong” for anything you said. But, if you’ll permit me a few observations on some finer points:

    A hypothesis is more even than just an educated guess. A well constructed hypothesis is both testable and falsifiable. If it doesn’t meet that standard, it doesn’t really matter how good a guess it is.

    Replication is important, but it frequently doesn’t happen, and it isn’t necessarily important for whether we believe some theory (personally, I’m okay with “believe” in this context). A huge number of important but completely believable theories come out of single experiments. Ideally these would be replicated in another lab, but there is only so much time and money. So something that tests a completely unextraordinary claim (such and such a dye binds to such and such a receptor) might not be replicated, or might go a long time without being replicated, and then only indirectly because that theory is incorporated into another theory. Obviously, however, in our forums we’re usually looking at extraordinary claims (vaccines cause autism), and in such cases we expect replication, and usually find it (in this case, of course, that they do not). Another point about replication: even better than somebody replicating the same experiment is a completely different experiment that tests the same hypothesis. Our very strongest theories are the ones that are supported by multiple independent lines of evidence, which come from different kinds of experiments and different kinds of observations.

    “Fact”. In the strictest sense, as scientists we understand that we know nothing with 100% certainly. But theories do reach the point where there is so much substantiating evidence, and so little contradictory evidence, that we understand them to be true beyond reasonable doubt. At that point we call them “facts”, even though our skepticism allows that if contradictory evidence ever presents itself, we’re open to changing our minds. That the Earth is heating up due to human produced greenhouse gases is certain beyond reasonable doubt, and is understood as a fact… which is why nobody is testing this anymore. After you’ve dropped the ball enough times, you don’t need to carry on with it. Climate scientists have moved on to studying how that increased heat alters the present and future climate and weather.

    You spoke of Higgs in the past tense. Just to be clear, Peter Higgs is still alive, and he’s still an atheist.

    Both Java Man and Peking Man are examples of H. erectus. Bona fide paleontological specimens. Only Peking Man is a hoax.

    All in all, a very nice list. But the most important point I think you made was before you started your bullet points, and that was distinguishing between scientific literacy and being a scientist. It’s a point I try to hammer into my students, as well. Even if you’re not a scientist, you need to be scientifically literate. And mostly, that’s just about learning to reason, not about learning a lot of science. Which brings me to the craziest thing I’ve heard recently. Not strictly an argument against some kind of science, but an indicator of a massive lack of general reasoning: I heard a woman on the street say to her companion that she was so happy we had switched to Daylight Saving Time, because she was tired of the snow and now with the extra daylight it would melt faster. I despair for humanity.

  • johnsoncatman

    Regarding your last anecdote: a couple of years ago in the spring, one of the reporters on the local television station spoke of gaining an hour of daylight when Daylight Saving Time came into effect. I emailed the reporter asking if she understood that it was just a shifting of the clocks. The reply I received was “Thanks. Thought I just said we would have an extra hour of sunlight.” Granted this was not one of the weather specialists, but you would think that a reporter should be smarter than that.

  • Margaret Catlady

    Any bets on whether the idiot who thinks people changing our clocks changes the weather also thinks that global climate change is a hoax since people can’t affect the weather?

  • ThaneOfDrones

    Not bad. I am a scientist. I will proceed to pick a few nits.

    ~3:15 “in science, a guess is a hypothesis”

    Eh. The important thing about a hypothesis is that it must be testable. As in, you can design an experiment which will produce data which will determine the probability that the hypothesis is true. Thus, a hypothesis is clearly distinguishable from a brain fart.

    BTW, geocentrism, is still (arguably) a theory, it is just a discarded theory. This is all about terminology, not merit.

    The NCSE is your friend. Have a look here:

    Definitions of Fact, Theory, and Law in Scientific Work

    ~7:00 I actually work in some rooms where low oxygen is a danger. Nitrogen is used in these rooms, and while nitrogen is not itself a poison, it can displace oxygen, which is a Bad Thing. These rooms are, by regulation, equipped with alarms which go off if the sensor detects the oxygen falls below a safe level.

    ~7:23 A single study constitutes “proof”. So true. Diet & health studies are notoriously bad in this regard. The difficulty here is that it is unethical to perform some experiments on humans, so that they rely on correlations. I think a rudimentary understanding of probability and statistics is one of the most important things we could add to our educational system.

    ~9:00 Conspiracies including “Big Pharma” – the solution to this is indepent experiments. This requires government funding. This requires taxation.

    Meta-studies (which you didn’t mention): Don’t get me started.

    14:30 Higgs boson: Yes, your pronunciation is fine.

    15:50 2LOT – Furthermore, life increases entropy. In order to stay alive, we eat, we breathe, we shit.

    18:50 “There is nothing wrong with being scientifically illiterate.” I disagree. I think what you are trying to say is that there is no shame involved in being s.i.; but obviously a person is better off if they are scientifically literate, because then they will have a better understanding of how the world works.

  • ThaneOfDrones

    Peking Man wasn’t a hoax; it was fossils lost to science for unknown reasons in 1941. I suspect you meant Piltdown Man, which clearly was a hoax.

  • Catherine Spencer-Mills

    Can’t say I’m a real, honest-to-gosh scientist. I do claim to be scientifically literate and would like to be a researcher at some point. It’s going rather slowly at the moment. Anyhoo….

    Having debated some of the non-scientific literate who believe some of these fallacies, I think for the most part you expressed it very well. You have to be very concise and clear to get through to people. I hold little hope that I will convince the person I have debating on whatever topic they do not understand. Remember confirmation bias tends to make a person hold more strongly to their beliefs in the face of contrary evidence. I try to hope I can influence the fence-sitters who are following the debate. It has happened once or twice, so I continue to hope.

    Lastly, I leave with the most recent Jesus & Mo cartoon, which happens to be very apropos.

  • Catherine Spencer-Mills

    In my statistics classes, my professor invariably would say at least once a day, “correlation does not imply causation.” Then have us repeat and repeat and ….I agree at least this should be taught in high school.

    My favorite example for the 2nd law is cooking dinner. If the 2nd law holds true in all cases, not just closed systems, everything will be room temp – steaks will be raw, ice cream just a sloppy mess and so on. The usual response I get is, huh? And sometimes we can actually have a reasonable discussion about it. It then follows to bring up acorns and oak trees, and eating and shitting and all that. Cooking dinner is a visceral example and frequent happening in most people’s lives and often repeated.

  • Yup, that’s what I meant (hopefully obvious from the previous sentence). A bit of alliteration confusion.

  • Of course, it is absolutely central to science that correlation suggests causation. Then we go about designing tests to determine if the suggestion is real or not.

  • ThaneOfDrones

    … then along comes a new fossil or something that makes them rethink everything

    Ah yes, the paradigm shift. (roll-eyes). Sometimes this is brought up by Creationists who are convinced that evilution is about to be overturned, and who throw around Kuhn’s name without having read or understood his work. Unfortunately for them, that particular paradigm shift is extremely unlikely.

    Paradigm shifts are fairly rare, and they will typically occur when new data or new methods lead us to understand that we have been looking at things wrong and didn’t even know which questions we should have been asking. In the case of evolution vs. creationism, precisely the appropriate question has been asked steadily for 150 years, since Darwin came up with a new way of understanding things. I.e. the paradigm shift in that field already happened, and it went in direction opposite to what creationists want. Before Darwin, most scientists were Creationists. Within a few decades of publicization of his theory, the opposite was true. Even before Darwin’s theory, the consensus in the field of geology was that the Earth was older than Usher’s “begats” timeline would allow.

    Likewise, some Creationists will throw around Popper’s name without understanding his work, or knowing that Popper once said something stupid about evolution (the out-of-context quote that gets thrown around) but later corrected himself.
    What Did Karl Popper Really Say About Evolution?

  • guerillasurgeon
    “Science knows it doesn’t know everything.”

  • Chuck Johnson

    “I despair for humanity.”

    But you could have told her that the extra hour of sunlight in the evening comes with one hour less in the morning.

    If she understands that, then it would be time to let her know that it is not presently possible for governments to legislate more sunlight into existence.

  • Chuck Johnson

    It’s not just methods that are a part of science, beliefs are also a part of science.
    (Beliefs used here as understanding of facts.)
    The accumulated knowledge and facts are hugely important in science.

  • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

    “…if it did, it would *stop*…”

  • Catherine Spencer-Mills

    That is the point.

  • Raging Bee

    That’s a gross misuse of the word “beliefs.”

  • Chuck Johnson

    Try the dictionary sometime.

    1. an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists

  • Raging Bee

    That’s not the same as a “fact.”

  • Chuck Johnson

    It’s not supposed to be the same as “fact”.
    All words are different from each other.

    Fact, belief, understanding, knowing, grasping, understanding, coming to realization and many other ways to assert truth are useful in ordinary conversation and in scientific explanations.

    Do not try to turn science into a system of dogma.
    I know haw to use the English language and I do not need to be warned away from using “I believe” as a part of a scientific explanation.

    But you can avoid using it if you are afraid that it carries religious connotations.

  • Raging Bee

    What “beliefs,” specifically, are “a part of science,” that aren’t facts?

  • Chuck Johnson

    The facts or data of science include such things as “copper is a metallic chemical element”. Or “chlorophyll captures sunlight to provide energy for the plant”.

    In addition to that, scientific beliefs, understandings, best practices, training and education, etc. include such things as “to avoid confirmation bias, a randomized, double-blind study can be done”.
    Or, “some scientific experiments should not be done if they are very harmful to human beings”.

    So scientists have both data to consider and the traditional practices of science (intellectual tools of science) to consider.

  • Atheisticus

    It was a hoax perpetrated with the intention of embarrassing a particular scientist, and later disproved by scientists. Had it been true it would have played merry-old-hell with Evolution, as it would have posited a branch on the family tree with no connection to said tree. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame had previously described how such a hoax could have been perpetrated, and owning the neighboring property to where the falsified fossils were found, as he did, he has been considered a prime suspect for the perpetrator.

  • Atheisticus

    She probably thinks that the sun should come out at night because we already have enough light in the daytime.

  • Atheisticus

    Being scientifically literate also reduces the chance of being swayed by various “woo.” Also a better ability to identify that which is too good to be true.

  • Atheisticus

    The cartoonist forgot to mention the codpiece of presuppositionalism.

  • Atheisticus

    Scientists also know that they don’t need to make things up to fill the gaps.

  • anxionnat

    Nice video. Thank you. You know, the harshest criticism of scientific work *comes from other scientists.* I knew that, in my head, but the first time I’d seen that in reality was when the AAAS conference was at the campus where I was just finished with my first year of grad school. We grad students were roped into operating the slide projectors in various lecture halls. (This was in the mid-1980s.) The first session I attended was on Animal Physiology. Not my field, but I welcomed learning more. The first person who spoke at the session was a grad student. The scientists in the session gave this poor, hapless grad student about time to speak two words, and then they started to pop up and ask questions or comment. I guess the grad student had been to conferences before because he was very poised and knew what he was talking about. And the same thing happened in all the other sessions to everybody–whether the person was a grad student or a gray-haired emeritus professor. I have been to conferences a lot since then, and this happens every time. I really enjoy the back-and-forth now, but it was intimidating at first. EVERYBODY in the sciences goes through this.