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Sustainably Yours: The importance of understanding and trusting in Science

Sustainably Yours: The importance of understanding and trusting in Science

In his book ‘21 Lessons for The 21st Century’, historian Yuval Noah Harari begins by writing, “In a world deluged by irrelevant information, clarity is power.” Before the Internet, access to information was relatively limited, and media was concentrated in the hands of a few corporations, which had its problems.

EnvironmentSustainably-YoursHealth
By Palmer Owyoung

Sunday 26 April 2020, 11:00AM


When it comes to supposed ‘facts’ about COVID-19 posted on the internet, it’s best to check first with those doing the real checking: scientists. Photo: AFP

When it comes to supposed ‘facts’ about COVID-19 posted on the internet, it’s best to check first with those doing the real checking: scientists. Photo: AFP

Today, with YouTubers, bloggers, and social media at our fingertips, the world is filled with more information than ever. The problem is that much of it is fake news and rumours. Too many voices are clamouring for our attention, but few are fact-checked for accuracy.

Since the spread of COVID-19 began, we’ve seen snake oil salesmen hawking cures and prophylaxis, and the spread of conspiracy theories about the virus’s origins.

In a world where breathing the same air as someone else can kill you, misinformation can be as deadly as the virus. Now more than ever we need to be mindful of what we say, what we post, and how we behave. So, we need to understand and trust in science.

Why Should We Believe in Science?

According to Harvard Professor Naomi Oreskes, author of ‘Why Trust Science?’, for several decades there has been an organised campaign to undermine the public’s trust in science funded mainly by industries whose financial interests are threatened by its findings.

At its core, science is the study of how the natural world works.

It has a long history of success, and when done correctly it is the single best method of inquiry we have for the pursuit of truth. Because of science, we have aeroplanes, cars, GPS, the Internet, smartphones and modern medicine. The only reason we know that COVID-19 exists is because of science. More importantly, science is a self-policing system of checks and balances that exists to reveal problems and correct inaccuracies.

It begins with the scientific method, something we all learned in school:

  1. Ask a question
  2. Research the topic
  3. Create a hypothesis
  4. Run an experiment
  5. Analyze the data
  6. Draw a conclusion

Once a scientist has drawn a conclusion, it undergoes rigorous scrutiny by colleagues who are working in the same discipline. This process of scrutiny can lead to rejecting or accepting the hypothesis, redesigning the experiment or finding additional data to support the conclusion. If the claim is valid, the scientist then publishes their work in a reputable scientific journal such as Nature or Science.

Submission of a paper begins the rigorous peer-review process where experts in the same field deliberately challenge the scientist’s arguments, inspect their data and look for errors in their methodology. So, before a claim is made and the general media gets a hold of it, a study is peer-reviewed and subjected to scrutiny by dozens, if not hundreds of other experts in the same field.

In areas where there is a scientific consensus, such as the relative safety and efficacy of vaccines, or that climate change is anthropogenic, thousands of studies on these topics have been published over decades and reviewed by thousands of scientists in dozens of countries.

Professor Oreskes notes that a critical aspect of scientific judgment is that it is done collectively and not individually. This weeds out personal biases or someone who might have a specific agenda.

Scientific claims are put through a process much like a trial. Questions are posed, data is analysed, and facts are debated before the community comes to a consensus. This process can take years, even decades. So, when your beliefs are founded on scientific consensus, you are relying on the knowledge of dozens if not hundreds, or thousands of experts in their fields.

Because COVID-19 is still so new, there are lots of unknowns. It will take time to review the data and draw definitive conclusions. There remains speculation about how the virus transmits, whether recovered patients acquire sustained immunity, the effect of heat and humidity have on infection rates and the viability of various treatments, among other things. Nevertheless, our reaction to COVID-19 should be grounded in facts, evidence and empirical data rather than, unfounded opinions, suppositions and fears.

Science Makes Mistakes

Like any other human discipline, science has its failures. For example, in 2014, Japanese biologist Haruko Obokata knowingly falsified data regarding the creation of stimulus acquired pluripotent (STAP) cells in mice. If her claim had been valid, it would have revolutionised the production of embryonic stem cells, which are blank cells that can be programmed to become any of 200 different cell types in the human body, including bone, hair, skin or muscle.

However, due to the self-policing nature of science, within days, other biologists in her field refuted her claims after failing to replicate her experiments. Within months, her paper was retracted, and her career ended in disgrace.

Knowing that science sometimes makes mistakes and admits and corrects for them shouldn’t make us trust it any less if anything it should make us believe in it more. Especially when compared to other methods of inquiry, which have no process of scrutiny.

The Problem with Intuition

In his book ‘Thinking Fast Thinking Slow’, Nobel Prize-winning behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman defined intuition as, “Thinking that you know something without knowing why you do.” As an example, he poses this problem:

A bat and ball cost $1.10.

The bat costs one dollar more than the ball.

How much does the ball cost?

If you answered 10 cents, you are incorrect. This question confounds 50% of students from some of the best universities in the world.

The correct answer is 5 cents.

Kahneman identifies two methods for problem-solving. System 1 is quick, intuitive, spontaneous and effortless. It instantly helps us to recognise faces, to act when confronted with dangers and to solve simple questions. System 2 is slow, rational, reflective and effortful. It gets into the driver’s seat when you focus and concentrate on a complicated problem.

The problems occur when we try to use System 1 to make complex decisions that require System 2. People will often make judgements based on intuition when a given situation is easy to imagine. For example, when asked what the most dangerous method of generating energy is, public opinion is usually most negative toward nuclear. However, on a per terawatt-hour basis, atomic energy has killed far fewer people than oil, coal and even solar. But because most people conflate nuclear power with war, they tend to answer incorrectly.

When our perception of reality is based on stories that people tell us, rather than science, facts and evidence, it leads to poor decisions. In the modern world, we need to learn to think in terms of data as it is a far too complicated a place to always reason by intuition.

Linear Vs. Exponential Thinking

Part of the reason many governments didn’t foresee the problems COVID-19 would create is that their leaders are linear thinkers.

As an example, if you take 30 linear steps, you move 30 standard paces from where you started, or about 30 metres. However, if you take 30 exponential steps, one, two, four, eight, sixteen… by the time you get to the last step, you end up a billion metres from where your started – that’s about 26 times around the planet!

It’s the reason why at the beginning of March the United States only had 65 infections and by April 14 it had over 500,000.

We are In This Together

Whether we like it or not, we are in this together. The virus doesn’t distinguish between race, social class, tourist, expat or Thai.

We must be careful about what we say or post in social media. The virus kills quickly, but misinformation can also kill by influencing people to do foolish things.

For sources of science that have been peer-reviewed or vetted by experts, you can go to the following websites:

PubMed

The Lancet

Nature Medicine

The New England Journal Of Medicine

The British Medical Journal

WebMD

Healthline

When we depend on intuition, gossip, fake news and conspiracy theories to make decisions, we get leaders who make demonstrably poor decisions that lead to disastrous consequences. In this regard many people think of Donald Trump.

To quote John F. Kennedy, “We are not here to curse the darkness, but to light the candle that can guide us through that darkness to a safe and sane future.”

Science, both literally and figuratively, is that light; to disregard it is to remain in the dark.


Palmer Owyoung is an environmental activist working with the Kamala Green Club and the Global Sustainability Hub.

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