It’s official. We are living in a post-truth world. I know, because I saw it on the internet. Or maybe it was on TV. Or someone said it in the pub last night. It doesn’t matter, anyway: in a post-truth world, one source of knowledge is as good as another. Better, really, since you get to pick the bits you like.
The truth, however, still exists. You may not know it, you may not understand it, but unless you live in an entirely solipsistic universe, it’s still out there, and will bite you on the butt if you ignore it. You may, for instance, declare the law of gravity a myth (or, in modern parlance, a piece of fake news put about by scientists, the aircraft industry, and the Isaac Newton Fan Club). But the fact is this: throw yourself off a building, and you will still make pavement pizza at the bottom. And that, as they say, is science.
A friend – a schoolteacher in Indiana – recently lamented that his school has decided not to replace their departing science teacher. It’s a financial decision, not an ideological one. Money’s short, and science is regarded as expendable. A working knowledge of the General Theory of Relativity is not required for daily life, when all is said and done.
But, as my friend pointed out – it’s not the facts of science that matter. It’s the methodology. This is what kids need to know about. They need to know that scientific principles are not simply made up on the spot, nor are they “true” because they’re set down in a book somewhere. In fact, they’re the result of massive, systematic observation (the more the better), testing and experiment, leading to the formulation and subsequent modification of hypotheses, which may then be extrapolated into general principles. This might not represent “the truth” in any ultimate or philosophical sense, but chances are, it’s a a lot more reliable than any of the alternatives. Don’t jump off that building, son. We have evidence to suggest what will happen if you do.
Now, I’m not a scientist, but I’ve been through the academic mill long enough to have some grasp of how things work. Knowledge builds on knowledge. If you’re writing an academic paper, in whatever discipline, any statement you make must be backed up by evidence. You cannot simply say, “The moon is made of green cheese.” You need to support that. And, thereby, you encounter both the strengths, and the weaknesses, of the system upon which much of human knowledge rests.
Clearly, you can’t personally go out and test every statement in your paper, so the convention is to reference other academic papers, which, if sought out by the reader, will demonstrate the truth of your assertion.
It’s not a perfect system. But it does mean that, with a little effort, the likely worth of any statement can be measured, and judged on its merits. Some cited sources are worth more than others. If you are determined to insist the moon is, indeed, some sort of miscolored dairy product, it’s a lot more credible to cite the official NASA report, rather than, say, Dr. Seuss. And don’t forget: people can then go to the NASA report, and check whether it says what you claim it says.
Sounds good, right? If the foundations are strong, the house is strong. Yes?
Well, mostly. But sometimes things go wrong, and it’s important to look out for that, too, just in case.
Contrary to the popular image (which SF has done its share to foster), academic researchers are not necessarily smarter, more diligent, nor (in some cases) more honest than people in other professions. They are also under immense pressure to publish, with the result that some papers sneak into print when they probably shouldn’t (and I confess, I may have had a hand in that myself. Sorry folks.)
It’s also a system which is profoundly self-reflective. “This is true because Dr. So-and-so says it is.” Once an error creeps in, it can persist, perhaps for decades, until someone eventually thinks, “That doesn’t make sense,” and decides to investigate. Check out Robert Bakker’s book, The Dinosaur Heresies (1986), which chronicles our long-held misconceptions about these fascinating creatures – and how the modern view of them, as active, warm-blooded, bird-type animals, was finally accepted. It was not a eureka moment, nor a pre-conceived conclusion towards which Bakker and others worked, but the result of years of collected data, comparative anatomy, and constant re-assessment of existing hypotheses. The system can be a little slow, sometimes. It can get clogged. And, like any tool, it’s only as good as the people using it. But it has its checks and balances, and poor or wrong-headed work can always be weeded out.
Sometimes, even by an idiot like me.
At one stage in my life I had to read a lot of academic papers, the bulk of them previously unpublished, and with no pre-existing stamp of approval. What did I learn? Mostly, I learned systematic and critical thinking. The subject matter might have been unfamiliar, but the medium was such that I could quickly recognize the clues as to whether a piece was likely to be sound, or whether I should treat it with suspicion. This wasn’t a matter of opinion – “I like this” – but a series of clear points denoting strengths and weaknesses, the most vital of which was the referencing.
Now, as I’ve indicated above, referencing isn’t always a guarantee of reliability. But nothing, absolutely nothing, is worse than no referencing at all, or referencing from unreliable sources. If someone tells you, “The Martians are attacking!” you want to know where the information comes from. If the answer is “Orson Welles,” there’s a chance the story’s not entirely trustworthy. On the other hand, one or more dependable sources, and you should probably be heading for your nearest bomb shelter.
So I learned, always, to check the referencing, both the sources, and the way they were used in the text.
I learned that any bold, unreferenced statement was probably a bluff, designed to catch my interest, though usually, it put me on my guard. (“Autobiography is a relatively recent form of literature…” began one piece. Prove, I thought, running through a list of very un-recent autobiographies, just off the top of my head.) I learned to be wary of statistics, especially percentages that added up to more than 100. (Yep. That happened.) I learned to ensure the paper’s findings, the part most likely to be cited by future writers, were actually backed up by the evidence presented, in both quantity and quality, and also, that findings had not been skewed by obvious errors, misinterpretation, or any kind of bias (even one I might agree with). I learned that any argument which fails to deal with possible counter-arguments (thesis-antithesis-synthesis) is more likely polemic, and needs to say so at the start.
And I learned, too, that there is good, solid work being done, often without fanfare or acclaim, often of interest only to a tiny group of specialists. Seldom spectacular, perhaps, in its bit-by-bit accretion of knowledge; but this is the real deal, on which future research will build.
And out of school?
In our post-truth world, there’s information everywhere, and most of it’s like workplace gossip; it may be true, or it may not, but if you’re smart, you’ll stop and think before repeating it, regardless whether it’s a meme, a tweet, or some article from yet another site that claims to be a news outlet. All that critical thinking outlined above should be applied to our daily window on “reality”, or else we drown in so-called “facts” – or become so cynical as to dismiss them all. Neither of which is good.
So think about sources. Think about evidence. Compare what you see on one site to what you’ve seen elsewhere. Compare it to your own experience. Ask questions: Who’s telling me this? What’s their angle? What’s their authority? Were they reliable in the past? Are they pushing a particular agenda? Is there any way they might gain personally from what they’re saying? And where has the information come from in the first place?
It’s not just for scientists, you know.
(This piece originally appeared on the HarperVoyager website – http://www.harpervoyagerbooks.com/hvsciencefair-scientific-method/ – as part of their 2017 Science Fair. Take a look at some of the other pieces posted. There’s some great stuff here, by people who know what they’re talking about – and they cite their sources. Mostly, anyway.)