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Science's Biggest Fail - Dilbert Blog

Science’s Biggest Fail

What’s is science’s biggest fail of all time?

I nominate everything about diet and fitness.

Maybe science has the diet and fitness stuff mostly right by now. I hope so. But I thought the same thing twenty years ago and I was wrong. 

I used to think fatty food made you fat. Now it seems the opposite is true. Eating lots of peanuts, avocados, and cheese, for example, probably decreases your appetite and keeps you thin. 

I used to think vitamins had been thoroughly studied for their health trade-offs. They haven’t. The reason you take one multivitamin pill a day is marketing, not science. 

I used to think the U.S. food pyramid was good science. In the past it was not, and I assume it is not now. 

I used to think drinking one glass of alcohol a day is good for health, but now I think that idea is probably just a correlation found in studies. 

I used to think I needed to drink a crazy-large amount of water each day, because smart people said so, but that wasn’t science either. 

I could go on for an hour.

You might be tempted to say my real issue is with a lack of science, not with science. In some of the cases I mentioned there was a general belief that science had studied stuff when in fact it had not. So one could argue that the media and the government (schools in particular) are to blame for allowing so much non-science to taint the field of real science. And we all agree that science is not intended to be foolproof. Science is about crawling toward the truth over time.

Perhaps my expectations were too high. I expected science to tell me the best ways to eat and to exercise. Science did the opposite, sometimes because of misleading studies and sometimes by being silent when bad science morphed into popular misconceptions. And science was pretty damned cocky about being right during this period in which it was so wrong.

So you have the direct problem of science collectively steering my entire generation toward obesity, diabetes, and coronary problems. But the indirect problem might be worse: It is hard to trust science.

Today I saw a link to an article in Mother Jones bemoaning the fact that the general public is out of step with the consensus of science on important issues. The implication is that science is right and the general public are idiots. But my take is different.

I think science has earned its lack of credibility with the public. If you kick me in the balls for 20-years, how do you expect me to close my eyes and trust you?

If a person doesn’t believe climate change is real, despite all the evidence to the contrary, is that a case of a dumb human or a science that has not earned credibility? We humans operate on pattern recognition. The pattern science serves up, thanks to its winged monkeys in the media, is something like this:

Step One: We are totally sure the answer is X.

Step Two: Oops. X is wrong. But Y is totally right. Trust us this time.

Science isn’t about being right every time, or even most of the time. It is about being more right over time and fixing what it got wrong. So how is a common citizen supposed to know when science is “done” and when it is halfway to done which is the same as being wrong?

You can’t tell. And if any scientist says you should be able to tell when science is “done” on a topic, please show me the data indicating that people have psychic powers.

So maybe we should stop scoffing at people who don’t trust science and ask ourselves why. Ignorance might be part of the problem. But I think the bigger issue is that science is a “mostly wrong” situation by design that is intended to become more right over time. How do you make people trust a system that is designed to get wrong answers more often than right answers? And should we?

I’m pro-science because the alternatives are worse. (Example: ISIS.) I’m sure most of you are on the same side. But can we stop being surprised when people don’t believe science? Humans can’t turn off pattern recognition. There’s a good reason trust in science is low. Science failed my generation on the topic of food and exercise the same way science failed my parents generation with cigarettes. 

Some of the problem is visual, I assume. I can see with my own eyes my fellow-citizens getting fat but I can’t see a scientist making a useful breakthrough in a lab. The successes in science are often hidden from view and the problems are not. So that has to be factored in. While science is mostly good and useful, there’s a tendency to more easily remember the mistakes than the breakthroughs.

And we all know that studies funded by private industry are suspect. There’s plenty of that too.

Science is an amazing thing. But it has a credibility issue that it earned. Should we fix the credibility situation by brainwashing skeptical citizens to believe in science despite its spotty track record, or is society’s current level of skepticism healthier than it looks? Maybe science is what needs to improve, not the citizens.

I’m on the side that says climate change, for example, is pretty much what science says it is because the scientific consensus is high. But I realize half of my fellow-citizens disagree, based on pattern recognition. On one hand, the views of my fellow citizens might lead humanity to inaction on climate change and result in the extinction of humans. On the other hand, would I want to live in a world in which people stopped using pattern recognition to make decisions?

Those are two bad choices.

Scott Adams

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