My fascination with science began when I was in third or fourth grade and learned the basics of photosynthesis. Green plants take in sunlight and turn it into energy that animals can use by eating the plants. I imagined sunny grasslands in Africa with herds of zebras (my favorite zoo animals) contentedly grazing, and I was hooked. I now have a Master of Science degree in Genetics, and my favorite reading is science non-fiction and science blogs.
But even I have a hard time knowing what to believe when the news presents the latest sure-fire cancer cure, or the threat of imminent environmental catastrophe due to some out-of-control science experiment. If you feel that way, too, then read Lies, Damned Lies, and Science: How to Sort Through the Noise Around Global Warming, the Latest Health Claims, and Other Scientific Controversies, by Sherry Seethaler.
What we were all taught in school—the Scientific Method as an orderly sequence of steps leading to a single conclusion: cut and dried, black or white, yes or no—is "oversimplified, incomplete, and sets people up for failure when they try to make sense of science in the real world," according to Seethaler. In reality, science is much messier than that. As Seethaler points out, the "orderly" sequence is often full of starts and stops, a few side trips, and some occasional tail-chasing spirals.
How to sort through the complexity is what Seethaler teaches in this book, with a set of steps to follow in analyzing any science news story and cautions about taking anything at face value. Take disputes between scientists, for example. Seethaler points out that "although scientists may agree with each other on what they are observing with a given procedure, they may not agree on what the observations mean." A headline in a magazine or newspaper may make it seem that the scientists in question can't agree on anything, even when the disagreement over the meaning of the observations is not substantial.
Each chapter in the book deals with a "tool" we can use to examine scientific news stories. Two of the chapters—"Who's who?: identify those who hold stake in an issue and what their positions are" (Chapter Two); and "Society's say: discern the relationships between science and policy" (Chapter Eight)—are particularly crucial to keep in mind when news stories about the same topic differ widely. Seethaler also suggests that we follow the money. She writes: "The influence of the source of funding on how science gets done can result in industry-funded and public-funded scientists coming to different conclusions and challenging each others claims. Such differences can arise without any deliberate falsification of data, especially when the effects being observed are relatively subtle."
Another important point: "It is rarely the case that one camp's science is completely distorted, while the other camp's science is beyond reproach." What is often the case when the results of two studies on the same topic are at opposite ends of a range of values is that most of the data points cluster somewhere in the middle.
Throughout the book, Seethaler highlights science myths in separate text boxes, where she states a myth and why it's not true (or not always true) and follows with "Implications for making sense of scientific issues." For instance, "Myth #2: Scientific models are visual representations of reality." And her response: "Not usually." She goes on to point out that models are still useful tools, but that they keep needing to be refined based on how well they are able to predict the actions of things in the real world.
It's difficult to take in all the different ways of looking at all the different kinds of science articles, but Seethaler has made a couple of checklists that summarize the information. One is her table of contents. The other is the last chapter, wich contains six case studies with explanations of how to seek out the facts in each instance. Then Seethaler takes the chapter headings and follows each one with a short bullet list of ways to think critically about that particular issue. One of the best pieces of advice I found in the book was the suggestion to examine what's going on in my own head. "Familiarity with the weaknesses in your own reasoning processes makes you more resistant to efforts to manipulate you."
I've read a great many books about science, many of which mention the complexity of the process, but Seethaler's is the only book I've read that explains how to break down and understand the process and the results. If you're not used to reading about science, reading this book may make analyzing a science story look overwhelming, but Seethaler's guidelines will help you find your way out from under the whelm.
Read an excerpt from this book.
Sherry Seethaler is a science writer and educator at University of California, San Diego. She works with scientists to explain their discoveries to the public and writes a column for the San Diego Union Tribune where she answers reader's questions about science. She helped design UCSD's California Teach program, which prepares science and math students to teach. Read more about her on the publisher's website.
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