A Last Bit on Statistics, Science, Media and Language

By Elizabeth Baldwin

So there’s been a lot of ranting through the last half dozen posts or so about manipulated or meaningless statistics and about bad or abused science and lazy or sensationalist media.  I’ll surely return to these topics soon enough, but for now I’ll wrap it up with a few last random thoughts.

In the novel, Blind Lake, Charles Wilson writes,

“…We’re scientists, and we aren’t supposed to shy away from these matters.  As a scientist it is my cherished belief–I’m tempted to say, my faith–that understanding is better than ignorance.  Ignorance, unlike life, unlike narrative, is static.  Understanding implies a forward motion, thus the possibility of change.”

Change is possible.  In the past blogs, I referenced changes in our outlook about sugar vs. fat, or formaldehyde in e-cigarettes.  Sometimes change can be radical, a fundamental shift—for example, this short YouTube video talks about a specific study that dominated the field of psychology for years.  It was the basis of books and other studies and assumptions galore, and then, when it was finally significantly tested by others, was found to be pretty much completely false.

We need to look media reports about science carefully—look at who did them and how they did them.  And we just can’t generalize conclusions.  Just because some people who ate blueberries didn’t get cancer doesn’t mean that EVERYONE who eats blueberries will always be safe.

Be critical.  Try your best to understand the bias that might be behind it or do what you can to go beyond the media report.  If it sounds too amazing to be true, it well could be.  Farts don’t cure cancer and no scientific study implied they did.

But please don’t fear science.  Penn & Teller (of the organic banana fame) did a wonderful little bit where they asked people to sign a petition to ban the chemical “dihydrogen monoxide.”  You know that chemical–corporations are pumping it into many of our foods to increase profits and are casually dumping it into our rivers.  Overdoses of it will kill you.  Definitely something to ban!

Ok, time to move onto another topic.  Hand me a glass of dihydrogen monoxide please.