What’s so special about science?

by endlesspsych

In the 1950’s there was a man named Solomon Asch. A man named Solomon Asch who ran an experiment. This experiment is now considered a classic of social psychology and indeed psychology itself.

The experiment was simple enough, or so it must have initially appeared to those taking part, as participants (or subjects as they were known in such times) were asked simply to partake in a simple judgement task.

“Do these lines match”

On most trials they performed reasonably well. However on trials that Asch termed “critical trials” their performance dipped a great deal. With 75% failing to match line lengths on at least one critical trial (37% on all).

What reason was there for this sudden drop in ability? Were the lines used a sort of perceptual trick question? No.

The answer is social pressure – participants were tested as part of a group. A group that consisted of confederates (NOTE: this does not involve whistling Dixie or claiming the South will rise again) of the experimentor call them fakes/ actors/ experimental stooges whatever you wish.
What they did was give the correct answer on normal everyday trials but the incorrect one on “critical” trials. Asch fully expected, as with many social psychologists (including Milgram later on who was inspired by Asch’s work to explore obedience) who were by all accounts very optimistic about human nature in the early days, that most people wouldn’t cave to social pressure when presented with something so demonstrably wrong…
But of course it turned out it was Asch who was wrong – people went with the group a lot more then was expected.
It confirmed Aschs place in the “psychology hall of fame” and is a nice piece of early experimental social psychology to boot.

However strictly speaking it’s not what I actually want to talk about – I want to talk about what makes science special.

Not in a “ohh-ahh” it’s amazing what you can do with some strontium and a match sort of way…

Not in a road to Damascus “wow that’s some breakthrough in understanding the planet/universe/human condition* (*delete as applicable)” kind of way.

Nor even in a “This will impress the boys down the pub and make women want to sleep with me knowing this” kind of way.

Because I don’t want to discuss the scientific method.
It’s myriad achievements.
The triumph of it’s logic in providing an objective way to explain and model the universe.


I want to talk about science the concept. Science the political and sociological entity. Science and how it is viewed from different perspectives.

However this is not a commentary on science itself or indeed the concept of science but to peel back the layers of this meta-onion concepts themselves.

First though allow me to explain why I brought up Asch. Now I confess I’m not sure if Aschs experiments have ever been run on “scientists” but they were run on undergrads who had some grounding in the scientific method.
Who seemingly (subject to contrary reports via the comments) were caught out just as well as those who had no grounding in the scientific method.
I can be pretty sure that no one refused to take part in the experiment because they cottoned onto the conspiracy however.

(A thought occurs perhaps Aschs method could be used to explore how conspiracy theories arise? Via various economic or similar morivations? etc)

The point of raising the Asch experiment was to show that knowledge of science isn’t some anti-woo kryptonite that suddenly gives us the ability to be super rational and logical beings. Rather it shoud bring our own rational and analytical short comings into sharp reflection and cause us to address them.

The scientific method exists because we acknowledge the basic flaws and subjective biases that can, and frequently do, cloud human observation and judgement.
It’s their to overcome the pull of anecdote and emotional salience in favour of objectivity and modelling.

On an ideological/political battlefield scientific ideas (produced by evidence) don’t have some magic glow surrounding them that automatically convinces folk of their rightness.

Indeed often scientific concepts are anathema in the ideological and politcal arenas because to understand them a higher understanding of the workings of science it’s procedures and logic is often required. Not nessecarily because people feel inferior but arguably because people resent the implication that someone else thinks themselves to be more superior then they are.

For people who don’t have a basic grounding in the scientific method what scientific evidence amounts to is trusting an expert.
An expert often painted (and perhaps often a) as an elitist doddering labcoat wearing intelligensia. Using clinging on to all their priviledge baggage with all their disorientated might. (Disclaimer: any discomfort you may feel at this point was intentional – but not malicious).

Telling someone they aren’t qualified to understand or lack the basic grounding in science and research to do so may be true – but it won’t win hearts and minds anymore then a concerted campaign of carpet bombing will…

So there is no need to come up with pseudo-psychological reason after reason as to why people ignore scientific evidence or the scientific consensus.
For the simple reason that in terms of concepts and ideas hanging out there on their own (bereft of a population who understand the underlying logic that produced them) scientific ideas are, you might all want to take a deep breath and count to ten before reading on, essentially on an equal footing with woo.

An idea that arises through evidence produced by the sound logic of a robust model for understanding and modelling reality isn’t automatically imbued with magical fairy dust that makes it more believable or convincing.
Indeed if anything experience teaches us that often the reverse is true. I suspect human beings susceptability to paradolia and associating like with like may be at the root of this.

There is nothing special about science unless you add the double-plus-good knowledge and logic of how the method works. To people who don’t have an appreciation or trust of this already debunking of woo is pointless. As is trying to engage in serious science communication.

Because you aren’t nessecarily communcating science your communicating:

“I’m a scientist and this ‘ere wot I say is the facts, the whole facts and nuthin’ but the facts so fact off”.

All you are achieving is casting another authority out there for people to listen to and consider.
I’ve seen it done with some considerable gusto which starteningly overlooks the babysteps all scientists and people interested in science have to go through to understand (and dare I say it) trust science and scientists. Such gusto that must either assume the majority of people know enough about science to be getting on with (which may be slightly delusional) or be based upon the arrogant idea that people should just listen to scientists unquestioningly.

That’s no better then a homeopath using anecdote to build a case for “why it works”. Indeed in most peoples eyes it’s probably worse as it comes across as an appeal to individual authority (or the authority of science) rather then an appeal to “all these people a wee glass of water (shaken not stirred) helped”…

People need to be given the tools to understand science. If they reject them then scientists, teachers and science communicators should try and find out why and address this. (Apply science to science education? What witchcraft am I proposing!)

Of course it’s important to note that even when you understand the babysteps involved in science the whole domain of scientific endeavour isn’t suddenly avaliable to you either.
A cursory glance at the SuperFreakonomics climate change debacle should tell you that scientists leaving the safe environs of their own fields are often as prone to error as the layperson.

But without an understanding of the basic concepts (of at least random sampling and assignment and why they are important) asking people to understand or accept scientific evidence as the next best thing we have to “truth” or “fact” is a futile endeavour.

Not much more then a fools errand.

It would be like handing someone Finnegans wake to read without first teaching them the alphabet.

Of course I’m not suggesting that we explain the concept of double blind trials, experiments, statistical analysis and the like everytime a science concept needs explaining – imagine how far you would get before boresom set in if you were asked to vocalise your steps everytime you went for a walk. But my solution is simple – teach science from first principles.

Start with the logic and the philosophy that underpins this wonderful and precious means of modelling reality that we have created and achieved.

Give people the basic tools to think for themselves rather then seemingly relying on some implicit idea that science knowledge is good knowledge.

Let’s stop assuming people should see this for themselves and set them off on
the path to discover it for themselves.

(Apologies for anything that veers towards strawman territory!)

Let’s steal the mantra of:

Education, Education, Education and put it to good use.

As young as possible.