Another of my “Something someone said on the Internet pissed me off” rants.
First, the thing that got said (paraphrased for simplicity.) “Historically speaking, facts accepted in the scientific community get proved dead wrong all the time.”
No. Nope. Wrong. The above statement is bullshit of the stinkiest kind, and I am sick to death of shoveling it out of conversations on science.
No scientific fact has ever been proven dead wrong, nor will one ever be. None. Zero. Zilch. Not even a one. A conclusion being disproven and replaced is a whole different matter. A disproved conclusion is not the same as a fact being proved dead wrong. (Memorize that statement if necessary.) Not equivalent. Not even close.
I can see why people who aren’t paying attention get confused by those two points. It’s those pesky words “facts” and “proof” and the human brain’s difficulty processing complex concepts. Disproving an accepted conclusion is the evolution of understanding. Replacing facts with their opposites is merely an exchange of position.
Let’s pause and turn a hairy eyeball on the phrase scientific fact itself. It is a misnomer. It’s shorthand in public discourse for “Generally recognized consensus about a singular conclusion.” It’s also a useless, lazy misuse of vocabulary. Unanimous acceptance (that’s what consensus means) is a rare creature in the scientific community.
Here’s a suggestion: the next time you see the phrase “scientific fact” used in a news report, go ahead and substitute “unicorn.” This might serve as a reminder you are being told a fairy tale rather than being told the full, complicated, amazing truth.
See, in scientific fields nothing is permanently accepted as correct, period.
This is How Science Works in a nutshell. Today’s accepted conclusions are tomorrow’s hypotheses to be tested and challenged.
For something to be accepted as “scientific fact,” by the scientific community as a whole, it has to be a point so big, so obvious, and so well-documented that almost everyone in the field of study agrees on it. And even when a cherished unicorn is birthed–meaning something that mostly everyone accepts– it is wrapped in multiple cushiony layers of contingency before being let loose in journals or symposiums, poked, prodded and disputed.
But dealing with ugly layers of complexity and ambiguity isn’t half as fun as stripping away everything but one shiny click-baitable tidbit.
That’s how the reasonable scientific conclusion of “we did a study of a bunch of people on a certain diet expecting one result but getting another, so we plan to study more people with more variables to pinpoint whether the result comes from the cause we think or something else” turned into “OMG STOP EATING WHEAT IT’S POISON” with one news article.
The fact is, complexity doesn’t sell, sensationalism does. Conclusions get promoted by various media, by medical professionals and through other organizations tangential to science for many reasons. They are hardly ever presented with complexity attached because it dilutes the message du jour. Thus what gets declared as “scientific facts” in popular media are rarely either.
Another fact: complexity can be used to obfuscate a conclusion no one wants to believe. Even when it’s so widely accepted that scientists call it a fact.
Take climate change, for example. By climate change I mean the way science has tied objective measurements to a perfect correlation with historical production of carbon dioxide. The conclusion human actions are affecting climate has attained fact status atop a mountain of data from hundreds of years’ worth of global, independent multi-disciplinary studies. That consensus is neither monolithic nor free from contradictions, but calling the general conclusion anything but fact is as ridiculous as questioning the existence of hats. (the jury is still out on owls. And the cake is a definitely a lie.)
But when you take complexity, add a hefty misdirection courtesy of “Oh, well, science is always changing its mind and contradicting itself,” and it’s been nigh impossible to get public support for critical conservation efforts. Which is why I hate that particular little piece of bullshit so much.
But I digress. I grant that the ever-popular conflation of confidence with fact has led to major crimes against humanity — but this usually happens when badly tested ideas (or outright frauds) are bent to the service of social or personal agendas. The fault lies in the human frailties of arrogance, laziness, desire for attention, and greed, not in the “scientific facts” themselves.
OK. That’s it for a while.