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Why you shouldn't always trust scientists

Science is, without a doubt, the best methodology available to humankind to figure out how the world works. Every piece of research done within the framework of modern scientific method goes through several rounds of reviews by other specialists in a given field to ensure that all of the work has been done in objective manner and no bias has been introduced. Researchers who don't follow the rules dictated by the modern scientific method quickly lose their reputation and become unemployable within their fields.

This, however, doesn't mean that every scientific research is completely objective from everybody's perspective. And I am not even talking about outright scientific fraud, such as debunked research that concluded that vaccines cause Autism. There are instances where researchers follow all the prescribed rules, but what they present to the public is not how things are in reality. At best, such manipulations of scientific principles does not help anyone outside of the team that did the research and, at worst, it can actually reinforce unhelpful beliefs in the society and reduce quality of many people's lives.

Let's now go into the details to see how such misdeeds happen. I hope that, after reading this, you will know what to look out for and will not be easily manipulated into trusting somebody with perceived objectivity credentials when they are trying to impose some sort of hidden agenda.


Exploring only one aspect of a subject as per vested interests

When I was studying for my Biology degree, I was tasked to perform a research to determine whether a certain compound extracted from garlic can be used as a pesticide against slugs. I came up with two experiments.

In the first one, I have split the slugs into two groups. For the control group, a piece of cardboard was dipped into distilled water and the slugs were touched with it. The same happened to the treatment group, but this time, the cardboard was dipped into garlic solution. The results were very clear. The slugs in the control group didn't react to the wet piece of cardboard in any obvious way, while every single slug in the other group curled up and showed some obvious signs of discomfort. So, does 100% reaction rate suggest that slugs don't like garlic, therefore it can be used as a pesticide against them? My second experiment showed that it wasn't quite the case.

In my second experiment, slugs were left overnight in individual Petri dishes with lettuce. Control group had untreated lettuce leaves, while the treatment group had its lettuce soaked in garlic solution. Next morning, it appeared that there was no significant difference in the amount of lettuce eaten by either of the groups, which, on its own, indicates that garlic has absolutely zero effect as a pesticide.

However, as I had such a big disparity between the experiment results, it made me think: what would have happened if my long-term funding actually depended on a particular outcome of the research? If a particular experiment would be strongly showing the desired result, but an experiment done under different circumstances wouldn't and if my sense of ethics wasn't particularly strong, nothing would stop me from not ever publishing the experiment that produced undesired results. Instead, I would design a number of different experiments which would be similar to the one that has produced the desired results, but would be sufficiently different from each other. With this setup, it can be easily argued that the problem has been examined from different angles. This would put some wool over the eyes of peer reviewers, while anyone who would want to repeat published experiments will get the same results as I did. Therefore nobody would be able to argue that I've committed a fraud. Unfortunately, it wasn't just my thoughts. Things like this actually happen in real science and, when they do, they often cause misery.

Good example of this is science behind antidepressants, which has been born from an unholy alliance between psychiatry and pharmaceutical industry. Without a doubt, every type of antidepressant has gone through vigorous testing and peer review process, but because the market for prescribing these drugs is very lucrative, experiments were published selectively. This is why, despite the name, antidepressants often don't cure depression, but, on the contrary, cause a whole range of psychological problems.

Abuse of science behind antidepressants continues. For years, psychiatrists have been updating the official definition of depression and its diagnosis guide, so more and more people would fall under the category of being depressed. According to the questionnaire, you will be classed as "mildly depressed" if you have answered that you have felt tired more than once in a week and felt sad once or twice. However, the questionnaire doesn't consider the fact that the person answering it might just be a keen gym goer or employed in a physical profession.

In UK, representatives of pharmaceutical industry incentivise doctors working for National Health Service (NHS) to prescribe antidepressants for ailments ranging from insomnia to back pain. Each of this prescriptions is based on cherry-picked research results and, as well as lining the pockets of NHS doctors and sales people from Big Pharma, this practice sometimes causes people who previously only had physical pain to kill themselves.

Another branch of science where only specific directions of research are considered is ophthalmology. Commonly accepted idea within this field is that myopia (i.e. short-sightedness) is incurable on its own and can only be permanently cured by a surgical operation or temporarily corrected by wearing glasses.

However, a large number of testimonies have been published where people stated that they were able to cure their myopia, even in the most severe cases, just by adopting certain visual habits and performing certain eye exercises. However, these claims are usually disputed by ophthalmologists, even though there was never a significant effort from their side to investigate them properly.

I had a mild myopia for at least 14 years and, over this period of time, it didn't get worse. I attribute it to the fact that I didn't follow the official advise made by ophthalmologists to wear glasses all the time. I wear mine only when I am legally required to do so, for example, when I drive. I can also testify that doing some of the popular eye exercises, such as palming, had some positive effect on my eyesight, even while the effect only lasted for a relatively short duration after the exercises. My myopia wasn't eliminated, but it's not possible to tell whether it's because the exercises aren't effective or because I never committed to doing them regularly due to their time-consuming nature. I have also observed that many people who have followed the advice to wear glasses all the time had their myopia worsening over years.

Whether it is possible to improve your eyesight naturally, I don't know. However, I would not hold my breath for any proper scientific research in this area to happen. Ophthalmological research is funded by sales of glasses and eyesight correction surgeries, so it is very unlikely that the industry will be willing to research something that can, potentially, cut off the main sources of its income.

The topic of tobacco addiction is another area where abuse of science happens. The idea that nicotine is addictive is so tightly embedded in the society, that hardly anybody ever questions it. However, some research indicates that nicotine is not addictive after all.

One may think that the Big Tobacco industry would be fighting against the nicotine addiction hypothesis. Well, yes, this is precisely what the tobacco corporation did publicly in the past. However, it appears that Big Tobacco has actually been suppressing research results that suggested that nicotine is not addictive.

Nicotine addiction hypothesis is actually quite a lucrative idea. Marketing smoking as a cool activity is effective at making people start smoking and making people believe that nicotine is addictive prevents people from stoping. As well as this, this hypothesis creates a market for whole range of nicotine products, such as plasters, chewing gums and, more recently, e-cigarettes.

I used to smoke packet a day and I have been able to give up the habit for good just by convincing myself that, rather than being a full-blown addiction, smoking is just a habit, similar to picking your nose. I don't recall feeling any withdrawal symptoms after I had my last cigarette. Perhaps, this is similar to how people stop smoking with nicotine gums or plasters. It's not the nicotine that they consume, but mere belief that this is how they can stop smoking that helps them to ultimately kick the habit.

Nicotine addiction may be just a placebo effect. However, as a large industry, much bigger than Big Tobacco on its own, depends on the idea, it is unlikely that any research that could dismiss the nicotine addiction hypothesis will ever be widely publicised.


Overconfident interpretation of incomplete data

Sometimes, prominent scientist provide public interpretation of some research results in overconfident manner when the data itself is very limited. Technically, their interpretation does not contradict the data, but because the data is sparse, the conclusion that they make is premature at best. More often then not, this is done to promote a certain political agenda.

One example of this is fat gene hypothesis which states that people who have a particular gene are likely to get obese regardless of their lifestyle. The data, however, only partially supports this. This idea is currently being widely promoted by scientists through the popular media. This is probably done as an attempt to use science as a tool against harassment of severely overweight people. It helps people to not feel bad about themselves, as it makes them believe their obesity is not their fault. Because of this, according to this hypothesis, no criticism against such person would be justified. However, if this hypothesis is not totally correct, then this notion is actually doing more harm than good.

Telling obese people that their weight problems are entirely caused by their genes may preserve their feelings, but is also an equivalent of sentencing them to indefinite imprisonment. If is not their fault, but there is nothing that can be done about it either. They have to accept it and live with it. However, telling people how it is, that the currently available data merely indicates that certain genes make people prone to obesity, but don't, on their own, guarantee obesity, gives people hope. People then know that it's still up to them to get to the healthy weight if this is what they want and if they are willing to take all of the necessary steps to achieve it.

Another hypothesis that some scientists try to promote, despite almost zero evidence, is that free will doesn't exist. Of course, this is almost impossible topic to research, so proponent of this theory revert to philosophical argument, while trying to present it as science. What is often told to support this theory is that the mind of every person is nothing more than the sum total of unique experiences, genetics, instincts and pure chance. Combination of this factors is the only thing that causes people to make choices.

This is true to some extent. However, any sane person knows that, despite your subconscious urges, you are still free to make choices. A person with a strong willpower is able to choose an action that he or she considers to be right, even when all of subconscious urges scream at them to do the opposite. Will can be defined as the ability to make conscious choices and it is no coincidence that the degree to which a person is able to make such choices when it's difficult to do so is called willpower.

The consequence of the idea that free will doesn't exist is that people who accept it tend not to try hard while making choices. Studies indicate that people who believe in free will are much more likely to better themselves and do what they believe is right than the ones who don't.

The next example is the subject of unconscious bias, a topic that gets heavily promoted in the corporate world. There is some evidence that such thing really exist. However, with the current knowledge, measuring it is nearly impossible. This did not stop Harvard University from developing an Implicit Bias Test, claiming that this is how it can be measured. When I had a look at the test, I was less than impressed.

The test is split into several categories, such as race, gender, religion and sexuality. The participants are then presented with two collections of opposites. For example, for the test asking about the attitude towards traditional gender roles, the participants are presented with male/female and career/home options. The opposites from each collection are placed on the different side of the screen. When the test starts, words appear on the screen and the user is supposed to press the button corresponding to the side that the category that the word belongs to is placed on. For example, if the category "male" is placed on the right, the participant is expected to press right button when word "Duncan" appears on the screen.

The test measures how quickly does the user respond. After the first round, one of the opposites from one set switch their places. So, for example, if word "home" appeared on the left in the first round, it will appear on the right in the second round. Therefore, in the second round, the user is expected to press the opposite button to whichever they were pressing in the first round when a word from this category appears on the screen.

The authors of the test, who are qualified psychologists and should really know better, insist that implicit bias is demonstrated when users react significantly quicker in one of the rounds compared to the other. Slowness of reaction is explained by inability of a participant to link two categories together. For example, if a participant was pressing the buttons quickly when male and career were placed on the left and female and home were placed on the right, but slowed down when home and career were switched, it is assumed that the participant has a strong bias towards traditional gender roles and struggles to link "female" with "career".

However, many reputable scientists dispute that it is the case. It is a well-known fact that many people find it easier to learn a completely new pattern of actions than learn a pattern that is opposite to the one that is already known. So, if most of the participant of the tests were slowing down in the round two, this would be explained by other factors than unconscious bias.

I don't know whether it was coincidence or not, but, after taking a number of tests, I have noticed that the first combination of categories would always correspond to what a stereotypical politically conservative person would believe. For example, the home/career test that I have already describe would start by showing "female" on the same side as "home" in the first round. On another test, the one that was comparing the attitude towards Arab Muslims against the attitude towards other people, "negative emotions" are initially placed on the same side as "Arab Muslims", while "positive emotions" are placed on the same side as "other people". So, perhaps the authors of the tests have deliberately designed it in such a way that most of the participants would be likely to slow down in the round two, so the idea that biases of all sorts are widespread in the society could be manufactured. The fact that Arab (ethnicity) is strongly linked to Muslim (religion) in the test, despite those categories not always being linked in real life, further suggests political motives behind the test.

As I used to be a keen gamer, my button-pressing reaction was generally quick and, for all the tests that I took, I was either shown no bias or a slight bias, even for the categories where I suspected that I did have a relatively strong bias. What was odd, however, is when I asked some of my friends to complete the test, some of them were consistently shown to be strongly racist, sexist or homophobic, even the ones with strong left-leaning liberal views. Coincidentally, those ones told me that they weren't into video games.

So, despite its lack of scientific validity, the test was highly promoted to be used by corporations to increase workplace diversity. The implications are that people may receive unnecessary counseling or even be called to disciplinary meetings because of a test that probably has no basis in reality. Some companies have already made unconscious bias training mandatory.


Dismissing something that works when science doesn't offer an explanation

Religion often attracts people who would feel uncomfortable to believe that physical measurable universe is all it is. Science often attracts the opposite kind of person: someone who would feel extremely uncomfortable accepting the reality where physical measurable universe was not the only thing in existence. When this is nothing more than a personal conviction, then it can be helpful for a scientists to have this attitude and not get distracted by anything that cannot be measured in an objective manner. However, what scientists with such view often do is try to impose it on general public.

For example, the term "placebo effect" is often used by scientists as something that should be dismissed. For example, pharmaceutical drugs that have not performed better than a placebo with no active ingredients are rejected in clinical trials. However, if you'll think carefully about what placebo effect is, it will become apparent that it is one of the most miraculous function of human mind, as it can alter the physical reality simply by the power of thought.

Placebo effect is sometimes used to describe a situation where symptoms of an illness were eliminated, while the physical root cause of the symptoms was left intact. For example, somebody may have a severe infection, but temporarily feel no pain. But placebo effect can also be something much more than that. The term is also applied to occurrences when the actual physical root causes of a problem disappear simply because a patient starts to believe that they will. People knew of existence of this powerful mind-over-matter effect for millennia. This is why all major religions put quite a lot of emphasis on the power of faith.

Wim Hof, who is also known as "The Iceman", spend his life demonstrating placebo effect in action. He can withstand extremely cold temperatures for prolonged periods of time just by breathing in a certain way and believing that he can. However, it doesn't stop there. Him and his followers were tested in a laboratory, where they were injected with high doses of pathogenic bacteria. All participants of the experiment were able to consciously switch on their autonomic immune system, the one that many scientists insist cannot be consciously switched on, and completely eliminate all traces of the infection within minutes. As Wim Hof later stated, all of this was done just by breathing in a certain way and believing that it can be done.

What cases like this demonstrate that it may be possible for humans to keep healthy just by believing that they can and performing certain rituals to reinforce their beliefs. However, the combination of the facts that many scientists find it uncomfortable to work with as something that cannot be deconstructed in the lab and that, once widely accepted, it has a potential to substantially reduce the need for pharmaceutical industry, keeps miraculous properties of placebo effect well away from awareness of an average person.

It is a well-known fact that many scientists are atheists. This is not because science has disproved an existence of any intelligent forces outside of the physical universe. At best, science has proven that literal interpretation of some passages from popular religious text is incorrect. The main reason why many scientists are atheists is because most of people who start career in science have a presupposition that physical universe is all there is before they even start their career in science.

Whether or not any intelligent entities exist outside of the measurable physical universe, believing that there is more to physical universe than can be measured tends to fill people's lives with meaning. And such beliefs are not always irrational either. Enough people have reported life-changing religious experiences to conclude that it is a real phenomenon. I am not including the experiences where people hallucinate, hear voices and become unstable into this definition. There is a type of experiences which cause people to reevaluate their lives, instantly drop their long-term bad habits and, ultimately, change their lives for the better.

William Wilson, one of the co-founder of Alcoholic Anonymous, had a religious experience that made him instantly quit drinking. Oprah Winfrey had a religious experience that completely turned her life around and helped her to acquire the mindset that eventually helped her to become a billionaire TV presenter. So did many other people. There are even well-documented cases where people with criminal sociopathic tendencies or even a clinical psychopaths have turned their lives around for the better because of some spiritual experiences, something that is impossible according to the current scientific knowledge.

One of prominent scientists (or an ex scientist, to be precise) who actively promotes atheism is Richard Dawkins. He wrote a book called The God Delusion. In the introduction to the book, he has stated that the arguments presented in the book are so irrefutable, that any rational person who would commit to reading it will become an atheist. Well, I must say that I have read the book from cover to cover and it certainly failed to convince me to become an atheist. The main reason for this was that what the book said was radically different from my own experiences.

To describe religious people, Richard Dawkins cherry-picked the worst and the most bigoted examples of them, while presenting those as typical. However, in real life, there are plenty of religious people around, but chances of meeting a bigoted Biblical literalist like the book describes are pretty low.

In some places, professor Dawkins makes factually incorrect statements. For example, he asserts that many people throughout the history were murdered for the sake of religion, but nobody was ever murdered for the sake of atheism. This statement completely ignores the fact that, in the 20th century, millions of people were murdered by far-left dictators in Russia, China and South-East Asia for their religious believes precisely in order to enforce atheism.

Finally, Richard Dawkins asserts that the majority of atheists are just like him: well-educated, articulate and generally pleasant to be with. However, the majority of atheists that I met were nihilistic and many of them had serious problems, such as uncontrollable drinking, drug habits or criminality. After all, if life is just a random game of dice with no purpose, why not just do whatever we want in a given moment? Vast majority of religious people that I have met were exactly the opposite: the led a meaningful life and had all their affairs in order.

It would be statistically impossible to have a typical atheist resemble Richard Dawkins. There simply is no such thing as a typical atheist. Based on the fact that a large proportion of Western population are atheists, but only a small number of people have completed advanced education, the chances are that the majority of atheists are very different from Richard Dawkins.

The majority of religious people that I ever knew treated concepts like the literal reality of resurrection of Jesus Christ as much less important compared to building your character and following a set of principles that will allow you to do things that are good for yourself, good for your family and good for the society. Therefore, although militant atheists try to get rid of superstition within the society, there is a risk that what they will end up destroying instead is the idea that striving to be the best possible version of yourself is necessary. So, only because a group of people feels uncomfortable about the idea that there may be some aspects of reality that are unknowable, they may, inadvertently, end up destroying the very fabric of the civilised society by trying to make the rest of the world think the same way. This is exactly what happened in Russia after a big proportion of its largely uneducated population was convinced that the visible physical reality is all there is.


What can you do to not be manipulated

This article certainly was not intended to be anti-science. Despite all of these example, science remains the best available fact-finding tool. However, the article was deliberately intended to be anti-bad-science, anti-overconfident-science and anti-something-else-presented-as-science.

So, because abuses in science are so widespread, what can you do to ensure that you are not mislead? First of all, I would never take for granted any hypothesis, only because it has been widely accepted for a long time. I would always try to think if any large organisation or an industry directly benefits from the theory being perpetuated. If something that a scientist says goes against your gut instinct, assume that your gut instinct is right and verify this information from other sources. Finally, never trust anyone who tells you something that contradicts your personal experience.

People often say that personal experience is the worst source of information. It is true when it applies to situations where personal experience doesn't provide the whole answer due to its limitations. If we would rely entirely on the personal experience, most of us would believe that the Earth is flat, simply because we perceived only a tiny fraction of the sphere, which looks flat to us. However, personal experience is what you should rely on when something is being said that clearly contradicts it rather than expands it.



Written by

Posted on 15 Jan 2018

Fiodar Sazanavets is a full stack software developer with several years of experience working in various industries. In his professional career, he has mainly worked with a number of different Microsoft stack technologies, both back-end and front-end, and Java for Android. Fiodar has an Honours degree in Environmental Biology and a Masters degree in Environmental Informatics.

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