Four Horsemen of Science
Everything that is wrong with Scientism
In 2015, a study claiming that eating a bar of chocolate can help you lose weight faster was published in the International Archives of Medicine.
The research participants were randomly allocated to one of three different groups: One went on a low-carb diet, the other went on the same low-carb diet plus a 1.5-ounce bar of dark chocolate per day, and the third group was asked to maintain their regular diet. The conclusions were startling.
At the end of the three weeks, the third group had neither lost nor gained weight but both low-carb groups lost an average of five pounds per person. The group that ate chocolate, however, lost weight ten percent faster than the group of non-chocolate eaters.
This finding was statistically valid with a p-value less than 0.051. As you might expect, this news spread like wildfire—to the front page of Bild, the most widely circulated newspaper in Europe, and into the Daily Star, the Irish Examiner to Huffington post, and even the Shape magazine.
Unfortunately, the whole research was faked, and the world fell into a trap. However, the researchers did experiment the way they claimed it in their paper. But they manipulated the observed data to decrease the p-value of their findings.
Here is a snippet from Johannes Bohannon’s blogpost—I Fooled Millions Into Thinking Chocolate Helps Weight loss—who was the mastermind behind this scientific scam.
I am Johannes Bohannon, Ph.D. Well, actually my name is John, and I’m a journalist. I do have a Ph.D., but it’s in the molecular biology of bacteria, not humans. The Institute of Diet and Health? That’s nothing more than a website.
Other than those fibs, the study was 100 percent authentic. My colleagues and I recruited actual human subjects in Germany. We ran an actual clinical trial, with subjects randomly assigned to different diet regimes. And the statistically significant benefits of chocolate that we reported are based on the actual data.
It was, in fact, a fairly typical study for the field of diet research. Which is to say: It was terrible science.
The results are meaningless, and the health claims that the media blasted out to millions of people around the world are utterly unfounded.
The Big Lessons
Johaness wasn’t pulling a prank on the scientists, or the media forums. He wanted to highlight a grave issue surrounding science that no one was looking at—false researches. He slapped a big question mark on our unverified belief over science.
Any slightly controversial research, denying an old truth (taking inspiration from my previous essay) is shared and distributed without any cross-questioning or verification.
We are all hungry for entertainment, even the ones who claim themselves to be science enthusiasts. This hunger for entertainment in the followers of scientism turns into an obsession with pop-science. We get attracted to quirky science facts without once questioning their factual legitimacy.
Not only is it our hunger for entertainment that fools us to believe in false claims like these, but our confirmation bias as well. It is as Jasper Fforde said once:
“For every expert, there is an equal and opposite expert.”
This means that we are inclined to believe certain things and to justify our point we accept researches that confirm our opinion and reject those that stand against it. There is always a research paper for and against a scientific claim.
The experimental nature of science is a very novel idea. It is philosophical. I hope you would not confuse me for a man standing against the practice of science. I am heavily inspired by the foundational ideas science relies upon, so-much-so that I even wrote an essay about it: Live life like an experiment.
However, I still think that we need to be aware of the limitations of science, to be a little more skeptical before believing the claims of random scientific research. So, here’s a quick list:
1. It's too early to expect too much
Science is too young to answer all the questions we have. Its age is not a limitation per se. It is how it is.
Science has given answers to many fascinating questions in the past centuries, but we still have very limited knowledge about the world and its ways.
This is why too much faith in science makes less sense than you may think. It is young and we still have a lot to learn to overcome its shortcomings.
In the 300,000 years of human history, science is just a few thousand years old.
2. Politics and Science are Inseparable
Science has been badly influenced by politics from time-to-time. From Hitler to the Soviets, a lot of governments used the camouflage of science to spread their lies.
It has happened in the past, and it can happen again. Most people don't read the research papers they cite to prove the credibility of their opinions.
Politicians and propagandists can use our ignorance against us to advertise their ideas in the name of science.
3. Science as a Marketing Strategy
In the mid-1950s tobacco companies funded think tanks and lobbying groups. They even started health reassurance campaigns, ran advertisements in medical journals, and researched alternate explanations for lung cancer, such as pollution, asbestos, and even pet birds.
People have blind faith in science, and the giant conglomerates cannot afford to lose such an influential marketing opportunity.
4. The Replication Crisis
Recently, researchers from several different fields have attempted to replicate some prominent past results.
The Reproducibility Project repeated a hundred psychology studies but found only 36% of them had a statistically significant result.
An attempted verification of 53 studies considered landmarks in the basic science of cancer only managed to reproduce 6 even though they were working closely with the original authors.
I appreciate your patience and dedication to read this overwhelming essay. I am glad you made it through the end. I hope I gave you a new tool to be more skeptical in this unpredictable world, which in turn, will help you rise above the science-worshiping fools.
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P-value being 0.05 means that only five percent of observations will be considered an outcome of luck, and the rest to be valid. Any scientific research with a p-value of more than 0.05 is considered invalid.