Damn science stuff

In today’s Arizona Republic newspaper one of our local columnists alluded to a certain political attack on science. Reports that “science got X or Y wrong” on topics from global warming to Covid-19 are frequent, leading me to conclude many people have a deep misunderstanding of what science is, actually.  Hopefully, I can shed some light.

Science isn’t a thing, it is a process.  It is a model consisting of specific steps designed to lead to the truth.  The scientific method dictates how experiments must be done. It specifies double-blind testing and other processes to eliminate the influence of bias or prejudice.  That is science, an objective, standardized approach to conducting experiments and, in doing so, improving the accuracy, consistency and reliability of the results.

No matter the field, from biology to physics and engineering, the process of making observations, testing, and continuing to revise a theory based on the results remains the same.  My friend Frank was involved in software testing in his business career.  He knows firsthand how the process works and why it was so important, even when his superiors at the time pushed to bypass testing or minimize its importance. A scientific theory is an explanation of an aspect of the natural world that can be repeatedly tested and verified, using accepted protocols of observation, measurement, and evaluation.  Theories are tested in experiments under controlled conditions.  Established scientific theories have withstood hundreds and even thousands of rigorous tests and close scrutiny to become what now embodies “scientific knowledge.” Sometimes people attempt to denigrate certain aspects of scientific progress by saying “it’s just a theory.”  Technically, in scientific terms, that is correct.  But gravity is also a “theory,” although I’m not sure how many people would wish to throw themselves off a cliff with the idea that “falling is just a theory.”

As additional scientific evidence is gathered, theories are frequently modified. On occasion, it can be rejected entirely if it cannot fit the new findings.  That does not mean all theories can be fundamentally changed.  Foundational scientific theories such as gravity, evolution, heliocentric theory, cell theory, plate tectonics, germ theory of disease, and many others aren’t going to change.  Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould explained it like this “…facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts.”

The scientific method consists of the basic steps below and what led to the breakthrough in medicine responsible for my being here today. I’ve included a diagram of the scientific process at the end of this article from Wikipedia.

  1. Ask a question.
  2. Do background research.
  3. Develop a hypothesis, a proposed explanation for the question.
  4. Test the hypothesis in a manner that allows for proof or disproof of the hypothesis.
  5. Analyze the results of the testing.
  6. Formulate a conclusion.
  7. Refine and Repeat (back to #1).

This past year I read two history books on how open heart surgery began and how we got to where we are today.  One is “The Sublime Engine” by Stephen and Thomas Amidon.  The other is “King of Hearts: The True Story of the Maverick Who Pioneered Open Heart Surgery” by G. Wayne Miller.  The topic interests me, of course, as I had my first open-heart surgery when I was 15 years old in 1966. While far enough along back in 1966 to confidently predict good results, the dangers in this surgery have been reduced a hundredfold since then by repeated experiments which these books chronicle. My family and I were relieved that although I had two additional heart surgeries in 2016 and 2018, much of the medical mysteries surrounding my particular heart issues have been uncovered.  You can read more about those surgeries here.

What I like most about the scientific process is that once you’ve crafted the hypothesis you wish to test, you set up your experiment to not only find data to help prove your theory but also identify what factors, outcomes and data may potentially arise which could disprove or raise doubts about your hypothesis. You must try your damnedest to prove your hypothesis is wrong because in so doing, you test that it’s right. You can’t focus only on the affirmative – you must construct the negative arguments as well.  When setting up an experiment, there is a human tendency to want it to be true and to prove it is so.  The scientific process anticipates this human bias and compensates with how tests must be set up, such as double-blind testing, but also in requiring strict and exhaustive peer reviews.  Many scientists make it their cause to repeat experiments with greater thoroughness than the original work to cast doubt on conclusions.  In science, this is not bad manners but a highly-respected and important part of the process leading to the truth.  During my debate competitions in high school, my partner and I often did not know on which side of a proposition we would be arguing until just minutes before the competition began.  Learning to be equally persuasive and able to support both sides of the debate resolution greatly sharpened and deepened our understanding of the issues we debated.

While my parents were very religious, I am eternally grateful when the life of their child was on the line, they chose science and the medical establishment to find a solution to a defect in my heart that would have ended my life at a relatively young age.  Science seeks the truth. And it does not discriminate. For better or worse, it finds things out. Science is humble. It knows what it knows and it knows what it doesn’t know. It bases its conclusions on hard evidence — evidence that is continually updated and upgraded. It doesn’t get offended when new facts come along.

It is unclear to me what process those who claim science is “wrong” would have us use in its place. Should we adopt a “might makes right,” approach, where whoever’s bigger, stronger or richer gets to dictate what is true? Perhaps we should allow truth to be determined by whatever political party accumulates the most votes in a particular voting season? Frankly, the idea of accepting the opinions of actors, musicians, politicians or religious leaders over the findings of a group of established scientists just seems wrong.  Is it rational to decide the truth for your life based on slogans, wishful-thinking and superstition?

I’m grateful to be in the final third of my life.  I doubt I’ll ever see the results of a society of parents who choose to ignore science and not vaccinate their children against polio, smallpox, measles and Covid-19 and whatever else we vaccinate against.  Vaccines save lives.  Science saves lives.  I believe in saving lives through knowledge.  Science is the right path to gain that knowledge.

The scientific method is an ongoing process

Top Tier TV Pick #2 – My Octopus Teacher

official Netflix trailer

Craig Foster filmed and narrates the underwater adventure “My Octopus Teacher,” focused on a single subject, an amazing little creature. Naturalist photographers normally stay in the background.  Not in this film and it makes a wonderful difference. You’ll come away uplifted and knowing far more about lives much more connected to us than you might at first think. You can watch it on Netflix.

Not all recommendations are going to be nature shows, but this one and the first (Our Planet) just happened. Trust me, they’re both wonderful.  My own underwater experiences involved more than just SCUBA.  Before becoming a certified diver, I spent my youth and early twenties free diving using only a snorkel and good swim fins, no oxygen tank or wetsuit.  After years of using oxygen tanks at various storied dive locations around the world, I tired of the bulk and re-certification needs for SCUBA, and went back to free diving.  While it took a while for my lung capacity to return, I fell back in love with the glorious feeling of freedom when free diving.  Foster’s dependence on this approach makes a considerable impact on the film. My Octopus Teacher will take you to an exciting new world, full of beauty and glorious surprises.

But how do we know it is true?

paper in typewriter says Investigation

In response to an email suggestion to watch the documentary “Totally Under Control,” a friend replied saying: “Thanks! Sounds interesting…but I have to ask the question: is it true? How do we know?”

Official Trailer for The Social DilemmaWith all the charges of “fake news” and media distrust, it turns out the methods for determining credibility and levels of truthfulness from various information sources hasn’t changed that much and most people know about it to one degree or another. My recommendation to watch the documentary carried with it the caveat it was controversial.  But I do think it is true, and toward the end, I explain why.

Most can discern when information supplied to us is trustworthy and true. Few people equate their doctor’s prescription for a new medication to an Internet video hawking a miraculous supplement. We know now research studies underwritten by tobacco companies “proving cigarettes were highly valuable digestive aids and safe,” were lies. Educated people naturally consider the sources of the data to judge the degree of trust it should be given.

In high school my “sport” was debate. I loved debating, was very competitive and on a team that made it to the state level. Between my junior and senior years of high school I spent two weeks at Michigan State University in a debate training institute.  Anyone in debate knew arguments must be supported. The first step in building that support was verifiable facts from trusted sources – encyclopedias, newspapers, magazines, etc. And one’s sources meant something – judges did not score facts gleaned from The Reader’s Digest as high as from The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times.  Lacking factual support for an argument, you went to the next tier of proof, which was opinion.  Sometimes a quote supporting your position from a well-known, highly-educated and credible individual with a trusted position in the topic area could be almost as persuasive as fact. The more and better your sources and quotes supported sound reasoning and logic, the greater your chances of winning.

Dan Gillmor

Another area where I have experience is journalism.  Early in my free-lance writing experience, my work was subjected to fact checkers. Wow, what an experience! These professionals walked me through my piece sentence by sentence, challenging everything I’d written, asking over and over again, how did I know the truth of what was on the page, did I have more than one source, what were the sources, and so on.  Not all writers are trained journalists following ethical standards and not all magazines demand it, though a great many do.  Dan Gillmor wrote for the San Jose Mercury News during the part of my career when I was starting companies in the Bay Area. His articles were universally prized and hard to get. Meeting him once at a coffee shop for an interview, I offered to buy his coffee. He said, “No, it isn’t permitted by the newspaper.” In those days, coffee was only $2.00, but he was still not allowed to accept even that.  The paper understood a gift, any gratuity, or anything like that could subtly seep in, create familiarity and affect a story. Their reporters had to remain totally unbiased. Years later we became friends and he told me one day, “You know I can’t write about your companies anymore, don’t you?” He went on to explain he considered me a friend and the paper would assign someone else to cover if in the future I believed I might have something newsworthy.

Newspapers and magazines have various levels of ethical reporting and journalistic standards. The very best ones not only make those standards and policies available to the public, but make it absolutely clear to all writers and editors, that violating any of the guidelines can lead to termination. As an example, you can find the standards and ethics for the Washington Post here.

The WSJ and The Washington Post news organizations are widely respected, even though their editorial (opinion pages) hold very different opinions from one another. To their credit, both publications understand the difference between opinion and the facts they gather and report in their news pages and draw distinct lines between them.

At one time, both network and local television stations had newsrooms and viewed themselves as professional journalists.  Some still do, but others clearly dedicate the time formerly considered news, to creating stories that attract the most eyeballs and advertising revenue. When these programs began to be disguised as actual journalism, is when television news lost its credibility and became pure entertainment.  Today, cable and network television “news-like” content is being produced by people who fall into one of two camps:

  1. Television reporters, writers and anchors who are actual journalists and operate within a well-defined set of standards and ethics, which they have no problem disclosing or talking about. They have no issue correcting mistakes on the air.  They have frequently graduated from top schools with advanced degrees, are well-read, articulate and cautious. They tend to work hard on stories, ask interview questions which display deep, expert and thoughtful preparation. They provide highly useful and important context and background to help viewers comprehend a particular story.
  2. Reporters more skilled at story-telling than having a real concern for actual facts. Their goal is high ratings for entertainment. They are often egotistical and shamelessly sensationalist.  They have little or no respect for journalistic ethics. They may have a certain view of the world which they frequently share with their audience. They are not above promoting and sometimes even creating unsubstantiated stories with zero fact checking or scenarios they “report,” as if it were “news.” They are rewarded with massive amounts of money because they generate eyeballs/ears which the media entities that employ them turn into dollars.

So, how to you know truth? The easiest and fastest way, look at the source.  In the case of the documentary I recommended, it was produced by Alex Gibney, an Oscar-winning documentarian. You don’t win Oscars in the documentary category by making stuff up. His team was careful to site their sources. Since this is about Covid-19, they filmed interviews and reproduced other interviews with attribution from the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar and CDC director Robert Redfield and others directly involved.  Others they interviewed were the people in charge during the period for which they were reporting. Michael Bowen, who is interviewed extensively for the film, is a republican who voted for Trump and believed in him passionately. Bowen’s life-time of involvement and experience in the medical supply chain business provide highly credible insight into what caused so many deaths in the US.

Beyond this particular film, generally, if you don’t want to be deceived by what appears to be news but really isn’t, follow these guidelines:  First, reduce the amount of time you spend with any television programs in category 2 above. Second, read news as reported by news organizations with a documented set of ethical standards and a track record of supporting reporters who write challenging pieces, even when unpopular. And third, read the opinion pages of not only the publications with which you agree, but also read opinions of those who are on the opposite side of where you typically tend to be.  Reputable fact-based publications are always careful to label opinions as opinions.  They do not peddle opinions as facts.

Top Tier TV Pick – #1

Official Netflix Trailer for Our Planet, a documentary series

Recently I’m finding myself awash in too many options for what to watch on my television – and we don’t even have cable! I’m learning that shows recommended by friends always seem to be the best.  So, with that in mind, I’ve decided to become a bit more outgoing in my recommendations for things I’m watching which I think are exceptional – or I found to be a lot of fun. It’s not like anyone has to watch these, but I decided to begin alerting you when I find something I think is super, over-the-top good and why. First up is this one:

David Attenborough: Our Planet

If you’ve upgraded your television in the past year or two, this short series is a visual and auditory delight. While impressive on any decent television set up, with a 4K TV capable of 30+ fps, you will gasp at some of the most stunning scenes ever filmed. The sound is equally spectacular. Add in David Attenborough’s grandfatherly voice and distinctive speech cadence and I was just mesmerized. Yes, it is an educational documentary film, but don’t be put off by that.  You may or may not agree with the script, but don’t let anything hold you back from enjoying spectacular scenes of astonishing beauty.  So far I’ve only watched the first one, and plan to ration myself as I want to make this experience last as long as I can. The eight-part series was produced by the BBC and took four years to make. It was filmed in 50 countries using over 600 crew members.  It is simply amazing, and you’ll find it on Netflix.