Pop Science Versus Science

Two days ago I said that the March for Science would more appropriately be called the March for Philosophy. I fear that I may have given many of the marchers too much credit.

One of the biggest problems with the concept of science in popular culture is that few people actually understand what the scientific method entails:

Let’s start with my contention that most “pro-science” demonstrators have no idea what they were demonstrating about. Being “pro-science” has become a bizarre cultural phenomenon in which liberals (and other members of the cultural elite) engage in public displays of self-reckoned intelligence as a kind of performance art, while demonstrating zero evidence to justify it. On any given day, many of my most “woke” friends are quick to post and retweet viral content about the latest on what Science (and I’m capitalizing this on purpose) “says,” or what some studies “prove.” But on closer look, much of what gets shared and bandied about is sheer bullshit and is diagnostic of one thing only: The state of science (and science literacy) in this country, and most of the planet for that matter, is woefully bad. For example, the blog IFLScience (IFL stands for “I f—ing love”) seems singularly committed to undermining legitimately good science half the time, while promoting it the other half—which, scientifically speaking, is a problem. Here’s a neat one that relays news about a study that suggested that beer hops may protect against liver disease. I’ll be sure to mention that to the next alcoholic with hepatitis and cirrhosis that I treat. To date that article has been shared 41,600 times. Very few of those readers, I should mention, were mice, though the research was carried out in, you guessed it, mice. (And of course, this type of coverage is not refined to cleverly named blogs.)

So many self-proclaimed science fans have such a gross misunderstanding of what science is that they don’t even know what they don’t know. They see some meme shared by a Facebook group that claims to promote science and they mindlessly believe whatever the short caption in the meme says. They never seek out the published research paper to see what the methodology or conclusion were. This is because most of the people who are proclaiming a love of science are really in love with pop science, which is nothing more than an exercise in taking a kernel of truth from scientific research and embellishing it so it appeals to the masses (Beer hops protects against liver disease!).

Actual science is seldom flashy. It’s rare to find a scientist who claims that their research proves something. Most scientists couch their language because they realize that the scientific method doesn’t prove anything, it merely gives or takes weight away from hypotheses. They know that future research could render their hypothesis incorrect. You’ll rarely find a research paper that concludes that beer hops protects against liver disease.

Science, like religion, has become just another tool for the masses to support their confirmation bias. Any pop science that supports an average person’s beliefs is treated as gospel while any pop science or real science that disproves their beliefs is labeled bad science and discarded. In other words, science does the opposite of what it’s intended to for most people.

How did this happen? As with so many problems, this one may have been the results of good people with good intentions trying to do the right thing. A lot of teachers, professors, and television personalities encouraged kids to become scientists. This idea sounds good because having more scientists should, theoretically, increase the rate of scientific discovery. However, like so many religions, these advocates changed the message to make it more appealing to their audience. They engrained in children all of the cool things that science can do but left out most of the gritty details. Now these children have grown up. Most of them found the actual practice of science to be dull so they went into other careers. But they never stopped believing in what they were taught about how cool science is. I theorize that we have a bunch of people basically parroting instilled religious beliefs without actually understanding what they’re parroting. In that way, I find the average Christian, who generally isn’t well-versed in Christian theology, to be indistinguishable from the average self-proclaimed lover of science, who generally isn’t well-versed in the scientific method.