Is Science Always True? Skepticism is Your Friend When Analyzing the ‘Facts’

Joanne Lynn Intile, DVM, MS, DACVIM
Published: February 23, 2016
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While recently searching for information on the role of evidence-based information in medical decision-making, I came across the following quote by Neil DeGrasse Tyson:

“The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

My initial impression of the statement was one of complete agreement. I approach both my professional and personal life with fairly rigid factual standards, constantly searching for proof and examining probability with regard to making important decisions or tackling difficulties.

With further consideration, I wondered how well the assertion actually holds up in the “real” world. Human nature imparts a desperate need to make sense of the things we don’t understand. It would be wonderful if everything we did could be categorically isolated into true or false statements. But reality dictates this is rarely ever the case.

We frequently encounter something we lack sufficient knowledge or information about. When we do, we use a combination of education and experience in our struggle to comprehend the unknown. This becomes particularly pronounced when we lack scientific comprehension of a particular topic and we allow experience to be the major contributor to our knowledge. When this occurs, we are participating in what is known as “conformation bias.”

Conformation bias occurs when we search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions. Phrases such as "I believe," "I think," "this makes sense to me," or "it's logical that...” typically precede statements raft with conformation bias.

As an example, nearly every canine patient I see wears a collar. Many of the canine patients I see also have lymphoma. I might therefore conclude that collars were a cause of lymphoma in dogs. As I’m unaware of any research study designed to examine the presence of a collar as an independent risk factor for developing cancer in dogs, my assertion would be made from conformation bias, rather than scientific basis.

Unfortunately, those lacking a strong command of medical terminology and principals of physiology can be targets for slick marketing techniques, especially in relation to issues relating to their health or the health of their pets.

I think of this every time I come across a new product claiming to “detoxify the body,” or “cleanse the system,” or “boost the immune system.” My scientific mind knows those phrases are absolutely meaningless. I know my liver and kidneys already do all the detoxifying and cleansing that I need. I know if my immune system were to be boosted, it would probably start furiously attacking my own cells.

I also struggle because I know scientific discovery is borne out of questioning unproven observations and ideas. What we know as being scientifically true was, at one point, unknown. And even scientifically proven concepts can be refuted with additional study.

Every research project I’ve been a part of was derived from abstract concepts and experience and thought. They were designed to question whether the observations precipitating the study occurred via pure chance or from evidence based information. Of course scientific reasoning played the biggest role in actual design of the study, but an inquiring mind was responsible for thinking of initial hypothesis.

Statistics are our barometer for assessing the validity of a theory. When statistics show significance, we accept the hypothesis as truth. If significance is not achieved, it is rejected and considered scientifically false.

Experience tells me that accepting statistical significance or insignificance isn’t always the most accurate path to follow. Statistics can be manipulated and studies can be flawed. Remarkable conclusions can be drawn off of extremely small sample sizes or curiously designed studies. I also value my experience and how important it is in making decisions about my patients—even when no evidence-based data exists to prove that my theory is correct.

Is science true whether you believe it or not? It’s an interesting question to ponder, even for this scientist.