xkcd Science shirt

Science for the rest of us

Are you a scientist? Probably not. Nor am I. Are you interested in science and what it can reveal about the creatures, processes and threats to our oceans? Fortunately for you I have some resources to assist in your quest to stay well informed and to avoid quackery, lunacy, and the sort of utter disregard for facts that is commonly found (for example) in so-called “interest groups” on facebook.

xkcd Science shirt
xkcd Science shirt

(Curious about the shirt? Here’s the explanation.)

The scientific method

The scientific method is a process (often represented as a flowchart) followed when making scientific inquiries. There are occasional debates as to whether it’s still relevant in the age of “big data” or whether its formulation was flawed (and idealistic) to begin with. Its representation as a flowchart is frequently criticised because it makes the process seem simple and linear, with no doubling back and repetition, but these are minor quibbles, and most people who are living successfully (in the sense of being well-adjusted, mentally balanced, and rational) in the modern world can accept a certain degree of nonlinearity, the odd grey area, and a degree of ambiguity.

There is, however, no escaping the fact that the scientific method explains, at its core, how science works: have an idea, test its validity, revise and re-test if necessary, and draw conclusions. Most scientific papers are written with a flow of logic that conforms to the scientific method, whereas in practice things weren’t so neat and step by step. Presenting one’s findings clearly isn’t a bad thing – au contraire – but it can mislead non-scientists, who don’t spend their days doing experiments or gathering data to test their hypotheses, as to exactly what doing science is like.

Fortunately the University of California at Berkeley has an excellent tutorial, with diagrams, explaining how science actually works. One of the things that is key is that it doesn’t happen in a vacuum: the scientific community plays a vital role in ratifying new findings. It’s extremely unlikely that an incredible scientific advance that hasn’t been peer reviewed and accepted by other scientists working in that field is actually that incredible. The author may well be a quack.

Read the UC Berkeley article here. It’s helpful. If you want to read something by a real scientist, giving an example of how it all works, you can do a lot worse than this beautiful essay on studying belly button microbes. Not kidding.

How to read and understand a scientific paper

Paywalls are becoming less popular, and this is good for science. PLOS ONE is a good example of an online journal with free access for everyone with an internet connection. I wrote about one of the papers recently published there, here. So – anyone can get their hands on peer-reviewed (this is very important) scientific research. But many scientific papers are intimidatingly complex, and seem too difficult for a layperson to understand.

I’m willing to concede that yes, there are some papers you and I will never be able to grasp even the gist of without a lot of extra education… But with a bit of work it’s possible to get a pretty good idea of what’s potting in some of the more accessible fields of scientific inquiry. Jennifer Raff, a scientist who studies anthropology and genetics, wrote an article about how to properly read and understand a scientific paper. It’s aimed at those working in a scientific field who would need to read relevant papers to keep up to date with research.

Her article contains good advice, however, for an interested non-scientist with a bit of understanding who wishes to have a crack at reading some proper research. Some moderately hard work is involved, but your persistence will be rewarded. Unless you pick a paper about string theory, particle physics, or New Testament Greek (assuming you don’t already have a background in any of those), in which case you’re on your own.

Read that article here.

10 questions to distinguish real from fake science

You won’t only read scientific papers to learn about new findings in the fields you’re interested in. In fact, you’ll probably get most of your knowledge from blogs, news articles, and other secondary (or tertiary…) sources. How do you figure out whether you’re reading about something truly amazing, or truly bogus, without having a peer reviewed mainstream journal article at your fingertips?

Fear not. This list is written primarily with the pharmaceutical and related industries in mind, but it’s an excellent read for anyone interested in science, but not completely confident of their ability to discern legitimate science from pseudoscience (or worse). Remembering these questions – or even just some of them – will help you to be less easily swayed by each season’s new fad, no matter how much jargon the marketing team wraps it up in. The first two questions – “what is the source?” and “what is the agenda?” (or, as I like to ask, “where is the money?”) are, to me, the most important. Here’s the complete list of questions.

Getting your hands dirty

If you want something to practise your newfound skills of scientific discernment on, take a look at these – not actual scientific papers, but new advances in the field of shark science (if that’s a thing):

  1. The new Shark Safe Barrier: After you’ve read the official press release, check out these two posts from the Shark Alley blog for a different viewpoint.
  2. Two new wetsuit designs from Shark Attack Mitigation Systems, one claimed to “repel” sharks, and another that will allow you to be camouflaged from them while in the water.

See if you can figure out where the original idea or hypothesis came from, and how the experiment was designed (if there was one). What do you think about these two innovations?

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Clare

Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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