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  1. #1
    m_s
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    Science in the public sphere

    What role does it play? Should it play?

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    My impression is that the vast majority of elected officials are scientifically illiterate. I don't think that you could find 10 senators or 40 congressman who could properly describe the scientific method or demonstrate a rudimentary knowledge of physics, chemistry, biology, or statistics.

    A big portion has a blind and complete faith that science will solve intractable problems of energy, environment and disease.

    Another big portion appears to believe that man's actions can't possibly change the climate and that the earth is 6000 years old and that there is an omnipotent magic creature who controls nature.

    Both are deluded and dangerous and reflect society as a whole.

    We're screwed.
    Lugged Steel Treks

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    Quote Originally Posted by Reynolds531
    My impression is that the vast majority of elected officials are scientifically illiterate. I don't think that you could find 10 senators or 40 congressman who could properly describe the scientific method or demonstrate a rudimentary knowledge of physics, chemistry, biology, or statistics.
    Ahem: "There are 47 members with at least one math, science, or engineering degree and 29 with a degree in health sciences."

    List of members and degrees here.

    It seems ironic that in complaining about failure to appreciate science, you just post an "impression" without taking 10 seconds to test your hypothesis. What's your impression of the scientific method?
    Fredke commented in your thread. You won't believe what happens next!

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    m_s
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    Quote Originally Posted by Reynolds531
    My impression is that the vast majority of elected officials are scientifically illiterate. I don't think that you could find 10 senators or 40 congressman who could properly describe the scientific method or demonstrate a rudimentary knowledge of physics, chemistry, biology, or statistics.

    A big portion has a blind and complete faith that science will solve intractable problems of energy, environment and disease.

    Another big portion appears to believe that man's actions can't possibly change the climate and that the earth is 6000 years old and that there is an omnipotent magic creature who controls nature.

    Both are deluded and dangerous and reflect society as a whole.

    We're screwed.
    First, and obviously my post was a bit leading, how accepted do you think the scientific method (I assume the version we've all learned in grade school) is among scientists? How would you define science? It's a tricky question at best, with many, many views. Certainly there is no monolithic definition accepted universally by scientists and scholors of science, and public understanding is simplistic at best.

    I do understand your frustration, and share some of it.

    Further, though, what I was at least partly getting at is how much does scientific information inform public policy? How much can science do for us in making policy decisions?

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    Quote Originally Posted by m_s
    what I was at least partly getting at is how much does scientific information inform public policy? How much can science do for us in making policy decisions?
    A topic very close to my heart. I could bore you about it, but instead, why don't you say something more about what you're thinking and we can have a conversation.

    Here's a provocative piece by Dan Sarewitz that could also kick off a good argument: How Science Makes Environmental Controversies Worse.
    Fredke commented in your thread. You won't believe what happens next!

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    aside from the above environmental / political aside, what do you mean by the "public sphere"?
    most individuals in this country haven't taken a science course since high school and a good percentage of those folks didn't do well in that course and can't remember the first thing about it.

    I personally think the "public" is vastly scientifically illiterate and too emotionally driven to admit they don't know what the heck most science is referring to or how it impacts them or not in daily existence, as well as the downstream implications of scientifically driven changes....its easier to demonize and politicize most things because people understand "right and wrong", "left or right", etc. They cannot begin to comprehend large scientific studies however which ask finite questions....and generally gloss over from boredom the second the conversation starts.
    Last edited by bahueh; 12-01-2010 at 08:58 AM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Fredke
    Ahem: "There are 47 members with at least one math, science, or engineering degree and 29 with a degree in health sciences."

    List of members and degrees here.

    It seems ironic that in complaining about failure to appreciate science, you just post an "impression" without taking 10 seconds to test your hypothesis. What's your impression of the scientific method?
    Ahem! did you even spend 10 seconds to read through some of the so-called science and health science degrees? Licensed Practical Nurse, Therapeutic Recreation, Speech Therapy, Dietetics, Psychology, Industrial Management.

    The bigger mistake you make in your snarky post is assuming that someone with a degree in a science related major has any competency in science. Go talk to some B.S. Mechanical and Civil Engineers and see how much scinece they know.

    I wouldn't want to reach a false conclusion about the scientific competency of Congress based on the flawed methodology of looking for a list of member's degrees.

    My impression is strengthened, not weakened, by your link.

    It's better to call an impression an impression than it is to select data and deceive yourself into thinking you know more than you do,
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    Quote Originally Posted by bahueh
    They cannot begin to comprehend large scientific studies however which ask finite questions....and generally gloss over from boredom the second the conversation starts.
    I run into that on a regular basis. Ever tried to explain the difference between association and causality when talking about chemicals and human health effects? Or why something can be significant without being "significant"?

    I think the population as a whole needs to have a greater degree of scientific literacy, particularly given the speed at which technology is changing.

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    On the flip side, itʻs not uncommon for scientists to think of themselves above the fray and be reluctant to wade into political debates.

    Sam Harrisʻ The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values is on my reading list.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Reynolds531
    The bigger mistake you make in your snarky post...
    I'm sorry for my rude response to your post.
    Fredke commented in your thread. You won't believe what happens next!

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    Quote Originally Posted by Fredke
    I'm sorry for my rude response to your post.
    The mild rudeness doesn't bother me. Gotchya is part of the fun here. The flawed reasoning from you, one of the smarter, better educated, and more thoughtful people posting here, is disappointing.

    Specific case in point Todd Akin, my Representative to Congress, is on your linked list with a Mechanical Engineering Degree.

    He supports teaching Intelligent Design as science in public schools and this is his position on Global Warming:

    "Climate change is a hot topic in the scientific and political communities and increasingly important to the American people. As a member of the House Science and Technology Committee, Congressman Akin participates in hearings on global warming, including its causes and possible effects.

    While the political climate change debate rages, research continues as to the effects of human caused CO2. Although some of the physics and meteorology surrounding climate is well understood, the question of predicting future climate trends as well as man’s ability to definitively influence them is still an active field of scientific research. Moreover, despite our desire for complete certainty, we must understand that global climate is very complex phenomena. No one variable can be taken as the sole driver of climate and there exist cycles within cycles of meteorological variability. Scientists state that the planet has gone through many natural heating and cooling cycles over the last thousand years."
    Lugged Steel Treks

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    Quote Originally Posted by Reynolds531
    Ahem! did you even spend 10 seconds to read through some of the so-called science and health science degrees? Licensed Practical Nurse, Therapeutic Recreation, Speech Therapy, Dietetics, Psychology, Industrial Management.
    I counted

    6 with degrees in physics
    10 in chemistry (one was in biochemistry)
    10 in biology
    4 in mathematics (one with an additional masters in science education)

    So even with a pretty restrictive definition of science, that's 30. Add other fields, such as economics, which requires statistics and uses scientific methods for testing hypotheses, and you're well over 40.

    And that's assuming that no one understands science or statistics who didn't major in a strictly scientific field. Actually, I've had the good fortune to talk science with some members of Congress who had majored as undergraduates in such fields as philosophy and Latin American studies, but who had solid understandings of science because they'd paid attention in those classes despite not majoring.
    Fredke commented in your thread. You won't believe what happens next!

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    Quote Originally Posted by Reynolds531
    Specific case in point Todd Akin, my Representative to Congress, is on your linked list with a Mechanical Engineering Degree.

    He supports teaching Intelligent Design as science in public schools and this is his position on Global Warming:
    Of course, you can't claim that Richard Lindzen, John Christy, Fred Singer, Fred Seitz, Bill Nierenberg, Bob Jastrow, Hal Lewis, or Will Happer don't (or didn't; some are now dead) understand science. They're all scientists who have excelled in their research, but they're all bloody idiots about global warming nonetheless.

    Ronald Fisher, who invented modern statistics refused, to his dying day, to believe the statistical evidence connecting smoking to lung cancer.

    You can understand science and still be an idiot. In fact, one real problem that scientists (and physicists more than most) have is that they imagine that being expert in one field means that they can automatically be an expert in any other field without taking the time to learn its methods.
    Fredke commented in your thread. You won't believe what happens next!

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    Quote Originally Posted by jorgy
    On the flip side, itʻs not uncommon for scientists to think of themselves above the fray and be reluctant to wade into political debates.

    Sam Harrisʻ The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values is on my reading list.
    Probably a more rewarding read would be Jacob Bronowski's "Science and Human Values." It's a short book, very articulate, well written, and profound.
    Fredke commented in your thread. You won't believe what happens next!

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    Interesting topic

    I would state that only a small percentage of the population truly understands rigorous scientific study, and how scientific research is conducted....an even smaller percentage understands statistics in any meaningful manner.

    As politicians are generally a reflection of the public at large, this carries over to them, but it changes.

    Politicians are only interested in research or data, scientific or otherwise that supports or confirms their suppositions and/or furthers their own agendas. So, you can have two politicians look at the same study, and come to completely different opinions, even if the data is rocksolid.

    On a personal note, I am very interested in this discussion, as the time has come for me to choose a school for my daughter. I could easily send her to private school, but I really don't want to stigmatize her, or for her to grow up with a privileged sensability. Our public school system is pretty good, and they also offer some choice school options. One of which, Lincoln, focuses on science and technology.

    Last year, the sixth graders completed a study on the effects of alcohol on zebrafish embryos.....

    THAT is awesome. I'm submitting an application for her to go there, but I'm not sure if she'll be selected (lottery). At any rate, she is going to grow up with a heavy emphasis on science, math, and technology if I have any say in it.
    "I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative. I believe that is so obviously and universally admitted a principle that I hardly think any gentleman will deny it." John Stuart Mill, 1866

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    Quote Originally Posted by Fredke
    I counted

    6 with degrees in physics
    10 in chemistry (one was in biochemistry)
    10 in biology
    4 in mathematics (one with an additional masters in science education)

    So even with a pretty restrictive definition of science, that's 30. Add other fields, such as economics, which requires statistics and uses scientific methods for testing hypotheses, and you're well over 40.

    And that's assuming that no one understands science or statistics who didn't major in a strictly scientific field. Actually, I've had the good fortune to talk science with some members of Congress who had majored as undergraduates in such fields as philosophy and Latin American studies, but who had solid understandings of science because they'd paid attention in those classes despite not majoring.

    So what's your impression? 50 out of 535 congressmen and senators scientifically competent? 100? It should be 535!

    Physasst nailed it. Even most of the members that have some scientific knowledge make the mistake of searching for and finding evidence that supports their beliefs and agendas instead of examining evidence before reaching a conclusion.
    Lugged Steel Treks

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    m_s
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    Sorry to be vague

    But I wanted to hear other people's opinions first. Actually, I've been writing a paper for one of my classes which touches on the subject, but I've been interested in the intersection of science and policy for some time. I'll lift some of what I pulled together for the paper. Not looking for free feedback on it, I just thought it would be an interesting topic and a welcome break from the hotly partisan rancor which usually reigns supreme here.

    Something worth looking at is how the courts have treated science, both through legislative mandate and their own definitions. The Federal Rules of Evidence include this statement:

    If scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education, may testify thereto in the form of an opinion or otherwise.


    What strikes me about the above is that it does not differentiate between scientific knowledge and other forms of special expertise. Do you think this is right? Personally, my gut feeling--and one I think many would agree with--is that scientific information should be held in a higher regard than much other evidence in a legal setting. More so than just a general "expert witness." Science is supposed to be about the meticulous and structured collection of information rather than anecdotal knowledge, right? That gives it a privileged status.

    But then you have to have a definition of science. The courts have given us some. In the now (mostly) overturned standards put forward in the Frye case, the Supreme Court gave us the standard that science is that which is "generally accepted" within the scientific community. Some states still use this standard. Wiki Link.

    Now we have not only the Federal Rules of Evidence, but some definitions eagerly put forward in Daubert v Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals. In Daubert, non-epidemiological studies (those which were not directly studying humans) were dismissed due to two factors: the amount of epidemiological studies available which were assumed to be better/more relevant, and lack of peer review for the non-epidemiological studies and reanalyses. But is peer review a necessary tenet of scientific knowledge? Conroy et al. would probably find this reasonable, and none of the authors mentioned so far have directly attacked the notion of peer review. Here's what the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, whose decision was upheld by the Supreme Court, had to say:
    … unpublished reanalyses [are] "particularly problematic in light of the massive weight of the original published studies supporting [respondent's] position, all of which had undergone full scrutiny from the scientific community.


    I think in many ways the court's definition in Daubert reflects public views toward science, including reaffirmation of the scientific method and more so the peer review process. Think about it. The USSC says that science = peer review. That's pretty powerful. Unfortunately I also think it's an incomplete and somewhat arbitrary definition.

    I know I wasn't initially talking about court cases, but I think the legal history is pretty relevant to the policy arena.

  18. #18
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    Quote Originally Posted by physasst

    Politicians are only interested in research or data, scientific or otherwise that supports or confirms their suppositions and/or furthers their own agendas. So, you can have two politicians look at the same study, and come to completely different opinions, even if the data is rocksolid.

    That's scientists too though.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Reynolds531
    So what's your impression? 50 out of 535 congressmen and senators scientifically competent? 100? It should be 535!

    Physasst nailed it. Even most of the members that have some scientific knowledge make the mistake of searching for and finding evidence that supports their beliefs and agendas instead of examining evidence before reaching a conclusion.
    My judgment:

    Phys is right: this is a problem with scientists too. I see it a lot (and to be honest have to work hard to avoid it myself).

    As to how many in Congress need to be scientifically competent: That's not it at all. What they need is to know how to use expertise well. Read E.E. Schattschneider's "The Semi-Sovereign People." Schattschneider points out that you don't need to know much about fixing cars to get your car repaired. You just need to know how to use an expert. Congress is responsible for too many different kinds of things for Congressfolks to be competent in all of them. But they need to be able to figure out how to get competent non-partisan advice.

    The biggest thing I'd push for is not more scientifically trained Congresscritters, but to bring back the Office of Technology Assessment, which used to give solid non-partisan expert advice on technical issues. The National Research Council (established by Abraham Lincoln) is another good source of expert advice.
    Fredke commented in your thread. You won't believe what happens next!

  20. #20
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    Quote Originally Posted by m_s
    What strikes me about the above is that it does not differentiate between scientific knowledge and other forms of special expertise. Do you think this is right? Personally, my gut feeling--and one I think many would agree with--is that scientific information should be held in a higher regard than much other evidence in a legal setting.
    But take a look at Kumho vs. Carmichael. The complainant in a law suit tried to claim that an engineer could say any kind of crap as an expert witness, basically making stuff up with no scientific validity and justifying it as expert opinion, on the ground that engineering is not science, so the Daubert precedent did not apply.

    In Kumho, the court thew that out on the ground that engineering draws so much from science that its standards of evidence must be scientific. But the court also ruled that truly nonscientific fields, such as expertise in perfumes, can establish their own standards that can be very different from the kinds of scientific reasoning required by the Daubert principles.

    What you have to look at in understanding Daubert is not just rule 702, which you quote above, but also rule 402:
    All relevant evidence is admissible, except asotherwise provided by the Constitution of the United States, by Act of Congress, by these rules, or by other rules prescribed by the Supreme Court pursuant to statutory authority. Evidence which is not relevant is not admissible.
    Taken together, the court ruled in Daubert that to meet the standard of "knowledge" in rule 702, scientific testimony had to meet scientific standards of knowledge.

    It's also worth understanding that the Daubert decision was interpreting the rules of evidence enacted in 1975. In 2000, Congress amended the rules of evidence to enact the Daubert standard into law, so rule 702 now reads:
    If scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education, may testify thereto in the form of an opinion or otherwise, if (1) the testimony is based upon sufficient facts or data, (2) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods, and (3) the witness has applied the principles and methods reliably to the facts of the case.
    To understand the evolution of this rule, it's really worth reading the notes of the advisory committee on rules.

    Peer review is a notoriously poor standard for deciding what's good science. It's the best we've got, but it's designed to make judgments in a limited set of circumstances: what results to publish and what research to fund. It's a very poor match for deciding what to allow at trial or what to consider when writing law and regulatory standards.

    There have been famous cases of very important discoveries that did not pass peer review (e.g. Belousov's discovery of the clock reaction) and other equally famous cases of crap that passed through peer review but shouldn't have (see Feder and Stewart's dissection of stupid peer review in the case of John Darsee).

    Sheila Jasanoff, in her book The Fifth Branch has a very thoughtful discussion of the strengths and limitations of peer review regarding science that's used in policymaking. See also, D. Michaels, "Politicizing Peer Review: The Scientific Perspective," and S.A. Shapiro, "Politicizing Peer Review: The Legal Perspective," both in W. Wagner and R. Steinzor, eds., Rescuing Science from Politics: Regulation and the Distortion of Scientific Research (Cambridge, 2006).

    Back to your post: you make some factual errors there: Frye was not a Supreme Court case. It was decided by a circuit court (D.C. circuit), so technically it was not precedent anywhere else, but it was generally adopted because it made sense at the time. Take a closer look at the legislative history of rule 702 to understand that Congress was not just being stupid when it deliberately overrode Frye. Then look at how the character of litigation changed between 1975 and 1990 to get a sense of why the Supreme Court needed to revisit this question in detail rather than just rubber-stamping a simple reading of 702 (Daubert seems to me exactly the kind of "activist" ruling that many conservatives hate, except that most conservatives love Daubert, at least as far as it applies to civil litigation).

    Then look at how Daubert was applied by Judge Pollack in Llera-Plaza: latent fingerprint identification has not been subject to peer-reviewed testing, so Judge Pollack refused to allow expert testimony that identified a murderer on the basis of latent fingerprints he left on the victim's car window (Llera-Plaza was a member of a drug gang who murdered a witness who was going to testify against another member of the gang). Is this what you have in mind when you talk about peer review being the correct standard?

    This should give you some stuff to chew on... Don't say I didn't warn you that I could go on about this to the point of being boring!
    Fredke commented in your thread. You won't believe what happens next!

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    Quote Originally Posted by Fredke
    Ronald Fisher, who invented modern statistics refused, to his dying day, to believe the statistical evidence connecting smoking to lung cancer.

    You can understand science and still be an idiot. In fact, one real problem that scientists (and physicists more than most) have is that they imagine that being expert in one field means that they can automatically be an expert in any other field without taking the time to learn its methods.
    There are all kinds of examples of this. The latter is quite common when creationists trot out the scientists who oppose Darwinian evolution.

    I've found that if you know the science related to a given topic that shows up in the media nearly invariably the story doesn't get it quite right, and by and large the readers (as judged by the comments section) either don't understand what they've read or don't grasp the significance of it.

  22. #22
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    Quote Originally Posted by Fredke
    Ahem: "There are 47 members with at least one math, science, or engineering degree and 29 with a degree in health sciences."

    List of members and degrees here.

    It seems ironic that in complaining about failure to appreciate science, you just post an "impression" without taking 10 seconds to test your hypothesis. What's your impression of the scientific method?
    That's still a small minority in the House. How informed are politicians, really?

  23. #23
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    Quote Originally Posted by Fredke
    Peer review is a notoriously poor standard for deciding what's good science. It's the best we've got, but it's designed to make judgments in a limited set of circumstances: what results to publish and what research to fund. It's a very poor match for deciding what to allow at trial or what to consider when writing law and regulatory standards.

    There have been famous cases of very important discoveries that did not pass peer review (e.g. Belousov's discovery of the clock reaction) and other equally famous cases of crap that passed through peer review but shouldn't have (see Feder and Stewart's dissection of stupid peer review in the case of John Darsee).
    This is a tangent, but do you think the answer is to improve the peer review process or explore alternatives for scientific recognition? Both? Neither?

    Back to your post: you make some factual errors there: Frye was not a Supreme Court case. It was decided by a circuit court (D.C. circuit), so technically it was not precedent anywhere else, but it was generally adopted because it made sense at the time. Take a closer look at the legislative history of rule 702 to understand that Congress was not just being stupid when it deliberately overrode Frye. Then look at how the character of litigation changed between 1975 and 1990 to get a sense of why the Supreme Court needed to revisit this question in detail rather than just rubber-stamping a simple reading of 702 (Daubert seems to me exactly the kind of "activist" ruling that many conservatives hate, except that most conservatives love Daubert, at least as far as it applies to civil litigation).
    Apologies for the error. I did know that about Frye, but I guess it slipped my mind in the sort of stream of consciousness approach to my post! Please feel free to correct me if I make any other mistakes, it's all rather complicated. What I also found interesting about that ruling was the lack of citations. The judge didn't really give much reason for the general acceptance standard.

    You are right about Daubert being an "activist" ruling, in the sense that the court reached further than it had to. I think it's interesting that the dissent was by Stevens and Rehnquist, an unlikely pair in most cases. Have you ever read any of it? I think it's interesting:

    The Court constructs its argument by parsing the language "if scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, . . . an expert . . . may testify thereto . . . ." Fed. Rule Evid. 702. It stresses that the subject of the expert's testimony must be "scientific . . . knowledge," and points out that "scientific" "implies a grounding in the methods and procedures of science" and that the word "knowledge" "connotes more than subjective belief or unsupported speculation." From this it concludes that "scientific knowledge" must be "derived by the scientific method."
    ...
    The Court speaks of its confidence that federal judges can make a "preliminary assessment of whether the reasoning or methodology underlying the testimony is scientifically valid and of whether that reasoning or methodology properly can be applied to the facts in issue."
    ...
    I do not doubt that Rule 702 confides to the judge some gatekeeping responsibility in deciding questions of the admissibility of proffered expert testimony. But I do not think [*601] it imposes on them either the obligation or the authority to become amateur scientists in order to perform that role.

    Sorry for all of the quotes, but I think they reinforce your point.

    Fredke, thank you for your input. I'm very interested in this stuff but fairly new to thinking seriously about it.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Dwayne Barry
    There are all kinds of examples of this. The latter is quite common when creationists trot out the scientists who oppose Darwinian evolution.

    I've found that if you know the science related to a given topic that shows up in the media nearly invariably the story doesn't get it quite right, and by and large the readers (as judged by the comments section) either don't understand what they've read or don't grasp the significance of it.
    There are less extreme examples too. Stephen J. Gould, who I would call a defender of the scientific method, also believed that the standard of "testability" should not necessarily be required of all science. As a paleontologist, he was thinking of the necessity of considering "one-off" historical events in that field. You can't do experiments to learn about ancient fish species. It's easy for a physicist to say science should be conducted through controlled experiment only, but harder for a social scientist or ecologist.

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    I actually have a peer-reviewed...

    Quote Originally Posted by saf-t
    I run into that on a regular basis. Ever tried to explain the difference between association and causality when talking about chemicals and human health effects? Or why something can be significant without being "significant"?

    I think the population as a whole needs to have a greater degree of scientific literacy, particularly given the speed at which technology is changing.
    paper which takes about statistcally significant correlations that aren't really significant associations in clincial outcomes research. Its' a basic conversation for most statisticians but clinicians sometimes need to be reminded that a p-value is not gospel.

    I feel your pain. The paper required 5 reviewers since the stats was over the head of most of them...and it used only basic/descriptives stats, not hierarchial modeling, structural equations, clustering, polynomial transformations, or the like.

    The gloss over starts way earlier with those methods.

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