What does “Follow the Science” Really Mean?

Science is taking a big hit these days. It is difficult to view the news without seeing or hearing individuals speak on behalf of “science” often while contradicting it. We see individuals on social media being critical of science, politicians touting or bashing it, and entire industries praising or dismissing it, depending upon their political or personal views. So, I thought it might be helpful to provide a “science refresher” that helps us all understand what it really should mean when we say, “Let’s follow the science.”

THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD

Let’s take a trip back to Junior High School science class to talk about the Scientific Method. The Scientific Method (according to Wikipedia) is “an empirical method of acquiring knowledge that has characterized the development of science since at least the 17th century. It involves careful observation, applying rigorous skepticism about what is observed, given that cognitive assumptions can distort how one interprets the observation.” The key to the scientific method is to remove subjectivity from the conclusions drawn. There are several steps to the Scientific Method (some say 6 steps, others 8… I’ll split the difference and use 7 in my list):

  1. Observe (ask a question) – In this first step, we must understand what problem we are trying to solve or what question we are trying to answer. Unless we can adequately and accurately describe the problem, we won’t truly be able to determine if our work was successful. Lewis Carroll once said, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” The same is true in science. If you are a scientist investigating potential weed killers, you begin your work by asking, “What chemicals might be useful in eliminating dandelions from the lawn without harming desirable grass?” You have described a problem or question that is clear, concise, and is measurable.
  2. Background research – The next step in the scientific method is to conduct some basic assessment or research to determine an approach you can use to solve your problem. For killing dandelions, you might do a literature search on herbicidal chemicals. For solving medical issues, you might evaluate case numbers, incident rates, severity, prevalence, etc. The purpose of this step is to prepare you for the next critical step.
  3. Develop a hypothesis – This step is perhaps the most important step of the Scientific Method because everything that comes next hinges upon whether it addresses your proposed hypothesis. Will xyz chemical kill dandelions without harming grass? Will this new drug substance cure that specific medical issue (or at least mitigate it)? In essence, the hypothesis determines what you test, how you test it, and how you’ll evaluate the data to reach a conclusion.
  4. Test or experiment – Testing your hypothesis involves developing a protocol that identifies the methods you will use, how much testing will occur, what controls will be in place (controls ensure that you are measuring a targeted response to eliminate other factors), and what criteria will be used to assess your results. The Scientific Method requires that your testing protocols be written and specific to allow independent duplication of results. Unless your experiments and results can be independently repeated and verified, you have not eliminated all doubt in your results. For your dandelion killer, you will identify how much chemical to apply, when, and how to measure results… all compared to a control lawn that is not treated. In drug studies, the clinical studies usually occur in phases from phase I (small experimental groups) to phase IV (large-scale studies treating hundreds or thousands of patients). 
  5. Data analysis – Once the testing is completed, an assessment of data is required. Typically, this analysis will utilize statistical methods to compare the test group (treated) against the control group (untreated). Unless there is a clear, statistically valid difference in the results, the treatment is not successful. 
  6. Reach and report conclusions – After all data are analyzed, conclusions are reached. Have you proven your hypothesis as true? Did the treated group outperform the untreated group? What have you learned regarding the treatment? Are there additional studies needed? Conclusions should be objective… untainted by personal views or thoughts not observed or results not obtained during the experimental step.
  7. Communicate results – Finally, all good science is made available to others in the pursuit of knowledge and advancement of the field of study. Others should be able to replicate your studies and, perhaps, build upon what you have learned. Unless you are willing to share results (or publish them), your conclusions may be considered questionable.

This is the Scientific Method. Every scientist should know, understand, and utilize these steps when reaching conclusions about unknown scientific topics. This is what it really means to “Follow the Science.”

So, what does all this mean to us in this day of scientific misinformation? What should we look for when trying to decide for ourselves what to believe or not? How can we be discerning when reading news articles or watching TV reports of scientific happenings?

I believe there are 10 things to watch for when trying to decide what to believe. Let’s look at my list:

  1. Science is based on facts, not opinions – Don’t believe “scientific” reports what cannot be supported by data. Just because someone wants it does not make it true. Science must avoid personal opinions, expedience, politics, and greed.
  2. Be skeptical – When someone touts “science” be sure you assess the information based on what I’m sharing with you here. Don’t believe it just because someone wants it… or even if you want to believe it. Claims must be based on the facts ascertained through appropriate scientific methodology.
  3. Conclusions must address a specific problem (or hypothesis) – I have personally seen too many claims made based on hearsay or random results. If you throw enough spaghetti onto the wall, some is bound to stick. Ask how the objective results tie back to the specific problem or question the study was trying to answer.
  4. Experimentation must include proper controls – Unless a study is comparing treated subjects versus untreated, it is impossible to show that the treatment is effective. Unless the final conclusions state something like “… when compared to the untreated population…”, it may not hold up under scientific scrutiny.
  5. Data must be statistically relevant – Just because a treatment shows “…10% improvement versus the untreated group…” doesn’t mean the results are statistically relevant. If the test populations are small, this improvement may just be a random result. 
  6. Conclusions must tie to both the problem and the data – Don’t be fooled by conclusions that do not address the test protocol and hypothesis. There are many individuals that will attempt to interpolate one set of results to another problem or issue. 
  7. Results must be repeatable – True scientific results are always repeatable. If you cannot show the same result under the same conditions, you cannot be assured that the results are true or legitimate. Likewise, researchers that are unwilling to share their methods and data may be attempting to hide true results.
  8. Conclusions must be open to review and scrutiny – Science is empirical, but it welcomes healthy debate. Many scientists disagree about the conclusions of studies, but they are willing to have discussions openly and honestly. When you see individuals avoiding discussion or debate, it should raise questions about the legitimacy of the study.
  9. For medical products, safety, purity, and effectiveness must be proven – When dealing with medical products (drugs, medical devices, etc.), it is imperative (and required by FDA and global health authorities) that the products be proven safe, pure, and effective. These authorities are highly professional and not impacted by political or other pressure to approve products that fail to meet these criteria. Thus, in my opinion, if a product is approved (or, in the case of some, have received emergency approval), they have met these thresholds for use.
  10. Science is not untrue simply because we don’t like the results – Just because we don’t like the results, doesn’t mean the results are not correct or true. Science is objective. That does not mean that it is totally free from scrutiny, review, or debate… it simply means that science has no room for subjectivity. Certainly, scientists often offer opinions. But these are typically based upon extensive experience conducting true scientific studies or is based on their expert knowledge given the objective data available.

Certainly, the context of this piece is the discussion we have all heard surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. Much of what we hear or read cites “science” as the basis for requirements, restrictions, lockdowns, mandates, and limits. Some of this has at its core, true scientific information. However, much does not. Let me give some examples:

Science-based observations

  • Proper masks have been proven to be effective barriers against viral pathogens
  • All the approved COVID-19 vaccines have been proven to reduce the risk of serious infection
  • Proper distancing, ventilation, and sanitation can reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission in some indoor environments

Whether you like it or not, the scientific data are conclusive that each of the above statements are true. Scientific studies have been conducted that unequivocally prove each. That does not mean that they are 100%. It simply means that the preponderance of statistically based data provides objective evidence that the statements are true.

NOT Science-based observations

  • If one cloth mask is good, wearing 2 or 3 will double or triple your protection
  • You don’t need a vaccine if you take enough of the right vitamins and nutritional supplements
  • If you wear a mask into the restaurant and remove it completely at the table while you talk and eat, you are still protected from COVID-19 infections

Each of these statements has been touted as “following the science” without any evidence that they are true. This reminds me of the adage, “If enough people say it with enough conviction, it must be true whether or not it is.”

So, I hope this has been a helpful refresher. My takeaway is this… don’t allow someone fool you by touting as science something that has not nor could likely ever be proven using the rigors of true science. Be skeptical but have an open mind as you sort through the information presented to you in the news or on social media.

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