Real Science vs. Fake Science

In writing this blog, I’m trying to teach myself science. Real science. At least, enough real science to be able to write competent science fiction.

My00 Astro-James

Since most news articles about science are embarrassingly unreliable (damn those shruggies!), I end up reading a lot of scientific papers. And there’s something I’ve noticed. It’s like there’s a pattern to how scientific papers are written (at least, the legitimate ones).

Science Done Right

Taken as a whole, scientific papers sort of read like this:

Hey, I (or we) just noticed this weird thing which might have implications for how we think about other things. Here’s my (or our) best guess about what’s going on here, and here’s all the details so you can check this weird thing out for yourself. Hopefully we (the scientific community) can get to the bottom of this mystery.

A recent paper on the Planet Nine hypothesis is a great example (click here). In the paper, researchers explain that they’ve noticed something odd happening in the scattered disk region of our Solar System.

The researchers’ best guess is that an as-yet-undetected planet is perturbing the scattered disk. They then present all their data. All of it. Not just the parts that support their hypothesis. This shows that the researchers didn’t cherry-pick data to suit their idea. And in the end, the paper suggests new lines of research that could help prove or disprove this whole Planet Nine thing.

Doing Science Wrong

I’ve also encountered another kind of paper, a paper that reads more like this:

I (or we) hereby proclaim a new discovery which proves (or disproves) this other thing. End of discussion.

Sometimes these papers will also say things like:

We did an experiment. You can trust that we did it right. Here is some of our data; just the stuff that we believe is relevant.

And often, these papers will end with a line like:

Why, oh why, is the scientific community conspiring against me (or us) to hide the truth?

Real Science vs. Fake Science

In order to understand how real science works, you have to also learn a little about fake science so that you can tell the difference.

Fortunately, fake science is fairly easy to identify. There are so many red flags: bold proclamations, lack of detail concerning experimental methods, withholding experimental data that is deemed “irrelevant.” The whole “conspiracy to hide the truth” thing comes up a lot too. According to fake scientists:

Anyone who disputes my brilliant theory must be part of the conspiracy!

Meanwhile, real scientific papers tend to feel like a conversation. Mind you, it’s not always a polite conversation. One paper might be an opening argument, the next a rebuttal, and so forth. Scientific egos bruise easily, it seems, but eventually some sort of consensus is achieved.

At least until someone notices another weird thing which might have implications for whatever the consensus opinion turned out to be.

11 Responses to Real Science vs. Fake Science

  1. I always have to check myself when I read science articles – I get drawn in pretty easily. This is a nice, handy reminder. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on SelfAwarePatterns and commented:
    One of the best and most succinct explanations of the difference between real science and pseudoscience that I’ve seen.

    Like

  3. ratamacue0 says:

    Got any illustrative examples of the fake science (papers)?

    Liked by 1 person

    • The cold fusion stuff, or these days LENR(low energy nuclear reactions), feels like the fake stuff, at least to me. But I’ll admit that impression comes completely from science news articles, not a first hand review of the actual papers.

      Liked by 2 people

    • James Pailly says:

      To be honest, I don’t really hold on to papers that I don’t consider legit. Maybe I should start doing that for future posts like this one.

      My first direct encounter with a fake scientific paper was a paper on the formation of the Moon. It was specifically focused on trying to determine the age of the Moon.

      The paper provided figures for the distance between the Earth and Moon, showing that the distance has increased over time, but it never said how these measurements were taken. At the time, I was naive enough that I didn’t think of that as a red flag. I just figured the distance to the Moon was widely available public knowledge.

      The paper then covered some incredibly complicated mathematical equations. The whole thing went right over my head, but that could have been my ignorance and not a fault with the paper. I still wouldn’t consider me not understanding math to be a red flag, necessarily, but if the math is presented in such a way that I do understand it, I find that very reassuring.

      These equations allegedly proved that the Moon broke away from the Earth only a few thousand years ago, and it has slowly been moving away from us ever since. This would mean the Moon is only a few thousand years old. About 6000 years old, to be precise.

      In the final paragraph, the paper concluded that the Moon’s age is consistent with the biblical account of creation, and expressed the authors’ hope that “atheist scientists” will stop resisting the truth and see reason.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Steve Ruis says:

    The people who allege scientific theories are hoaxes (Climate Change is a hoax designed to get grants for scientists, etc!) don’t understand scientists … or scientist’s egos. Most scientists would give their left arm to be able to prove their colleagues wrong (you can’t prove anything is right, but you can prove some things are wrong). Once a conspiracy of scientists reached two scientists involved, one would betray the other to prove him wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

    • James Pailly says:

      It’s true. Scientists are highly motivated to disprove each other. There can be a lot of resistance to a new idea among the scientific community, but if you’re a scientist who can prove a well established theory wrong, you are set for life.

      Like

  5. […] lot of the book seems to confirm a thought that I’ve had before (and written about before): be wary of purported scientists who won’t show their methods or data. Science is about sharing […]

    Like

  6. vyleetha says:

    I don’t know if you’ve seen this but thought you might find it interesting: http://www.compoundchem.com/2014/04/02/a-rough-guide-to-spotting-bad-science/
    (Sorry I am old, and yet new here, and do not know how to add an active link)

    Liked by 1 person

    • J.S. Pailly says:

      I had not seen that before! That’s a really good chart, especially when dealing with biomedical claims—a field that, I’ve noticed, tends to attract a lot more misrepresentation and fraud that most others.

      Like

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