An Analogy for Science

I’m planning a series of posts on evaluating sources, especially after the recent Stanford study, but this aspect is a bit adjacent so I’ll write about it separately.

In Korea, students have to focus on either sciences or humanities from high school onwards. I teach at a humanities-focused school, and though my students are not scientifically illiterate, this past year has taught me that they lack a lot of basic skills in determining whether a scientific study is actually scientific.

One of the big problems I’ve been running up against is the existence of pseudoscience and the fact that my students are largely unaware of it. When they see a “scientific study” they assume it must be valid, a behavior I see in many adults as well.

The basic problem, before teaching about how to distinguish pseudoscience from actual science, is actually establishing what fake science is and why anyone would do it. Or, before that, that pseudoscience even exists.

To that end, I’ve been thinking of analogies. A good definition of science doesn’t imply that a single study guarantees absolute facts, but that we use science as a tool to make closer and closer approximations to the truth. Some people do things that mimic science, but omit the features that make real evidence obtainable.

It is like playing darts while wearing extremely strong reading glasses. The bullseye represents the actual truth about something, and we can only know it by throwing darts at it. Even if we hit it, we can’t be sure that we really have and so rely on others to try to check out victory for us, though they have their own glasses on. The scientific method is a means of taking small (occasionally large) steps closer to the dart board, so our aim gets better over time. Though we can’t take off our glasses (remove our biases), if we, and any scientists replicating our work, get to the point where we can reach out and put the dart in the board by touch, we can be reasonably sure that we’ve got the target right.

Pseudoscience, on the other hand, involves the same glasses and same dartboard, but instead of stepping closer, the thrower steps sideways. The fact that the thrower takes a step is assumed to mean that the step is in the right direction, but the fact of movement doesn’t imply that the movement is helpful. Eventually, a pseudoscience has taken so many steps to one side that the thrower is standing at a right angle to the target, so even with perfect aim, a bullseye would be impossible.

The glasses are a big problem, because even if we miss completely, they can make it look like we got a hit. It is only with more and better throws (and throwers) that we can actually learn something real and know that what we learned is in fact real.

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Jay teaches English in Asia and loves skepticism and teaching above all else.

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