Science has been thrust into the spotlight recently after spending much of the last century hidden in university laboratories and dry scientific journals.
Now that science — from EPA regulations to the consequences of climate change to scientists marching on Washington — is regularly featured in politics and on the news, how are those of us without PhDs supposed to understand what’s true and what’s political spin? And why should we care at all?
That’s exactly what Cornelia Dean explores in her new book, “Making Sense of Science.” The 250 pages read like an instruction manual (albeit an engaging one) on how to understand science today. Dean, who spent 30 years covering science for The New York Times and six years as its science editor, relies heavily on her years of journalism in the book.
Dean explains how, despite living in an “age of science,” the American public is largely ignorant about what science is and how it works. Dean blames both a flawed science education system and how our brains work. Dean explains how humans aren’t wired to understand statistics and have a hard time believing things that contradict what we already think. We tend to believe whatever poses the least resistance to our existing beliefs.
This problem isn’t just among those lacking formal education. San Francisco — among the wealthiest and most educated cities in the country — is a hub of the anti-vaccination campaign.
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Dean offers a series of short stories about facts in science — cellphones don’t cause brain cancer, vaccines don’t cause autism, peanut-allergies are not widespread enough for schools to justify being “nut free” — to illustrate what science is and how it actually works.
“A researcher makes a hypothesis and designs an experiment, or a series of observations, to test it. The results either support the hypothesis or undermine it. If the hypothesis holds up, others attempt to replica the work, looking for flaws in the idea,” Dean writes. Once a hypothesis has enough evidence to support it, it becomes widely accepted.
That’s all science is.
Science isn’t a perfect system. It gets things wrong, it follows dead ends and is a pretty slow process. Science can’t even determine if something is 100 percent true. All it can do is demonstrate a theory that can withstand every attempt to prove it wrong. That’s how we know the Earth is round. That same process — and level of evidence — has shown that vaccines and GMOs are safe, that evolution exists and that the universe started with the Big Bang.
In “Making Sense of Science,” the appendix is actually worth a read — it is as important as the rest of the book. Dean offers a step-by-step guide for evaluating science. In a few simple steps, she explains how to decide who is an expert, how to understand data, what you need to do to read science and figure out whether someone is lying to you. She even includes a list of questions that you can ask your doctor during your next visit.
If science leaves you with a headache trying to figure out what’s true, what it all means and who to trust, Dean’s book is a great place to start.
Koby Michaels is a science writer.
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