Why you shouldn’t always trust scientists

Science is, without a doubt, the best methodology available to humankind to figure out how the world works. Every piece of research done within the framework of science goes through several rounds of reviews by other experts. This is done to ensure that all of the work has been done in an objective manner with no bias. Researchers who don’t follow the rules dictated by the modern scientific method quickly lose their reputation and become unemployable within their industry.

This, however, doesn’t mean that every scientific research is completely objective. And I am not even talking about outright scientific fraud, such as debunked research that concluded that vaccines cause Autism. There are instances where researchers follow all the prescribed rules, but what they present to the public is not how things are in reality. At best, such manipulations of scientific principles do not help anyone outside of the team that did the research. At worst, it can actually reinforce unhelpful beliefs in society and reduce the quality of people’s lives.

Let’s now go into the details to see how such misdeeds happen. I hope that, after reading this, you will know what to look out for. You will learn to spot a potentially biased science. You will also learn how to tell the difference between actual science and a personal opinion of a scientist.

Exploring only one aspect of a subject as per vested interests

When I was studying for my Biology degree, I had to complete a dissertation. My task was to determine whether a certain compound extracted from garlic can be used as a pesticide against slugs. In my planning, I came up with two experiments.

In the first one, I have split the slugs into two groups. For the control group, a piece of cardboard was dipped into distilled water and the slugs were touched with it. The same happened to the treatment group, but this time, the cardboard was dipped into garlic solution.

The results were very clear. The slugs in the control group didn’t react to the wet piece of cardboard in any obvious way. At the same time, every single slug in the other group curled up and showed some obvious signs of discomfort. So, does a 100% reaction rate suggest that garlic can be used against slugs? My second experiment showed that it wasn’t quite the case.

In my second experiment, slugs were left overnight in individual Petri dishes with lettuce. The control group had untreated lettuce leaves, while the treatment group had its lettuce soaked in garlic solution. The next morning there was no significant difference in the amount of lettuce eaten by either of the groups. This, on its own, indicates that garlic has absolutely zero effect as a pesticide.

However, as I had such a big disparity between the experiment results, it made me think. What would have happened if my long-term funding actually depended on the particular outcome of the research?

If a particular experiment would be strongly showing the desired result, but a different experiment wouldn’t, what would stop me from not publishing the undesired results? After all, not everyone’s sense of ethics is good. Someone could design several different experiments similar to the one that has produced the desired results. But they could make them sufficiently different from each other to make the research look objective.

With this setup, it can be easily argued that the problem has been examined from different angles. This would put some wool over the eyes of the peer reviewers. Anyone who would want to repeat published experiments will get the same results as I did. Therefore nobody would be able to argue that someone has committed fraud.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t just my thoughts. Things like this actually happen in real science and, when they do, they often cause misery.

Why I would avoid antidepressants

A good example of this is the science behind antidepressants. Without a doubt, every type of antidepressant has gone through vigorous testing and a peer review process. But because the market for prescribing these drugs is very lucrative, experiments were published selectively. This is why, despite the name, antidepressants often don’t cure depression. On the contrary, they cause a whole range of psychological problems.

Abuse of science behind antidepressants continues. For years, psychiatrists have been updating the official definition of depression and its diagnosis guide. Because of this, more and more people were falling under the category of being depressed.

The guide would class you as “mildly depressed” if you have felt tired or sad in a given week. However, the questionnaire doesn’t consider the fact that the person answering it might just be a keen gym goer. Or maybe the person performs physical work, where tiredness is an expected daily outcome.

In the UK, representatives of the pharmaceutical industry incentivize doctors working for National Health Service (NHS) to prescribe antidepressants for ailments ranging from insomnia to back pain. Each of these prescriptions is based on cherry-picked research results. While lining the pockets of medical doctors and salespeople from Big Pharma, this practice has a sinister effect. Sometimes it drives people who previously only had some physical pain to kill themselves.

You might be able to cure your own myopia

Another branch of science where only specific directions of research are considered is ophthalmology. A commonly accepted idea within this field is that myopia (i.e. nearsightedness) is incurable on its own. Only a surgical operation can cure it. Until then, you have to wear glasses.

However, there are many testimonies where people claimed that they were able to cure their myopia themselves. Even in the most severe cases, it could be done, just by performing certain eye exercises. These claims are usually disputed by ophthalmologists. However, there was never any significant effort from their side to investigate them properly.

I had a mild myopia for at least 14 years and, over this period of time, it didn’t get worse. And I attribute it to the fact that I didn’t follow the official advice made by ophthalmologists. I was supposed to wear glasses all the time, but I didn’t. I wear mine only when I am legally required to do so, for example, when I drive.

Doing some of the popular eye exercises, such as palming, had some positive effects on my eyesight. However, the effect only lasted for a relatively short duration after the exercises.

My myopia wasn’t eliminated completely. But it’s not possible to tell whether it’s because the exercises aren’t effective. Perhaps it’s only because I never committed to doing them regularly due to their time-consuming nature. I have also observed that many people who unlike myself, have followed the advice to wear glasses all the time had their myopia worsening over the years.

Whether it is possible to improve your eyesight naturally, I don’t know. However, I would not hold my breath for any proper scientific research in this area to happen. Ophthalmological research is funded by the sales of glasses and eyesight correction surgeries. So it is very unlikely that the industry will be willing to research something that can, potentially, cut off the main sources of its income.

Smoking might be nothing more than a bad habit

The topic of tobacco addiction is another area where abuse of science happens. The idea that nicotine is addictive is so tightly embedded in society that hardly anybody ever questions it. However, some research indicates that nicotine is not addictive after all.

One may think that the Big Tobacco industry would be fighting against the nicotine addiction hypothesis. Well, yes, this is precisely what the tobacco corporation did publicly in the past. However, it appears that Big Tobacco has actually been suppressing research results that suggested that nicotine is not addictive.

The nicotine addiction hypothesis is actually quite a lucrative idea. Marketing smoking as a cool activity is effective in making people start smoking. And making people believe that nicotine is addictive prevents people from stopping. As well as this, this hypothesis creates a market for a whole range of nicotine replacement products. These include plasters, chewing gums, and, more recently, e-cigarettes.

I used to smoke a packet a day and I have been able to give up the habit for good. I’ve simply convinced myself that, rather than being a full-blown addiction, smoking is just a habit. Similar to picking your nose.

I don’t recall feeling any withdrawal symptoms after I had my last cigarette. Perhaps, this is similar to how people stop smoking with nicotine gums or plasters. It’s not the nicotine that they consume. It’s the mere belief that this is how they can stop smoking that helps them ultimately kick the habit.

Nicotine addiction may be just a placebo effect. However, a large industry, much bigger than Big Tobacco on its own, depends on the idea. So it is unlikely that any research that could dismiss the nicotine addiction hypothesis will ever be widely publicized.

Overconfident interpretation of incomplete data

Sometimes, prominent scientists provide public interpretation of some research results in an overconfident manner when the data itself is very limited. Technically, their interpretation does not contradict the data, but because the data is so sparse, the conclusion that they make is premature at best or incorrect at worst. More often than not, this is done to promote a certain political or personal agenda.

One example of this is the fat gene hypothesis which states that people who have a particular gene are likely to get obese regardless of their lifestyle. The data, however, only partially supports this. This idea is currently being widely promoted by scientists through the popular media. This is probably done as an attempt to use science as a tool against harassment of severely overweight people.

It helps people to not feel bad about themselves, as it makes them believe their obesity is not their fault. According to this hypothesis, no criticism against such a person would be justified, as the outcome does not depend on their personal choices. However, if this hypothesis is not totally correct, then this notion is actually doing more harm than good.

Telling obese people that their weight problems are entirely caused by their genes may preserve their feelings. But is also an equivalent of sentencing them to indefinite imprisonment. It is not their fault, but there is nothing that can be done about it either. They have to accept it and live with it. However, telling people how it is, that the currently available data merely indicates that certain genes make people prone to obesity, but don’t, on their own, guarantee obesity, gives people hope. People then know that it’s still up to them to get to a healthy weight. They can achieve it if this is what they want. As long as they are willing to take all of the necessary steps to achieve it.

Whether or not you believe that you can, you are right

Another hypothesis that some scientists try to promote, despite almost zero evidence, is that free will doesn’t exist. Of course, this is an almost impossible topic to research. So proponents of this theory revert to the philosophical argument while trying to present it as science.

The argument is that the mind of every person is nothing more than the sum total of unique experiences, genetics, instincts, and pure chance. A combination of these factors is the only thing that causes people to make choices.

This is true to some extent. However, any sane person knows that, despite your subconscious urges, you are still free to make choices. A person with strong willpower is able to choose an action that he or she considers to be right. That is even when all of the subconscious urges scream at them to do the opposite. Will can be defined as the ability to make conscious choices. And it is no coincidence that the degree to which a person is able to override urges is called willpower.

The consequence of the idea that free will doesn’t exist is that people who accept it tend not to try hard. Studies indicate that people who believe in free will are much more likely to work on themselves. They also tend to do what they believe is right more than the ones who don’t.

Why unconscious bias test is rubbish

The next example is the subject of unconscious bias, a topic that gets heavily promoted in the corporate world. There is some evidence that such a thing really exists. However, with the current knowledge, measuring it is nearly impossible. This did not stop Harvard University from developing an Implicit Bias Test, claiming that this is how it can be measured.

When I had a look at the test, I was less than impressed. The test is split into several categories, such as race, gender, religion, and sexuality. The participants are then presented with two collections of opposites. For example, for the test that asks about the participant’s attitude towards traditional gender roles, the participant is presented with male/female and career/home options. The opposites from each collection are placed on the different sides of the screen. When the test starts, words appear on the screen. The user is supposed to press the button corresponding to the side that the category that the word belongs to is located on. For example, if the category “male” is placed on the right, you are supposed to press the right button when the word “Duncan” appears.

The test measures how quickly the user responds. After the first round, the opposites from one set switch their places. So, for example, if the word “home” appeared on the left in the first round, it will appear on the right in the second round. Therefore, in the second round, the user is expected to press the opposite button to whichever they were pressing in the first round when a word from this category appears on the screen. However, the other category still has its opposites located on the same sides of the screen as in the previous round.

The authors of the test, who are qualified psychologists and should really know better, insist that implicit bias is demonstrated when users react significantly quicker in one of the rounds compared to the other. The slowness of reaction is explained by the inability of a participant to link two categories together. For example, if a participant was pressing the buttons quickly when male and career were placed on the left and female and home were placed on the right, but slowed down when home and career were switched, it is assumed that the participant has a strong bias towards traditional gender roles and struggles to link “female” with “career”.

However, many reputable scientists dispute that it is the case. It is a well-known fact that many people find it easier to learn a completely new pattern of actions than learn a pattern that is opposite to the one that is already known to them. So, when participants were slowing down in round two, other factors can explain it. It doesn’t necessarily have to be unconscious bias.

A good gamer can beat the unconscious bias test

I don’t know whether it was a coincidence or not, but, after taking a number of tests, I have noticed that the first combination of categories would always correspond to what a stereotypical politically conservative person would believe. For example, the home/career test that I have already described would start by showing “female” on the same side as “home” in the first round.

Another test compared the attitude towards Arab Muslims against the attitude toward other people. “Negative emotions” were initially on the same side as “Arab Muslims”. “Positive emotions”, however, were on the same side as “other people”.

So, perhaps the authors have deliberately designed it so most of the participants would slow down in round two. Maybe they wanted to manufacture the idea that the bias is widespread. The fact that Arab (ethnicity) strongly ties to Muslim (religion) in the test, despite those categories not always being the same in real life, further suggests political motives behind the test.

As I used to be a keen gamer, my button-pressing reaction was generally quick. And, for all the tests that I took, the results were either no bias or a slight bias. It was true even for the categories where I thought that I did have a relatively strong bias.

What was odd, however, is when I asked some of my friends to complete the test, some of them were consistently shown to be strongly racist, sexist, or homophobic. It even applied to people with strong left-leaning liberal views. Coincidentally, these people told me that they weren’t into video games.

Despite its lack of scientific validity, the test was highly promoted to be used by corporations to increase workplace diversity. The implications are that people may receive unnecessary counseling. Or some may even be called to disciplinary meetings. All because of a test that probably has no basis in reality. Some companies have already made unconscious bias training mandatory.

Dismissing something that works when science doesn’t offer an explanation

Religion often attracts people who would feel uncomfortable believing that the physical measurable universe is all it is. Science often attracts the opposite kind of person: someone who would feel extremely uncomfortable accepting the reality where the physical measurable universe was not the only thing in existence.

When this is nothing more than a personal conviction, then it can be helpful for a scientist to have this attitude, as it would help him to not get distracted by anything that cannot be measured in an objective manner. However, what scientists with such a view often do is try to impose it on the general public.

Mind over matter is real, yet scientists deny it

The term “placebo effect” is often used by scientists as something that should be dismissed. For example, pharmaceutical drugs that have not performed better than a placebo with no active ingredients are rejected in clinical trials. However, if you’ll think carefully about what the placebo effect is, it will become apparent that it is one of the most powerful functions of the human mind, as it can alter certain aspects of the physical reality merely by the power of thought.

The placebo effect is sometimes used to describe a situation where symptoms of an illness were eliminated, while the physical root cause of the symptoms was left intact. For example, somebody may have a severe infection but temporarily feel no pain. But the placebo effect can also be something much more than that. The term is also applied to situations where the actual physical root causes of a problem disappear simply because a patient starts to strongly expect them to.

People knew of the existence of this powerful mind-over-matter effect for millennia. This is why all major religions put quite a lot of emphasis on the power of faith.

Wim Hof, who is also known as “The Iceman”, spends his life demonstrating the placebo effect in action. He can withstand extremely cold temperatures for prolonged periods of time just by breathing in a certain way and believing that his body is fully capable of this. However, it doesn’t stop there. He and his followers were tested in a laboratory, where they were injected with high doses of pathogenic bacteria. All participants of the experiment were able to consciously switch on their autonomic immune system, the one that many scientists insist cannot be consciously switched on, and completely eliminate all traces of the infection within minutes. As Wim Hof later stated, all of this was done just by breathing in a certain way and believing that it can be done.

Cases like this demonstrate that it may be possible for humans to keep healthy just by believing that their health is strong and performing certain rituals to reinforce their beliefs. However, the combination of the facts that many scientists find it uncomfortable to work with something that cannot be deconstructed in the lab and that, once widely accepted, has the potential to substantially reduce the need for certain industries related to the field of medicine keeps miraculous properties of placebo effect well away from awareness of an average person.

When scientists try to eliminate beliefs that make life better

It is a well-known fact that many scientists are atheists. This is not because science has disproved the existence of any intelligent forces outside of the physical universe. At best, science has proven that the literal interpretation of some passages from popular religious texts is incorrect. The main reason why many scientists are atheists is that most people who start a career in science have a presupposition that the physical universe is all there is before they even start their careers.

Whether or not any intelligent entities exist outside of the measurable physical universe, believing that there is more to the physical universe than can be measured tends to fill people’s lives with meaning. And such beliefs are not always irrational either. Enough people have reported life-changing religious experiences to conclude that the type of the experience itself is a very real phenomenon.

I am not including the experiences where people hallucinate, hear voices, and become unstable in this definition. The spiritual experiences I am talking about are the ones that cause people to reevaluate their lives, instantly drop their long-term bad habits and, ultimately, change their lives for the better.

William Wilson, one of the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, had a religious experience that made him instantly quit drinking. Oprah Winfrey had a religious experience that completely turned her life around and helped her to acquire the mindset that eventually helped her to become a billionaire TV presenter. So did many other people.

There are even well-documented cases where people with criminal sociopathic tendencies or even clinical psychopaths have turned their lives around for the better because of some spiritual experiences, something that is impossible according to the current scientific understanding of how habits work.

Gaps in argument in favor of militant atheism

One of the prominent scientists (or an ex-scientist, to be precise) who actively promotes atheism is Richard Dawkins. He wrote a book called The God Delusion. In the introduction to the book, he has stated that the arguments presented in the book are so irrefutable, that any rational person who would commit to reading it will become an atheist.

Well, I must say that I have read the book from cover to cover and it certainly failed to convince me to become an atheist. The main reason for this was that what the book said was radically different from my own experiences.

To describe religious people, Richard Dawkins cherry-picked the worst and the most bigoted examples of them, while presenting those as typical. However, in real life, there are plenty of religious people around, but chances of meeting a bigoted Biblical literalist like the book describes are pretty low unless you live in specific communities.

In some places, Professor Dawkins makes factually incorrect statements. For example, he asserts that many people throughout history were murdered for the sake of religion, but nobody was ever murdered for the sake of atheism. This statement completely ignores the fact that, in the 20th century alone, millions of people were murdered by far-left dictators in Russia, China, and South-East Asia for their religious beliefs precisely in order to enforce atheism.

A typical atheist is now how it’s presented in pop culture

Finally, Richard Dawkins asserts that the majority of atheists are just like him: well-educated, articulate, and generally pleasant to be with. However, the majority of atheists that I have met were nihilistic. Many of them had serious problems, such as uncontrollable drinking, drug habits, or criminality. After all, if life is just a random game of dice with no purpose, why not just do whatever we want at a given moment? On the other hand, the vast majority of religious people that I have met were exactly the opposite: they led meaningful lives and had all their affairs in order.

It would be statistically impossible to have a typical atheist resemble Richard Dawkins. Moreover, there is no such thing as a typical atheist. Based on the fact that a large proportion of the Western population are atheists, but only a small number of people have completed advanced education, the chances are that the majority of atheists are very different from Richard Dawkins.

A typical religious person is not a bigot

The majority of religious people that I ever knew treated concepts like the literal reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ as much less important compared to building your character and following a set of principles that will allow you to do things that are good for yourself, good for your family and good for the society. Therefore, although militant atheists try to get rid of superstition within society, there is a risk that what they will end up destroying instead is the idea that it’s necessary to strive to be the best possible version of yourself.

That would be a perfect example of throwing the baby away with the bathwater. So, only because a group of people feels uncomfortable about the idea that there may be some aspects of reality that are unknowable, they may, inadvertently, end up destroying the very fabric of civilized society by trying to make the rest of the world think the same way. This is exactly what happened in Russia after a big proportion of its largely uneducated population was convinced that the visible physical reality is all there is.

What can you do to not be manipulated

This article certainly was not intended to be anti-science. Despite all of these examples, science remains the best available fact-finding tool. However, the article was deliberately intended to be anti-bad-science, anti-overconfident-science, and anti-something-else-presented-as-science.

So, after realizing that the abuses in science are so widespread, what can you do to ensure that you are not misled?

First of all, I would never take for granted any hypothesis, only because it has been widely accepted for a long time. I would always try to think if any large organization or industry directly benefits from the theory being perpetuated. If something that a scientist says goes against your gut instinct, assume that your gut instinct is right and verify this information from other sources that you consider to be reliable. Finally, never trust anyone who tells you something that contradicts your personal experience.

People often say that personal experience is the worst source of information. It is true when it applies to situations where personal experience doesn’t provide the whole answer due to its limitations. If we would rely solely on our personal experience, most of us would believe that the Earth is flat, simply because we perceived only a tiny fraction of the sphere, which looks flat to us. In this case, scientific measurements of the Earth allow us to see much further than the horizon and allow us to confirm that the Earth is round.

However, when somebody is telling you that the sky is yellow and the sun is green, or anything else of that sort that obviously contradicts your personal experience, then it’s your personal experience you should rely on.