Evolution, climate change, and uncertainty: why understanding the process of science matters

As the National Center For Science Education has been demonstrating for some time now, denying biological evolution and denying climate change are part of a larger phenomenon related to science illiteracy.   But I think we often tend to conflate the knowing of scientific data with knowing the process of science itself.  As a college professor, I can tell you that  smart students who know a lot about the natural world don’t always actually know the process of science.  In one of my first lectures to undergraduates in the introductory biology majors course, when I press them to define science, hypothesis, and so on, very few can.  And I have come to believe that our current societal issue with accepting science is a fundamental misunderstanding of the process, not simply a dearth of facts.

In my undergraduate days, I was a climate change denier.  That’s correct — I felt that the evidence was at best equivocal for global warming.  If you couldn’t prove it directly, how confident could we be?  In fact, I felt a good amount of the environmental “science” out there was nothing more than misplaced hysteria or political propaganda. For those who do know me and my political leanings, you are probably surprised.

So I speak from experience when I say that I understand the reservations among many people when it comes to climate change.  Ask any climate scientist, and they will never tell you with 100% certainty that their predictions will come to pass.  In fact, these scientists rely on models of climate, and those models are a hypothesis of reality, not reality itself.  Remember, I was a science major with aspirations of becoming a paleontologist, so my undergraduate self decided that if we couldn’t be certain, we shouldn’t go around broadcasting that it was the end of the world.  In my undergraduate head, the best science was certain, and that was why paleontology was so difficult — a lot of uncertainty.

So here’s the thing — a climate scientist can show you a lot of data (see below), and can tell you based on their expertise which are the most probable outcomes of current trends, but if you were my undergraduate self, you would not be convinced.

From Wikipedia Commons: “This image is a comparison of 10 different published reconstructions of mean temperature changes during the 2nd millennium.”

Whether or not my younger self (let alone my older self) was stubborn or simply a bit daft (probably both), I again point out a key feature in the thought process: if it isn’t certain, it’s not good science.

So, the assumption or implication that good science is certain is the first part of the puzzle.  The second part of the stubbornness by many of us to accept climate change or perhaps biological evolution is that we want evidence presented in a court room.  We want the TV show Law & Order, and we want the good lawyer to give us an iron-clad argument, or to show that our opponent is a lesser person, or to literally give us a smoking gun.  We are convinced that science works like this, and that the person with the best argument and evidence wins.  And most importantly, that the winner stays the winner.  Nothing can ever overturn the win.  Good science should be certain and win the day’s argument, for now and forever.

But of course, science has little or nothing to do with certainty and court room drama.  There is no certainty in science — there is simply probability.  Because a good scientist recognizes that we are only human, and we can only realistically deal in samples, we can’t measure every aspect of the known universe, and we certainly can’t have all the data on all the clouds, carbon dioxide, and local temperatures.  Therefore, a good scientist will never say they have “proved” something — rather, they will indicate that their data suggest certain scenarios are more probable than others.  The higher the probability, the more confident one can be that the predictions may come to pass.

It took a while for this concept to sink in with me.  It took graduate school and having to do science, and taking an excellent seminar from Professor Emeritus Ronald Toth at Northern Illinois University, that finally made science as a process click.

(As an important aside, much of my thinking as a scientist I owe to Ron — so the “smart” stuff I say about evolution and science are me emulating him.  My evolution podcasts and understanding evolution website are extensions [and I hope a sincere form of flattery] of Ron’s approach.  Thank you, Ron!)

That means, as someone who earned a B.S. in Geology with a Biology major, I had no real concrete idea about science as a process!  I am not surprised nor judgmental that many of our undergraduates, let alone the larger public, don’t understand this either — but this I believe is what needs to be most addressed.

Even if you do succeed in uncovering something new or accurately predicting a trend, there will always be new data. The complaint you often hear about science is how we keep changing our damn minds — we knew Pluto was a planet, or we knew that birds were not dinosaurs, or we knew that cholesterol was bad, and so on. But the process of science requires that one keep testing the hypothesis, and to incorporate new data as it comes in.  So we’re not changing our minds to tick you off — we adapting our models and our understanding of the natural world as more data come rolling in.

What I realized at long last in graduate school was that scientists speak in probabilities.  And when you think about it, we deal in probabilities all the time, and we make decisions based on those probabilities, and we are okay with that.  Every time you get in a car, there is a probability you will be in an accident … but you probably still get in that car.  Imagine if someone told you that unless you could 100% guarantee that no accidents would ever occur, it was pointless to drive.

Okay, but now for something more ominous: what about the probability that you will get sick if you ingest salmonella bacteria.  I have been sickened myself by this nasty “bug,” and many people have died from salmonella poisoning.  But there will always be cases where someone ingests salmonella or another pathogen and doesn’t become sick.  Now imagine a friend tells you that since every time a person has ingested salmonella they haven’t always become ill or died, we don’t have enough data to know whether or not it is truly deadly.  Therefore, wasting money and resources on preventing the spread of salmonella is not advisable because we can’t know with 100% certainty that everyone who ingests it will get sick or die.  This person would probably not remain your friend for long.

Probability in science works along this spectrum — from low to high odds.  Low odds: you will be hit in the head and killed by a rouge meteorite tomorrow.  High odds: the climate will continue to change, with an overall trend toward higher global temperatures.  Can we be certain climate will change in these ways?  Not 100%.  But the probabilities are high … and that’s why we should be concerned: the scientific predictions of increasing global temperatures suggest our world will change in ways that, if we are not prepared, will be devastating.  Of course, we could wait until we’re certain, and we could wait for the ultimate court room battle of the sciences … but if the probabilities are high, why wait?  What are waiting for?  Waiting for all the data to come in (which will never happen) and waiting for 100% certainty (which will never happen) is simply another way of doing nothing in the face of probable danger.

If you understand that the process of science is by its very nature is one based on probability, not certainty, I think we begin to get to the heart of the scientific illiteracy problem.  Giving people more and more data won’t help if they sincerely believe that uncertainty means no one knows anything.  This is, I believe, the core issue with science literacy — and why our politicians, our media, and our public are so often mislead to disregard good science and its important predictions that effect us all.

Why “Jumping the Shark” Matters for Science Programming

A real, live shark. Original image: Carcharhinus-amblyrynchos.jpg by Fbattail at fr.wikipedia, March 14, 2004

The Discovery Channel is a commercial network that, like all networks, functions to make money.  It does this, like all commercial networks, by selling airtime to advertisers who hope you will watch the shows and, as a consequence, have a seed planted in your head to buy their products.  There is nothing necessarily “evil” or “wrong” about this — this is capitalism, and this is the mechanism by which we have been getting our TV shows for a very long time.

Shark Week is perhaps the most famous and certainly biggest money maker for Discovery that continues to draw many, many viewers that advertisers hope will come in droves to buy whatever it is they make and sell.  People like sharks.  I like sharks — they are so fascinating that I actually published a paper with a former undergraduate on tail growth in spiny dogfish!

And I have to believe that at some level or another, one of the positive byproducts of Shark Week and many of Discovery’s shows (including Mythbusters, which I simply can’t get enough of) has been to get the lay public and children interested in the natural world and the role that science plays in helping us understand that world.  I also believe many of the people who work for and create programs for Discovery have education as a goal in mind, if not just the bottom line.

This said, I, like many of my colleagues who are biologists and paleontologists, were disappointed and disheartened to see the new “mockumentary” Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives  In some ways this is not a surprising development for Discovery, because it has previously aired the ridiculous but equally “convincing” Mermaids: The Body Found.  But this is all good fun, right?  It’s all entertainment, what’s the harm?

When Fonzie literally jumped a shark on the classic television program Happy Days, that was when the audience knew the producers were out of ideas and were getting desperate  for ratings.  Many have now made that same comparison with Discovery’s Shark Week — except this time they “jumped” a prehistoric shark but probably for similar reasons.  But again, so what, the Discovery network can do what it wants — it’s commercial and you tune in to tune out, so to speak.

I wish it were that simple.  I wish I could simply shrug this off as “edutainment,” but the sad part is that I cannot.  Because what Discovery has basically done is told us that profits can only be made by selling to the least common denominator, and that the real world is too “boring” for anyone to care.  In essence, despite the always heightened interest and excitement that the public and children have for these magnificent ocean predators, that just isn’t enough.  It’s not enough that sharks rank among the most intelligent of the “fishes,” or that their lineage goes back over 400 million years, or that many of their prehistoric ancestors were unbelievably beautiful, interesting, and, most of all, real.  Nope.  None of that is enough to draw viewers and make a profit.  Only by making up fake stories about sharks will anyone pay attention.  Their fake, still-living Megalodon is better than real natural history and real sharks.

Discovery, by airing this show, not only has suggested as a network that its watchers are too ignorant to want real information, but has denigrated the process of real science.  Paleontology in particular is presented as an almost purely speculative, armchair discipline.  In essence, Discovery is telling its audience, “Hey, you know those stuffy ivory tower Ph.D.s, they’re no fun, and anyways paleontology involves looking at fragments of dead things and making up what sounds best.”  As my colleagues and I can attest, if this is what paleontology were, none of us would be the least bit interested in doing it.  Paleontology is as much a science as physics, involving the testing of hypotheses against real-world data and admitting where we don’t have all the answers.

Here is how sad this whole thing is for scientists like myself.  We know the fossil record, we know our biology, and we know this “stuff” because we have special training.  That Ph.D. we have?  Yeah, it means we’re experts.  Not geniuses, not the all-knowing-all-powerful Oz, but experts in what we do.  If you are going into heart surgery, you want the heart surgeon expert — you don’t want some guy or gal who happens to have seen lots of pretty heart pictures and says, “Psh, this supposed doctor of yours says this is risky — not if I did it!” or “But what do they really know?  Stuffy doctors haven’t seen this really cool heart picture.”  That would be downright ludicrous, and yet my colleagues and I are as qualified to tell you about fossils and their biological implications as that medical doctor is to fix your heart.  Because we are experts — we took the time and discipline to get specialized training that you don’t have.

So, you have a paleontologist with a Ph.D., and they say, “Based on all available sources of data, there is good reason to doubt that Megalodon is still swimming in our modern oceans.”  And then typically data follow — pieces of real information based on fossils, biology, oceanography, and so forth.  To suggest instead that an appropriate and equally valid response to this is, “You know, the ocean is really freakin’ big and who knows what’s really still out there?” is disheartening and a sad commentary on what Discovery thinks of its viewers … let alone the scientists!

What to do?  Well, since Discovery is a commercial network, if one were seriously angry they could speak with their wallet.  That is, you stop watching that network but more importantly stop buying products sold on that channel.  Any business wants the money to keep flowing in … if you hit them in their wallet, they are sometimes more willing to listen.  You could contact as many of the makers of the product that is being sold on Discovery and tell them you refuse to buy their product unless they pull advertising from the Discovery channel.

Am I going to forgo watching Discovery and stop buying what is sold on that channel?  No.  Part of the reason I will continue to watch Discovery is that my students, my family, and my friends watch it, and since it is a popular medium for science, it’s good for me to remain aware of what is airing to at least field questions.  And I will admit, I love Mythbusters, and I selfishly want to keep watching that.

But perhaps the better approach is to show Discovery how much more money they stand to make if they air real, intelligent science shows and documentaries.  I don’t tune in to the Daily Show to get my news, nor do I expect that I get it unbiased.  I tune in for laughs.  Discovery, if that’s what you want, if you want to go the way of the History Channel and give us Ancient Aliens, then by all means keep making “mockumentaries” about mermaids, sharks, and whatever else.  Even we “elite” academics will tune and laugh at how thoroughly terrible those shows are.  But we won’t tune in as often.  And we’ll tell our students your network is not to be trusted.  In fact, I would even point out that Wikipedia science entries often have more to offer than shows like your fake shark.

But I promise, if you make good, quality programming, people pay for that.  Well-produced science programs are purchased by libraries, are shown in classrooms where students say, “hmm, I might check out this channel some more,” and you get a more sophisticated audience … many of which will purchase sophisticated goods sold by your advertisers.  And it’s easier to make this kind of money, I would suspect, than making up dumb stuff like “found footage” of an imagined mega-shark.  Think about it — like reality shows, the scientific reality and the scientists are already there!  It writes itself!  And people will watch, and become more educated in the process.

If you stop pandering to the lowest common denominator and instead focus on making quality science programs, I suspect your bottom line will do very, very well.  Ultimately, Discovery, you and your producers are experts at making what can be quite interesting, educational, and entertaining, high-quality programming.  Imagine putting that creativity together with other experts who know what they’re talking about and with all the amazing nature our planet has to offer.

Original image: Carcharhinus-amblyrynchos.jpg by Fbattail at fr.wikipedia, March 14, 2004

Understanding Science & Evolution Podcasts “Remastered”

Just a short post to note that my audio podcast series, Understanding Science and Evolution, has had a makeover.  Now the audio files are mastered in better quality audio and my new institutional affiliation is reflected in them.

Many of you who follow my blog have probably heard these before, but I hope these new, “remastered” podcasts find other listeners.  If you know anyone who might enjoy these or find them useful, please pass it on.