How to become an informed member of society using scientific ideas

Rafael RiveroWhile pondering the topic of my final column, I looked back upon my years here at Colorado State with nostalgia. I’m a graduating senior that has spent the last four years becoming well acquainted with the sciences. Of the many bits of knowledge that I will depart with, one stands head-and-shoulders above the rest: there are a significant number of people who don’t have the faintest idea what they’re talking about.

I’m referring to misinformation, ignorance and naïveté. The latter can be cured with a steady regimen of learning, but the former two are harder to deal with.

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To counter this, I will be outlining the steps to take to ensure your continued presence on the “Informed Member of Society” list. Admittedly, most of it will be in reference to the sciences, but these tips and tricks can be applied across a broad spectrum of situations.

Let’s start with you hypothetically coming across some information. Now, it’s time to begin the process by…

1) Not believing a word.

As a general rule, you should take absolutely everything with a grain of salt. The information may be correct; or it may be wrong. It may just be an opinion or it may be grounded in fact. But, as of yet, that has not been established. This is the cornerstone of skepticism.

In science, skepticism is the default position. If someone comes up to you and says that the ground is made of palm leaves held together by the tears of CU students, you shouldn’t say “Good grief, I was not aware! But now I can say I am!” No. Instead, you should ask for:

2) Evidence, Evidence and more Evidence.

Notice there’s three of them and they’re all capitalized. It’s so important, it’s a proper noun every time. Evidence can come from repeated testing (with results showing the same general trend with low error), trusted and reputable sources (like institutes whose job it is to be unbiased) or personal observations that can be corroborated by a number of other people (though this is the weakest of the three by a substantial amount).

If the hypothetical information is scientific, you can test the claim by researching the peer reviewed literature on the subject. The more papers backing the assertion, the better. Keep in mind that there will be ones that are in conflict with the information, and that means you have reached a point where it’s time to:

3) Critically assess validity.

Like I mentioned before, you may come across evidence that refutes the information. It is then that you should always keep in mind the adage “one point does not a data set make.” If one piece of evidence goes against a whole truck-full, then you can be reasonably certain that the truck-full’s side is the correct one (until new evidence comes along).

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However, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t think critically about the evidence agreeing with the information. Treat both sides equally ruthlessly in your pursuit for truth while you slowly discover that:

4) Science is inherently uncertain.

The point of science isn’t to go from a theory to a fact. This is a big issue that blocks the general public from grasping scientific ideas. A theory is not a hunch, it is not an idea and it is definitely not something you came up with randomly that made sense and you liked. That, in science, is called a hypothesis. A scientific theory is an explanation that has been confirmed over and over again and has a huge volume of support through years of repeated testing and research. They are able to predict and explain new and observed phenomena.

Does this mean that they can be incorrect? Absolutely. Is that a problem? Not at all. If you’re wrong, you’re wrong. Plain and simple.

Most people tend to reach number four and stop there. They are scared of uncertainty, and they are scared of being wrong. All our lives, we’ve been taught being wrong is bad, so we hold our cards close to our chest and don’t fold, even under extraordinary amounts of evidence.

I’m here to tell you that it’s OK to be wrong. Science is about adjusting yourself and your views based on new information. Oftentimes, this occurs because you’re wrong. Being wrong can lead to surprises, wonder and discovery. It always has. That’s science.

Rafael Rivero is a senior Zoology major. His columns appear every other Tuesday in the Collegian. Letters and Feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com