By now everyone is familiar with some of the more controversial topics in policy discussions featuring scientific topics, so that GMO foods or climate change are readily recognized as "hot button" items.  Without getting into those discussions, one of the arguments that is often made against a particular position is that the data is wrong, or that scientists are doing something wrong.  In effect, the implication is that science has been known to be wrong in the past and therefore we can expect that it could be wrong in its assertions now.

In fact, one is often treated to various examples of what was once believed to be a legitimate scientific perspective and how it was overturned.  In some cases, improper examples like Newton's laws being extended by Relativity are used to illustrate such a scientific progression.

I say that the example of Newton's laws is an improper example, because Newton wasn't really wrong.  Instead his ideas had to be extended to deal with newer information giving better explanations for more extreme conditions.  

Instead I was considering some examples that came to light in a few articles this past week.  "Will we ever drop evolution's baggage?" and "Here Be Dragons: The Mythic Bite of the Komodo" both provided good examples of science that was simply wrong and new data was provided to make the point.

Yet, the real issue here isn't that science was wrong, but rather why it was wrong.  This is the point that is often not questioned and it should be.

In these examples if one were to look for the studies and data that supported the original positions one would find little or nothing.  In other words, the science wasn't wrong.  It was non-existent.  Instead what we find is that what was taken to be common knowledge were simply assumptions made on the part of those observing the particular phenomenon. The appendix was considered vestigial, not because of studies demonstrating it, but because of the assumptions that suggested that those having it surgically removed didn't appear to suffer any obvious negative effects.  As with the Komodo dragon, it was simply assumed that their bite was lethal because their mouths were supposedly laden with deadly bacteria killing any bitten victim with sepsis and ultimately death.

It is from these examples that one has to question, what the basis is for much of what we consider to be scientific fact.  Is it evidence based or merely opinion based?  Regardless of how qualified such an opinion might be, it can still not be considered evidence.

As a result, it is quite reasonable to argue that any scientific claim that is not backed by solid proof, cannot take credit for being scientific evidence.  Even the supposed philosophical arguments about proving a negative are not relevant [nor true (1)], because in the absence of explicit evidence one can only claim [at best] a probabilistic connection.  No matter how reassuring, it should be understood that it can still be wrong.

There is a huge difference between stating that something can't happen versus merely thinking it can't happen.  

As stated in the article about Komodo dragons:
Scientists don’t always get things right the first time around, and sometimes, even the most careful observations can miss what’s really going on. In this case, the strange interaction between a novel meal option and a notorious beast confused early investigators.
Yet, in truth, the author is being kind.  These weren't careful observations, they were assumptions with the skimpiest of supporting evidence, which is precisely why it was demonstrated to be a myth when it was actually investigated.  This isn't intended as a criticism of those making the initial observations.  Instead it is an observation in its own right, regarding how easily scientific opinions become scientific "facts" despite there being no corroborating evidence (2).

When a claim is made for which all the variables aren't even known, then all such claims should be treated with caution and recognized as being the educated guesses that they are.  While some may protest that such a standard is too rigid, that complaint is simply ridiculous.  Science is in no hurry to be accurate.  Science doesn't operate on some deadline or time table to be accurate.  Economics, politicians, and advocacy have timelines.  Science moves at the pace necessary to advance understanding, not simply to satisfy a business plan or political poll.

There have been many articles written about public perceptions of science, and more than enough insults hurled at those in various states of disagreement.  However, let's remember that it is one thing for science to be wrong, because something was truly misunderstood.  It's quite another when one finds that much of what science was wrong about is because no one ever actually studied the phenomenon they were making claims about.  That's just unscientific.


(1)  Much is often made of how one can't prove a negative, but that's rubbish, since it is a quite legitimate position to take.  In fact, it is routinely done in science to demonstrate that a particular species has gone extinct [i.e. it no longer exists in a particular habitat], or that a particular pathogen does not cause a disease.  So, while this is a concept that is much bandied about, it is simply intellectual laziness on the part of those invoking it.

Consider the positive assertion that there are white swans.  While true, it is trivial since it doesn't tell us anything about any other colors.  It doesn't preclude swans of different colors.  Therefore any definitive statement [positive or negative] is subject to being disproven.  So if I claim that there are ONLY white swans, or I say there are no black swans, the result is the same; it can be overturned with additional evidence.

(2)  This can be seen by some of the debate surrounding GMO foods.  The original premise is scientifically valid in assessing "substantial equivalence" where the comparison is being made between individual components and determining that there is nothing rendering them individually dangerous, therefore the new result is considered to be equivalent and not representative of a new novel creation.  However, this is then often translated into the unsupported statement that it is "safe", which is then further translated into "it is absolutely harmless" which is ultimately elevated to the position that you must be a fool to think that it can hurt you.

Such a claim is not now nor has ever been made by any responsible scientist.  The only valid scientific position is to state that based on the principle of substantial equivalence there is no basis for believing that this new GMO food introduces any danger.  It is not a statement of safety.  

As a result, the scientific position is that there is no evidence to suggest that this product can cause harm and there is, at present, no data to suggest anything to the contrary.  Is this a scientific fact?  No, because the same individuals making such a claim will be quite ready to concede that they were wrong if a study demonstrates otherwise.  Consequently any such claim made in absolute terms is unscientific.