What is science?

by rickcolosimo on April 15, 2008

The goal for this post is to explain what the “science” crowd thinks. As science-minded people, we generally subscribe to the scientific viewpoint, and we think that most people, when it’s explained properly, actually agree with the scientific viewpoint.

The first point to remember is that the scientific viewpoint is about process not results. The key element in the scientific viewpoint is a preference for the scientific method as generally practiced across all fields of science. What that includes:

1. Experiments are well-designed
2. Methods are described
3. Results are analyzed to be statistically significant
4. Peer review is the primary method for identifying failures, mistakes, and weaknesses in research.

Across all of these elements is the theme of humility: we expect honest scientists to understand that they may be unconsciously biased and therefore strive for double-blind designs; we expect honest scientists to recognize that coincidences happen all the time and therefore strive to find significant results; we expect honest scientists to understand that correlation is not causation and therefore develop reasonable hypotheses based on otherwise reliable research.

This is my view of what the scientific viewpoint is. It is humble; people will talk about what the research shows, and while they may talk about ideas and hypotheses, they will not talk about them with certainty. We contrast this with the type of discourse we have seen from people who appear to lack the scientific viewpoint: they speak in absolutes, they tell you they have the answer, they dismiss competing evidence that is better supported by research. And, most telling to us, they often complain that scientific publishing is discriminating against their viewpoints or that they’re too busy “healing” kids to do the type of research that would convince others.

A school adminstrator we heard speak put this concept in different words, when asked about a treatment proposal other than ABA. He said that there are three possible ways to assess a treatment: it’s been studied and proven effective, it’s been studied and proven ineffective, or the studies that exist are inconclusive. The caveat that he didn’t mention, but that is indeed part of the makeup of everyone who thinks about evaluating treatments this way, is that these judgments are based on available evidence. People who understand how the scientific method is self-correcting always make an allowance for new evidence — whether better experiments, better measurement, new techniques, subgroup identification, or even new information from other fields.

So, although Jenny McCarthy may believe that vaccines are causing the vast majority of autism cases, she can’t point to evidence that supports causation. She probably doesn’t understand epidemiology or immunity well enough to evaluate the relevant studies, and in that regard she’s like most people who aren’t themselves doctors or scientists. . There are plenty of people who espouse similar views who should have the requisite skills, but they too often fall back on their hypotheses rather than their proof. And that’s true not just for vaccines but for diet, RDI, floortime, B12, and any number of other putative treatments for autistic spectrum disorders.

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