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Scientific experiments and the white coats

Overview

Published: 09/18/2012

by Jim Campbell

Advertisers know their business. When they promote a product like headache remedies, make-up, computers or dog food, they suit the actors up in white lab coats. Their 'scientific' studies tell them that we believe what scientists say is objective truth and is not subject to the obvious human failings like prejudice, emotions and self-interest.

The advertisers also tap into our faith that some day science will answer all our physical and social problems. To cater to that hope, news reports usually include stories about yet another discovery or breakthrough.

Scientific experiments follow a basic four-step process. First the scientists define a question they want to answer and that they think is answerable. Then they devise an experiment they believe will produce the information they need. Then they do the experiment, measuring and recording the data they think is important. Finally they sit down to interpret and evaluate the data to determine if the question they started out with is answered.

Now that's too brief an explanation but it is enough to bring out an important point; there is nothing impersonal about science. From asking the question to interpreting the data, it is a human exercise. A news report, about what the Hubble Telescope had discovered, generated a letter to the editor. The writer pointed out that telescopes discover nothing. It's astronomers using the telescopes that make discoveries. Without people, the Hubble telescope is just a complex tube floating in space.

Like law, politics, education and religion, science is an intensively human activity and it should be subject to all the same scrutiny and healthy skepticism given to any human endeavour. Science doesn't exist in a vacuum. It is a rigorous human activity. There can be faulty theories, bad questions and results that are notoriously complex and hard to analyze. The process is hardly objective.

A few years ago, editors of many medical journals in Britain called for "... an independent body to counter fraud, plagiarism and other misconduct committed by doctors and scientists in their eagerness for academic status." Wow!

Actually it shouldn't surprise us. In scientific forums, in court cases that need expert testimony, it seems easy to line up experts to present proofs for every side of any question (that smoking was not harmful ... that ecological damage from massive oil spills is soon healed).

What is seldom discussed is how the quality of science depends on the quality of the people, the social climate, the questions asked, the source of the funds and the political climate in and outside of the scientific community. There needs to be as much discussion about integrity, ethics, character and morality in science as in any other field of human endeavour.

I'm grateful to all the scientists that have given my doctors excellent equipment and better drugs, that my car is safer, that my computer beats a typewriter by a country mile, and for all the information we have about space and about ourselves.

As grateful as we are, we need to be skeptical about the breakthroughs, discoveries and the latest wonders that are announced. We need to be critical.

Last winter millions and millions of snowflakes fell on my small property. I know because it seemed I shoveled a billion of them last January. Well, the word is that no two of those snowflakes are the same, no two alike in the whole world. It's a conclusion based on the fact that no one has ever found two the same. With hundreds of billions of snowflakes falling every winter all around the world, who can look at them all? So it is a theory, a working assumption, or an educated guess?

Probably a lot of the stuff we are led to believe is questionable. There are likely lots of questions that never will be resolved. That's okay.

The important thing to know is that the men and women in the white lab coats are just like us! They can be right or wrong, honourable or dishonourable, and they can be ethical people or scoundrels. We shouldn't let the lab coats fool us.

Say, now that I think of it, I haven't seen a doctor dressed in a white lab coat for years. Maybe the scientists in their labs have discarded them. Maybe the TV guys are out of date! Oh well, no matter, whatever sells.

Jim Campbell is a writer based in Oakville, Ont. Your comments are always welcome by e-mail to homedigesteditor@sympatico.ca or via post at 268 Lakeshore Rd. E., # 604, Oakville ON L6J 7S4.

 

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