BIAS & SCIENTIFIC LITERACY


Contrary to popular consensus scientific literacy should focus on being familiar with the foundational principles and processes of science, and not simply memorising a list of prescribed scientific facts 

  


The Butterfly Effect is the term coined by mathematician Edward Lorenz to indicate that a small cause, such as the flapping of a butterfly’s wings - which has very little effect on air flow, could nevertheless cause a dramatic effect like a distant hurricane. The expression is commonly accepted as evidence that “anything complex can feasibly develop”; but Lorenz actually used the term to explain something far more radical and thought-provoking: that it is never possible to predict the behavior of a singular event when it is complex. It is called Chaos Theory (see Scientific Complexity).

 

This simple idea, illustrated by the prettiest of insects, is also symbolic of a fundamental bias our current culture has with respect to science. Our culture wants to accept that “anything can happen" and "counter-intuitive findings can be believed”. These ideas are often related to scientism: an excessive trust in the power of the scientific method. But in reality science attests to the unpredictability of the natural world and the impossibility of fully knowing certain things.

 

Today, most of science focuses on issues which are complex. Examples include: to predict how people react to foods, micro-organisms, contaminants, and medications; to accurately forecast weather and climate; and to describe the psychology, physics and chemistry that can modify life forms. So the idea it is impossible to conclusively answer these questions is frequently rejected. So we chose to believe the precision of new observation instruments, the increased power and speed of computers, and the power of the scientific method, can overcome the issues of complexity and chaos.   

 

My career has involved the development and application of mathematical models based on the laws of physics, data collection and analysis, in the broad field of dispute resolution. Despite this experience I know my knowledge is insufficient to give judgments on complex topics. But perhaps some help can still be presented.

 

Prior to starting to form any opinion about complex topics some background is needed. In fact it forms the greater part of scientific literacy. Scientific literacy should be about being familiar with the foundational principles and the processes of science, and not memorizing a list of prescribed scientific facts like the difference between an asteroid, a meteor, and a comet or listing the noble gasses (examples from tests posted on the internet). Modern scientific literacy must start with an appreciation of six abstract nouns. Without a good handle on these concepts one can never expect get to grips with complex themes. They are listed below; but it must be said they are not the focus in the general understanding of the idea of scientific literacy:

 

Complexity:  An event where many things interact in many ways according to the laws of physics and chemistry;

Chaos:  A complex event where the result of the interactions depends on exactly how it got underway;

Emergence:  The result of a complex event, often a natural one, which cannot be explained in any precise detail;

Probability:  For complex topics it is an inappropriate concept. (For non-complex issues it is the chance of being true based upon the assumptions made. In a practical sense impossibility can be defined as being 1050 to 10150 - depending upon the degree of certainty needed;

Assumption:  A necessary conjecture that provides the starting point for a complex scientific study. The nature of the assumption provides insights into hidden biases;

Anomaly:  Any data point that does not agree with a theory. The approach a scientist takes to address anomalies provides insights into their biases.  

 

A quick inspection of these definitions shows how effortlessly one can misunderstand science. The news and scientific media tend to down-play the importance of assumptions and anomalies, and use the other terms in vague and often confusing ways. These are near perfect definitions of Bias as most generally accepted scientific ideas are mostly stated in much less certain terms. 

 

Scientific Literacy today demands an appreciation of Bias in Science along with Scientific Complexity and the Constraints of Science.