Tim Dean: Knowledge gained from science and research outweighs anecdote! @ConversationUK

Why research beats anecdote in our search for knowledge

By Tim Dean

UNDERSTANDING RESEARCH: What do we actually mean by research and how does it help inform our understanding of things? We begin today by looking at the origins of research.

It is comforting to feel like we understand the world around us and reassuring to have an explanation for everything. But where does our understanding come from and how reliable is it?

Certainty is seductive, so we tend to cling to it. We hunt for evidence that buttresses it, while ignoring or rejecting evidence that threatens to undermine it.

We seek out friends and media commentators who share our certainty, and then reinforce that certainty in their company. We use certainty as a bulwark in our conversations with others and we use it to thump tables when we bump up against someone else’s convictions.

But deep down we all know that the universe is a bafflingly complex place, and that most things that happen will surprise us and challenge our understanding of how things really are.

In quiet moments, we might even acknowledge that much of our certainty rests on flimsy foundations of perceived wisdom, common sense and intuition, anecdote and wishful thinking.

How do we know?

Consider disease. For the majority of human history most people were certain that disease was caused by the machinations of malevolent spirits. Or they were sure it was cast upon us by witches and warlocks.

Or they were convinced that victims brought it upon themselves by their own wicked ways (irrespective of the easily overlooked fact that a mere babe dying of smallpox was incapable of malice).

More recently, many people were certain that disease was caused by “miasma” such as the fetid fog that wafted off the sewage-laden Thames in 19th century London, UK.

After all, those who lived in whiffing distance of the Thames were the ones most likely to be struck down by cholera (irrespective of the easily ignored detail that the disease could spread even without the miasma’s help).

These false notions of disease were, in a sense, intuitive. They fit with our common sense understanding of how the world works: if A happens before B, then A is the cause of B.

Yet no amount of certainty prevented these theories of disease from being utterly wrong, thus crippling our ability to treat them. As it happens, most diseases are caused by microscopic pathogens which are, by their very nature, invisible to our naked eye observations. As such, they were beyond the ken of common sense.

It took rigorous scrutiny of the available facts, acknowledgement of subtle inconsistencies and irregularities in the prevailing theories, as well as careful experimentation and detailed observation in order to reveal the true cause of disease.

Rise of the researcher

It also took a few brave people to embrace uncertainty. It took them to admit their ignorance and decide to follow the facts wherever they took them, even if that path was long and arduous, and raised more questions than it answered.

It took more than common sense and intuition, anecdote and wishful thinking to discover germs and transform medicine. It took genuine research to reveal the facts.

The results speak for themselves: life expectancy at birth before germ theory was under 40, with between 10%-30% of infants never making it to adulthood.

Only half of those who reached the age of 20 went on to survive to 60. The primary killer was infections. Today in those countries that have embraced germ theory and modern medicine, it is closer to 80.

Research itself can be defined in many ways, but at its core it’s ultimately about rigour. Genuine research – whether in the sciences or the humanities – does not rely on intuition or common sense. It doesn’t lean on anecdote or conjecture. It doesn’t seek to reinforce pre-existing beliefs or ratify wishful thinking.

Genuine research acknowledges that reality is not transparent to human perception and that we have to work hard to uncover the facts. It uses uncertainty as a guidepost to knowledge rather than a stop sign for further enquiry.

Genuine researchers are those rare individuals who have come to terms with their uncertainty and confront it on a daily basis. They have embraced rigour in their methods of enquiry and value truth over comfort. Their hard work over the past couple of centuries has lifted us out of the fog of ignorance and into the world of knowledge and prosperity we inhabit today.

Then come the doubters

Yet, somehow, our appreciation for the power of rigorous research has diminished in recent years.

It is ironic that the world we live in today is built on a solid foundation of rigour in a number of fields such as science, medicine, economics, political science and many others. Yet that same world makes it easier than ever for non-experts to spread their intuitive falsehoods under the pretext of common sense.

We’ve probably all come across the various online ads saying some new easy health tip or other – such as easy teeth whitening – that was “discovered by a mom”, or seen Hollywood actors called upon as experts in fields other than acting. Jenny McCarthy might be photogenic, but her comments about vaccines are as dangerous as they are uninformed.

Anecdote often passes as evidence, and post-hoc explanations often pass as theories. Intuitive explanations spread throughout the internet, made appealing by their simplicity rather than their veracity.

Why research matters

Research, and researchers, deserve better than that.

If we value fact over falsehood then we should constantly remind ourselves of the dangers of certainty and the poverty of intuition. We should remind ourselves that our belief in something should be held with a conviction proportional only to the evidence we have in support of it.

And if we haven’t undertaken the rigours of research ourselves to uncover that evidence, then we should place greater credence on the words of those who have.

Certainty is seductive, wishful thinking is alluring and anecdote can be compelling. But they are also symptoms of a disease for which rigorous research is the only cure.

This article is part of a series on Understanding Research.

Further reading:
Clearing up confusion between correlation and causation
Where’s the proof in science? There is none
Positives in negative results: when finding ‘nothing’ means something
The risks of blowing your own trumpet too soon on research
How to find the knowns and unknowns in any research
How myths and tabloids feed on anomalies in science
The 10 stuff-ups we all make when interpreting research

The Conversation

Tim Dean does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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Representative Allen West thinks that #Ebola is just a ‘really bad flu bug’ – #ignorant of #science


According to Rep Allen West, Ebola is a ‘really bad flu bug.’ If that’s true, maybe he would be willing to demonstrate his claims by volunteering to be infected. Oh wait, simple scientific facts prove him completely wrong. First of all, the Ebola virus is very very different in terms of the type of virus it is, and also in the symptoms it causes. The fatality rate of Ebola is somewhere between 50-90% (WHO). That means more than half of people who show symptoms will die from the virus. Even for a pandemic flu, like the infamous Spanish flu of 1918, the fatality rate was only 2%. Most flu pandemics and epidemics have fatality rates considerable below 0.5%. Last I checked, 50-90% fatality is a hell of a lot more than 2% fatality. So I would say Mr. West should do some fact-checking next time before he completely mischaracterizes a virus and its impact.

Seen by CauseScience on Maddow blog, along with a number of other political statements on Ebola!

New amazing career option for scientists, become a politician… PLEASE!


Right now there are less than 10 trained scientists in Congress (sad article here). The article linked below makes a strong argument for why we need more scientists in politics, and includes one of the most bada$$ quotes about science and politics EVER (bolded below). Given that the number of science PhD’s highly exceeds the number of jobs in academia, graduate programs and mentors should highlight and encourage politics as a career path to students and postdocs (maybe even include training). If not for their own selfish interest (science policy and funding), then for the desperate need for science to be accurately represented in America and american politics.

“Scientists must become part of the political process and run for office. At a time when science bears on many of the world’s problems, we have a Congress full of lawyers who are trained not to get at the truth but to defeat their opponent at any cost — including the truth. As Otto points out, science is unavoidably political. Science is knowledge. Knowledge is power. Power is politics. So, science is politics.”