The Layman’s Guide to Understanding Science: How Not to be a Gullible Rabbit. Preliminaries

This is the third of three preliminary chapters before we get to the meat of things. I organized this on the fly, so I’m not in love with there being three chapters, in effect, before Chapter 1. This can be cleaned up later.


First you guess. Don’t laugh, this is the most important step. Then you compute the consequences. Compare the consequences to experience. If it disagrees with experience, the guess is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn’t matter how beautiful your guess is or how smart you are or what your name is. If it disagrees with experience, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.

– Feynman

This short book addresses an increasingly desperate situation: the near universal state of scientific illiteracy among virtually all Americans. This state of profound ignorance of what science is and how it works is especially prevalent among those think themselves highly educated. Scientific illiteracy is complete among those who say they ‘believe’ or ‘trust’ or, especially, ‘effing love’ science.

To anyone with an even modest grasp of what science IS,such claims are embarrassing. If the truth of the previous sentence isn’t instantly clear, this book is for you.

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.

– Aristotle

The first step is the hardest: to intelligently evaluate a claim made in the name of science, one must exercise the intellectual and emotional discipline needed to suspend all emotions and political feelings. Put another way: we should want to know what a thing is before speculating on why people feel and act the way they do about it.

The typical practice, seen everywhere, is to FIRST consider the politics of the source of the supposed ‘science’: was it stated by a politician or public servant or journalist who shares my political persuasion? Is it the position of the political party I identify with? Then it is trustworthy. If from someone of whose politics I disapprove? It is, by that fact alone, judged untrustworthy. Everyone has seen this; almost everyone has done this.

We humans are also very much prone to fear. We very prudently want to know about any danger we should avoid, and fear is the natural reaction to danger. Unfortunately, we humans are also very bad at assessing risk. Another thing everyone has seen, often in the mirror, is someone who will worry about minor risks while ignoring major ones. We see people – or are people – who won’t taste the cookie dough because it has raw egg in it, but will drive 85 on the freeway or ride our bike without a helmet or carry around way too much weight. We’ve done those last things most of our lives, and no longer even think about it; but we just heard about the (microscopic) danger from raw eggs, so that requires action. Fear will cause us to underestimate familiar risks and overestimate novel risks.

For the past 50 years, if not longer, we have been daily assaulted by claims that the science says we’re all going to die from a variety of ever-changing causes if we don’t promptly act NOW. These claims are framed to make us as frightened as possible. The hedging and restraint that are the hallmark of most good science are omitted when the claim is proclaimed – our doom is certain in a way that nothing else in the future is certain. Don’t fall for it. Do not be afraid; at least, suspend that fear until you’ve got a good grasp on the evidence.

What I’m here calling political beliefs are actually something much more basic, as discussed in the previous chapter: we all want to belong. We all must pay attention to what the other people in our peer group or tribe say, because the risk of being an outcast is felt to be too high. Our need to belong is a fundamental trait of our species, more fundamental than any love of science or, indeed, truth, and so it is only natural that we check with our group’s beliefs before forming our own,

This need to belong, while hardly a bad thing in and of itself, can lead us far astray, if not balanced against a love for truth. We spend 12, 16, or more years in school, where we’re much more likely to get into trouble for failing to conform to the group than we are for failing to learn anything. After years of such training, we tend to see the world as this place where authority figures decide and transmit to us what we ought to believe. All that’s left to us is identifying the correct authority figures – and they are eager to tell us who they are. There is no shortage of people vying for that job.

This habit of picking a team or a tribe and then using that tribe’s beliefs to filter what is allowed to be considered THE science has a name: Lysenkoism. Don’t follow Lysenko, that’s not a happy story.

When you express passionate belief in ‘the science’ which you have not independently worked to understand, it’s not just that you are parroting your chosen authority figures, it’s that all you are capable of is parroting your chosen authority figures.

You can think for yourself. Try it, you may like it. This book is intended to help.

It’s not going to be easy to find the courage to swim past the emotional bait and risk defying your tribe. I can only say, after K in Men in Black: “Oh yeah, it’s worth it… if you’re strong enough!” In order to understand science, or, indeed, in order to understand anything of any complexity, you have to want to understand it. It’s work, but it’s worth it. The alternative is to allow yourself to be blindly lead. History, especially modern history, is largely the tragic stories of people who imagine themselves the best educated, most enlightened, most moral people ever swallowing whole whatever their leaders tells them and whatever their peers profess to believe. We like to imagine it’s only stupid rubes who fell for the obvious (to us) manipulations of the tyrants and ideologues of the last couple centuries, when the sad truth is that it was the cream of society, the professors and professionals, the doctors and lawyers, who were always in the lead in accepting whatever they were told to accept. The more your position in society depends on the good opinions of those around you, the more susceptible you are to the wiles of the snake-oil salesman, who will always strive to hold exactly the position of respect needed for his scam to work. Alas! Historical illiteracy is nearly as complete as scientific illiteracy.

What is needed, and what this book aims to supply, are a few basic principles, a few rules of thumb, as it were, to help us laymen sift through the incessant, shrill claims made in the name of science. Science is not, and never has been, about trusting scientists. Science has always been about evaluating evidence. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something.

Science is a way to teach how something gets to be known, what is not known, to what extent things are known (for nothing is known absolutely), how to handle doubt and uncertainty, what the rules of evidence are, how to think about things so that judgments can be made, how to distinguish truth from fraud, and from show.

– Feynman

Writing Update, etc.

A. Now am working on the “What Science IS” chapter for the Understanding Science book. The first three preliminary chapters are or soon will be posted here for your review, dear readers. Probably combine them into one chapter, edit them down a little to remove repetition.

The What Science IS chapter is challenging. What I want is to engage my laymen target audience, and give them an understanding of science that will allow them filter out the high-level nonsense. I doubt the utility of going the Popper route of falsifiable propositions for my purposes – you gotta think too hard, and have more philosophy than your average bloke to really get your head around the basic concepts – at least, I think you do. If I start right in laying on the philosophy, years of government training – schooling – will kick in and their minds will perform an auto-shutdown. I think. (Math triggers the same routines in the properly schooled.)

Along a similar vein, I wrote a little ‘three kinds of knowledge’ section, then set it aside – as basic and, indeed, essential as this distinction is, I fear I will loose my imagined target audience one sentence in. Can I frame up a discussion of necessary truth, conditional truth, and art (techne) that doesn’t trigger a flight response? The necessary truth part I’d limit to math and logic – no need to go any deeper for my purposes. The important part is the recognition of CONDITIONS on all scientific knowledge, and, more subtle, how those conditions (mostly) need to be expressed in order for science to have any weight.

Then comes the point that art/techne/technology is really, really good and, for most of us, much more true – more BELIEVABLE – than science claims. Our computers and cell phones WORK – that’s their primary characteristic of interest. That working is far more convincing and interesting, for most of us, than any scientific syllogisms based on conditional observations of more abstract, less immediate phenomena.

I can say that observation of the orbit of Mercury or of starlight bending around the sun during an eclipse proves relativity – OR I can say: without relativistic adjustments, the GPS in your phone wouldn’t be near as accurate. Which is more convincing? I could say: some thermodynamic laws govern how much a given gas will cool down when it expands, and show some math – or I can point out that refrigerators work. Which is more convincing?

I gather from a lifetime of interactions with people that few wondered, as children, how that refrigerator worked, or how those huge generators in dams worked. The fridge was totally baffling to me; I figured dynamos must make sparks or something. That all these man-made things work is probably as much a driver of my curiosity as the wonders of nature. But is that pertinent here?

So, in the current draft, I went with: Science is the study of the metrical properties of physical bodies – a sound, if subtly complex, definition that seemed better to address my goals. What this definition does is put the focus on the observation of physical things, specifically, things that can be measured. Not our opinions or feelings about what we observe, not things such as other people’s feelings, which can be (maybe) observed but not measured.

I planned to use this approach to hammer home the (obvious?) point that science simply cannot dictate policy. There is no “this is what we came up with when we measured some properties of physical objects, therefore you must do X.” There are a whole lot of steps being left out in such an assertion, chief of which is a clear statement of the value judgements and moral assumptions that always underlie claims we must do something. The laws of physics say we must fall if we jump off that cliff, but they don’t and can’t say if we should or should not jump off that cliff. Falling once you jump is science and outside any subsequent act of your will; deciding to jump is not.

The subtilty lies in cases where sciences have developed by studying the metrical properties of physical objects without overtly measuring those properties. Geology is an example suggested by a reader. Early theories were developed without too much explicit measurement. Example: for plate tectonics to be true, the Atlantic Ocean must be expanding. And so it is – at exactly some number of millimeters per year, within some plus or minus. Once that measurement has been obtained, we now can back into how old the Atlantic Ocean is, within limits. Similarly, biology started by simply observing the difference between various plants and animals and describing the different characteristics, but soon moved on to measuring those characteristics, such that we know African and Indian elephants differ in size: height, weight, ears, tusks, etc.

Even the historical sciences are looking at measurable properties, even if they don’t start of measuring them, they eventually do.

The above is the sort of thing I might throw in an appendix or end note.

Anyway, I need a bit of a break from this science stuff, so:

B. Turned to the Novels in Process folder. On each of the three items in the stack, I need more planning done. An honest (as honest as I can be) assessment: one I could conceivably finish in a few months – it just needs some outlining to get it from where it is at to where it needs to go, so I don’t meander too much getting there; the other two are going to need a daunting amount of planning and research. On the one that’s been percolating for a couple decades now, I work as I try to fall asleep at night – I try to wrestle it into a series, chop it into 3-4 pieces, deal with the already large cast of characters, and try to make the ‘science’ less ridiculous. Mostly, it’s a matter of organizing the various climaxes, or inventing some, to get it into manageable stories. I add to my notes when I think of it.

So, I thought: I need another short novel to put into the hopper from the ‘ideas’ pile, one that I can get done in less time with less anxiety. (hahaha.) So – picked a flash fiction (1400 word) story that reads like the first chapter in a “world’s going to hell, unlikely heroes rise to the occasion” adventure. Our Heroes hunker down from an evil government takeover, jury-rig some awesome tech, outwit the government lackies, and overcome impossible odds, culminating in a glorious showdown – that sets up a sequel.

My model, from a structure POV, is just good ol’ Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit Will Travel, which is a pretty solid Dent style story I’ve always loved and admired: every chapter, Our Heroes are put into deadly danger, each worse than the last, with the stakes getting higher with each turn of the page, until THE ENTIRE PLANET is threatened!

I’ve long wanted to try my had at something like that. Once, many years ago, I wrote a fairly long outline (long hand, in a notebook) for a crazy story along these lines, with bad guys pretending to fund deep-sea research out of the goodness of their hearts, using Our Gullible Hero to find some valuable mineral deposits around some deep sea vents, then abandoning the submersible with him and the girl he’s long had a crush on at the bottom of the ocean, once they got what they wanted. A wacky escape, with proper heroics and comeuppances ensued. Boy gets girl. It was stoopid fun – at least, writing the outline was. Wonder what happened to that? I think we started having kid right around that time, so I set it aside…

Anyway, along those lines. So now I’m reading a Homeland Security document on shopping mall vulnerabilities. Because of course I am. For essential background! I swear!

C. The front yard orchard & garden needs pre-spring prep: cleanup, fertilize, copper spray, lay down some more mulch, repair/improve some raised beds. Get a few more flowering plants for the boarders. Last year, lost all my front yard viny vegetables to an insane aphid/white fly infestation followed by that nasty mold that seems to love squash. So, no front yard squash, cucumbers, etc. this year, as that stuff tends to linger in the soil for years.

Back yard needs work. Lawn needs aerating and reseeding; garden needs weeding/prep; need a few flowers for some planters. The usual.

D. Meanwhile, deferred maintenance keeps piling up: the sun beats on the house’s south-facing walls, which are now peeling and cracking. I got paint, but now I need to clear away obstructions, get some scaffolding (2-story), do a ton of prep, and then get on it while I still can. Sure, you can hire a painter, but I figure this is the follow-up to the Great Brick Insanity: something I can do for a few hours at a time, finish a wall, clear and prep the next, so that, over a summer, with my son’s help, I can get it done. A lot less hands and knees work than bricks. (Still have some brickwork to finish too, but I’m not thinking about that now. I. Am. Not.)

I’m insane.

E. I need to write two history test, one each for the 8th and 9th graders, for tomorrow. What I’m I doing writing here? Later!

The Layman’s Guide to Understanding Science: How Not to be a Gullible Rabbit. Taming the Beast

This is the second of three preliminary chapters before we get to the meat of things. I organized this on the fly, so I’m not in love with there being three chapters, in effect, before Chapter 1. This can be cleaned up later.

Taming the Beast

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.

– Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize winning physicist and legendary Cal Tech teacher

We humans – you, me, everybody – have some limitations and predilections we need to overcome, or they will rule us. In the words of Agent K in Men In Black:

The person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals, and you know it!”

If we are to be that smart person, we need to find a way to separate ourselves out from the dumb, panicky, dangerous herd we belong to, at least for as long as it takes to consider an idea or proposal. If we can’t or won’t do this, we are not free. We will be slaves to the opinions and emotions of other people.

Most of us are more or less reasonable and open-minded when talking with people one on one. But no matter how vehemently we deny it, few of us can resist the pressure to conform to our peers. While we – you, me, everybody – may flatter ourselves that we’re oh so open-minded, educated, and fair, the evidence suggests that’s not quite true. After reading this book, I hope you start listening for the dead giveaways that you are being told to conform to your tribe rather than look at evidence and listen to argument. Conforming is easy, and gets you a pat on the back and gold star; thinking things through for yourself is hard, and is unlikely to make you any friends within your tribe.

Since this is a book about science, let’s frame this up in terms of Darwinismi: The environment in which our ancestors evolved was tribal. Not one of our ancestors survived and reproduced without the cooperation of others of our ancestors. Therefore, Natural Selection has hard-wired into our DNA a desperate need for a tribe, simply because those without a tribe had little if any chance of reproducing, and thus, in the cruel world of Darwin, ceased to be ancestors to anybody.

Right after breathing and eating, our next most important drive as humans is to belong, to be in a tribe. That’s where we grew up, where we will find a mate, where we find those who will defend us. It is thus completely natural and to be expected that, when an unfamiliar idea slouches into view, our first instinct is to look to the people on our right and left and see what our tribe thinks, and accept that view. Why risk our standing in the tribe over something as abstract as an idea?

And it is, instinctually, the smart thing to do. We need our tribe – being without it is a terrifying prospect. By comparison, truth is most definitely an acquired taste – but it is essential for our thriving in the real world that we acquire it. Watch a group of dogs sometimes. They regularly perform little rituals to reestablish and confirm their membership and standing in their little pack, everything from tail wagging to butt-sniffing to rolling over to show their throats. Then watch people. You think all our little social rituals aren’t as based in instinct as what you see your dog do around other dogs?

The trouble begins when someone we instinctively identify as a member of our tribe wants us to do something. They could present careful arguments and attempt to persuade us – but that’s both uncertain and time-consuming, and besides the point, from their perspective. They want us to do something, not just to win an argument.

So your first lesson here, the first sign something is up, is when someone first assumes a position of tribal authority, and then tells you that to do, repeat, and believe what they tell you are requirements to remain in the tribe. To do otherwise is to belong to the stupid, evil tribe. That’s what almost all demands that you ‘believe’ or ‘follow’ the science boil down to.

That’s simply not how science works. Every study is call for criticism; every finding is conditional, often highly so. Every strong claim in science got strong by withstanding open, vigorous criticism. I mention this, because, of course, the next step for the snake oil salesman is to tell you you’re a stupid, evil person (in so many words) if you even listen to those who might disagree with him. In practice, it’s remarkable how open real science is to criticism. That willingness to consider critics is the glory of science. On the other hand, it’s common, these days, for people who disagree with some policy claim to be accused of being anti-science and to get shut out of public discussions, even if they are PhDs, Nobel prize winners, and otherwise experts. We live in interesting times.

Keep in mind that scientists are people, too, and can only approximate the required levels of honesty and openness that doing science demands. When science works, it’s often the fear of being exposed by their peers more than anything else that enforces whatever honesty there is in any given field. I’m a big fanboy of a number of scientists – Feynman and Darwin are in my personal Hall of Fame – but that doesn’t mean I’m blind to the problems we fallible humans, most definitely including me, are prone to.

Below, I’ll explain what science is, how it works, and how you and I as laymen are not, usually, at the mercy of experts when it comes to science. If you know how it works, it becomes easy to spot the fraud and bullying. The hard part is going to be standing up to your tribe. But it’s worth it, and essential to the creation and maintenance of a free society.


iAnd, being a Darwinian account, it will be a Just-So story. I love Darwin, I really do, but Darwinism is the one science in which any old likely story is accepted as proven, even if there’s little if any chance it could ever be observed or tested. In this case, I – and the many, many others who have made essentially the same argument – have no way of observing the behavior of our ancestors, nor can we devise an experiment that might confirm this lovely theory. Yet, to quote Plato: it is so beautiful that something like it must be true.

The Layman’s Guide to Understanding Science: How Not to be a Gullible Rabbit. Opening Chapter

How about we team beta-read this thing? I’ll throw up chapters as I get them finished, and you all can, in your exceeding mercy, take a look and tell me where things are not clear or otherwise have problems. You will earn my undying gratitude. You can put your comments in the comments, or email them to me.

(To those who offered criticism so far – my thanks, and I will get back to you soon!)

There will be a few preliminary chapters before getting to the nuts and bolts. I need to establish why anyone should care about this, and try to put a crack, however tiny, in the stone certainty of the many.

The table of contents as it now stands, to show the order in which I want to discuss things, followed by a Goals preliminary chapter.

Table of Contents

  • The Goal: Filtering Out the High-Level Nonsense
  • Taming the Beast
  • Preliminaries
  • Chapter 1: What Is This Science Thing, Anyway? A Note on Studies Some Studies to Ponder
  • Chapter 2: Why Should You Care About Science Claims?
  • Chapter 3: The Toolkit Outlined
  • Chapter 4: Appeals to ‘Scientific Consensus’
  • Chapter 5: ‘Believe’ the Science
  • Chapter 6: ‘Trust’ the Scientists
  • Chapter 7: The ‘Science is Settled’
  • Chapter 8: You Are Commanded to Have and Defend a Position as ‘Scientific’
  • Chapter 9: Science Dictates Policy
  • Chapter 10: Thoughts, Feelings, and Other Non-Physical Objects
  • Chapter 11: Model Output Presented as Evidence
  • Chapter 12: Some More Technical Considerations (If You’re Up For It)
  • Who Is This Guy, Who Thinks He Can Tell Me All About Science? About the Author

The Goal: Filtering Out the High-Level Nonsense

Let me break it to you up front: you’re not going to learn all about science from one 200 or so page book. But you might learn how not to get snowed by obvious nonsense masquerading as science. That’s all we’re trying to do here. These days, being able to tell the difference between science and hokum is becoming a more and more important skill. Don’t be a gullible rabbit. Think for yourself.

I’m a layman when it comes to science, and wrote this book for other laymen. You’ll need to go to the experts, and put in the years of work, if you want to know the details of any particular scientific field. Here, we’re only hoping to pass along enough understanding of what science looks like so that you can perform a sniff test on claims that ‘the science’ demands you do or believe something.

I’m here to tell you that those details, as beautiful and thrilling as they often are, are not the problem. Rarely does anyone try to snow us using the actual details of any scientific field. That’s too much work. Rather, the con men and quacks want you to believe them because they speak for science and you’re a smart little rabbit, and you know that you must do whatever science tells you to do, or you’re a bad person. This works, when it does, partly because science – actually, it’s technology, but we’ll get back to that – has delivered to us peons so many life-enhancing and life-saving tools, not to mention all the cool gadgets. iPhones are cool; it takes science to make iPhones; therefore, science is cool! Every snake-oil salesman wants you to think he’s all aglow with the beneficent aura of SCIENCE when he tries to compel us to buy what he’s selling. It behooves us all to be able to spot the snake oil, even, especially, when the dude selling it is wearing a lab coat.

But mostly, these manipulative and abusive claims made in the name of science get accepted because we humans are naturally more interested in our good standing with our tribe than with some abstraction like ‘the truth’ or ‘the evidence.’ We will tend to believe, and think it evil not to believe, whatever everybody else in our tribe believes.

If I am able to make you instantly suspicious of any claims that ‘science has shown’ this or that thing to be true, with the implied threat that you will be a stupid, if not evil, person if you don’t go along, this book will have achieved its goal. Shaming and threatening is not how science works. That’s how fraud, manipulation, and propaganda work.