How to lie about a science paper

Gregg Braden thinks he knows how the heart knows—and boy, is he mistaken.

How to lie about a science paper

Sadly, the nonsensical misinterpretation of scientific results, critiqued so cogently in the linked article, is rife elsewhere as well. In fact, I’m troubled by the way people systematically underestimate the complexity and difficulty of scientific investigation. I keep hearing things like ‘the second law of thermodynamics says that every transformation of energy is slightly inefficient’ when in fact the second law is a mathematical expression, with tightly defined terms, and in its simplest form is true only under rigorously specified conditions that do not ordinarily obtain in daily life. It took lifetimes of work to discover the general laws that underlie the much messier and more variable observations that scientists actually had to work with.

We both insult scientists, and mislead ourselves, when we mistake impressionistic, verbal interpretations of scientific ideas for the ideas themselves. Einstein, for instance, had to tell people thousands of times over that his work had nothing to do with cultural relativism, or relationships, or the inevitable relativity of opinions and comparisons generally. ‘Everything is relative’ people said, and imagined that physicists had proven it—when in fact, general relativity is strictly deterministic and permits measurements and judgements far more absolute than anything in the sphere of human opinion.

That, I think, is what’s going on with Braden’s nonsense about a separate brain that exists in your heart, allows precognition, and so on. The foolish author failed to read the work closely—if he had, he’d have realized he wasn’t understanding it. He picked up a couple of points that were couched in language he found familiar, rather than in the precise but daunting jargon of cardiology. He then hilariously over-interpreted those sentences, invented a whole book’s worth of nonsense, and peddled it to people who, understandably, find science impenetrable, and who quite like the idea that you can ‘know something in your heart’.

It’s a little too pat, I think, simply to call for more science education or better public understanding of science. Both are worthy aims, but realistically, an awful lot of science is going to remain incomprehensible to the general public. For that matter, an awful lot of science is incomprehensible to other scientists, and accessible only to specialists. So I think we need, as much as anything else, a better public understanding of how hard it is to do science, how many of its results are counterintuitive, and just how tricky it is to tease general laws from particular data. I’ve written and edited public-facing science communications, in a small way, and I support efforts to bring scientific understanding to the masses. I also think, though, that we could stand to be more realistic about the amount that ordinary people can be expected to understand.

 

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