It's Not Anti-Science to Worry About Evidence

One of the frustrations that comes with a new and interesting idea is the large number of people who will tell you that you're actually saying something old and familiar. Most of us heartily dislike changing our minds about anything important, and we're all pretty busy. So a lot of your audience is aching for a reason to put your new wine in some old bottle on the shelf. This week's case in point: Reaction to Jonah Lehrer's recent article on scientific evidence.

Here's what I think that piece is about, and why it's important: Evidence is supposed to be bedrock of science (and of course, since ours is a science-centered society, it's also supposed to be basis for policies and business decisions). We're supposed to debate theories and interpretations, but not the facts themselves. (Fossil dinosaur footprints, for example, exist whether you regard them as proof of the Earth's great age or as a sign that Noah's Ark was really really big.) Look through my telescope, you see a round fuzzy thing in the darkness. Maybe you don't buy my explanation that you're looking at Saturn, but you accept that you see something.

So the typical research paper separates its authors' ideas and theories from the different section where it describes what, exactly, they did to obtain the measurements they are presenting. Those procedures are the telescope. They're supposed to guarantee that something is "really there", causing the results the authors are reporting. Even if that "something" isn't what they expected, even if their theory is wrong, the evidence is there.

In the 1990's, a zoologist told me that he'd been able to use Charles Darwin's notebooks on earthworms for a recent project. Biology had changed a lot in a century, so the modern scientist wasn't interested in the purpose of Darwin's experiments or the ideas that drove them. But the data, the raw evidence itself, had been so well-collected that it could be used for a new purpose.

Lehrer's piece described an anxious sense, noticeable in many different branches of science, that today the evidence section of a lot of research papers isn't as reliable as assumed. The reasons could be psychological, mathematical (statistics packages are powerful and sophisticated, and the sheer amount of data now is huge), and cultural. The question is open. Gracefully, he avoids claiming to know more than he does.

None of this is a claim that about any theories, one way or the other. It's not about whether I'm right when I describe what I think you see in my telescope. It's about whether the telescope is working as well as it should.

So, here is what the piece is not: It's not a claim that there's no such thing as evidence. It's not a claim that we should all believe whatever the hell we want. It doesn't privilege ignorance over science. It does what we science journalists should be doing for our readers: Tell them how research is actually done, so that they can better judge for themselves what "science says." It is a lucid explanation of a real phenomenon, whose point, I think, is that scientists have taken notice because they want science to do better.

That didn't work for some readers this week. Instead, they stretched and twisted the piece until it fit into a familiar old quarrel: Do we have to listen to what scientists say, or can we believe anything we want? Lehrer quoted a few here. Another example: My friend John Horgan, who reacted like a secular version of Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments: "Lehrer's broad-brush critique will no doubt also cheer global-warming deniers, creationists, postmodernists and other pesky challengers of scientific orthodoxy," he wrote, later adding, "the evidence is rock-solid for quantum mechanics, general relativity, the germ theory of infectious disease, the genetic code and many other building blocks of scientific knowledge, which have yielded applications that have transformed our world. There's nothing truthy about a hydrogen bomb."

Now, Horgan's Martha-Stewart-of-science style (this is a Bad Thing, that is a Good Thing) requires that his thumb go either up or down on his subject. To make that work I think he decided that Lehrer's piece was about theories and that he needed to defend them from its heresies.

But it's actually a piece about evidence, which means it gives comfort to no theory over any other: The epistemological jitters it describes will afflict creationists and climate denialists as well as psychologists, evolutionary psychologists and fMRI scanners. Except, I guess, the ones who don't care about evidence at all. But they, by definition, aren't listening. People who do care about science, on the other hand, need have no fear. Lehrer's article is no threat to their "scientific orthodoxy."

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