Two Articles on Predictions & Hype in Science

Earlier this year, in an article at Nature Biotechnology, I joined with several colleagues in warning that the biggest risk to public trust in science is not the usual culprits of religious fundamentalism or "politicization" but rather the increasing tendency towards the stretching of scientific claims and predictions by scientists, university press offices, scientific journals, industry, and journalists. As I detail with Dietram Scheufele in a separate article at the America Journal of Botany,(PDF) each time a scientific prediction or claim goes beyond the available evidence and proves to be false, it serves as a vivid negative heuristic for the public.

This past week, two important articles describing the perils of prediction in the life sciences and climate sciences appeared at The Scientist magazine and Nature Reports Climate Change respectively. In a cover article for the The Scientist, Stuart Blackman identifies several factors driving the tendency towards hype. As Blackman notes, scientists are under increasing pressure to publish at ever more competitive flagship journals, meaning that the conclusions of a paper have to be that much more provocative. Granting agencies are also putting stronger emphasis on the public impacts portion of funding proposals, again creating an incentive to sometimes promise too much. A third and major factor is the increasing privatization of university-based science with strong incentives and rewards for commercialization, a route that usually involves a heavy dose of promotion. In his article, Blackman draws on the insights of some of the top social scientists studying these trends including Brian Wynne, Christine Hauskeller, and Daniel Sarewitz. A useful sidebar summarizes advice on how researchers can avoid hype in communicating with the public, policymakers, and/or the media.

In a commentary at Nature Reports Climate Change, Mike Hulme, Roger Pielke, Jr and Suraje Dessai warn against promising that climate science can "supply on-demand climate predictions to governments, businesses and individuals," estimating impacts on certain regions and sectors.

"Scientists and decision-makers alike should treat climate models not as truth machines to be relied upon for making adaptation decisions, but instead as one of a range of tools to explore future possibilities," they write. And as they aptly observe, it's not just a matter of technical certainty. Even in cases where forecasts might be accurate in a formal statistical sense, effectively communicating the complexity of these findings to the public and decision-makers will prove a difficult task. Here's the key take away from their commentary:

For scientists, the lesson here is clear. Caution is warranted when promising decision-makers a clarified view of the future. Guaranteeing precision and accuracy over and above what science can credibly deliver risks contributing to flawed decisions. We are not suggesting that scientists abandon efforts to model the behaviour of the climate system. Far from it. Models as exploratory tools can help identify physically implausible outcomes and illuminate the boundaries where uncertain knowledge meets fundamental ignorance. But using models in this way will require a significant rethink on the role of predictive climate science in decision-making. In some cases the prudent course of action will be to let policymakers know the very real limitations of predictive science. For decision-makers, the lesson is to plan for a range of possible alternatives. Instead of seeking certainty, decision-makers need to ask questions of scientists such as 'What physically could not happen?' or 'What is the worst that could happen?'

The authors' warning is important to the U.S. context. Perhaps the most effective way to convey the significance of climate change is to communicate to Americans how it is impacting the region or area in which they live. Yet as effective as this strategy might be, these communication efforts need to proceed cautiously, otherwise they risk opening the door to counter-claims that scientists and government agencies are going beyond available scientific evidence.
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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.