As a scientist, I was always interested in how the scientific discoveries changed the world and improved the understanding we have of things. I think my favorite story has always been the Foucault Pendulum (the experiment was set up by Léon Foucault in spite of the mockery of all his fellows physicists, and it allowed to demonstrate the rotation of the Earth simply by observing the precession of a pendulum), for it summerizes in itself all what is moving and beautiful in science: knowledge is as simple and difficult as abolishing the inner barriers of preconception and the outer barriers of perception.
However, we know scientific facts are not a straightforward path to reality: if it was so there would simply be a consensus about how the world is and no reason to diverge. Actually, a fact is rather a grasp of reality that one needs to merge with other facts inside a conceptual frame where they are linked by causality, forming a scientific theory. And because this conceptual frame depends at the same time on pre-established uncomplete knowledge and individual limitations on abstraction/orientation/etc, a same set of facts (or data) can result in very different scientific theories. The only conviction scientists can have in matter of science is that they will never understand the world, they will only, in the best case, understand the oversimplified sketch of the world they drew themselves: a modern version of Socrates “All I know is that I know nothing.”.
This equivoque between facts and theories is not a purely intellectual issue: carefully selected disparate facts can be shaped into totally odd theories in order to validate some ideologies. For example, some 19th century british and french scientists contributed to give some credibility to racial (and racist) theories by considering mensurations of african skulls, supposedly assessing white man superiority over black man because of a bigger brain size; of course it was easier to conclude to that bigger brain size for white people when only grown up skulls were measured for white people, while for black people, children skulls were not excluded from the data series.
Nowadays, this misuse of scientific facts for building theories advocacing for demagogic ideologies is still very common, although the manipulation is much more subtle. In fact it even became a must have for any ideology: in a world were many believe in numbers as if they were antic runes and in scientists as if they were prophets, the scientific fact is like a stamp of integrity to not be questioned further. This enlights the main problem of the educational systems have with science teaching: there is a massive denial of the vital need to teach espistemology together with science.
I tried to list 5 of misused scientific facts to show how, although we live in an open information era, it is still very easy to mislead people into unaccurate conclusions with true but ill-selected facts:
- “We use only 10% of our brain”… and I am sure 10’000$ represent an investment a wiser you would approve! (misused by: scientologists, life coaches, etc)
We have to clarify here the full fact and what it really states: it is true that we say only a small fraction of our brain… at some given time. When you are going through your tasks, your brain is never fully involved, as there is specific areas defined for specific functions. Unless you are trying to do everything at the same time (eg.: eating, while running, while sleeping and dreaming, while reading, while having sex, while talking on the phone, etc), which is physically impossible (the same way running a car on 1,2,3,4,5 and R gears at the same time is not possible), there is no reason to use more that some percentage (say, 10%) of all your neurones at the same time. But that does not mean 90% of your brain is unused, it only means these 90% are used in other tasks at some other time of your activities. If only 10% of the brain was “working”, then one could get a surgery cutting 90% of the brain without any harm, which is of course absurd, we know that very tiny lesions can damage a brain. This “10%” fact works well with people because not only it has something flattering their ego, but also it keeps them confident that, being very inside as smart as Albert Einstein was, their is hope that they are only an “investment” away from becoming a genius, making of them particularely naive towards snake oils and sectarians.
- “Men’s and women’s brains are different”… and this is why women should be grateful to stay at home cleaning and cooking, while men can’t help cheating! (misused by: sexists, macho, anti-feminists)
Yes, there are little differences between men’s and women’s brains (little differences in size, neurotransmettors, etc), but running social conclusions is not only wrong, it can also be dangerous. Men being hunters long ago is not an satisfactory explanation to unfaithfullness, the same way women high expertise in maintaining the cave tidy is not an suitable objection to those who prefer sport, TV or work over ironing. Life experience, social influence and education accounts much more in explaining difference in behaviours than the men-women brain comparision. There is no problem in having a world of differences between men and women (it is not less gratifying to be a ‘traditional’ woman than an ‘independant’ one), it is just out of focus to endorse out of it fatalism on feminin condition.
- “Space and Time are relative”… and so anything else is! (misused by: anybody who would like to avoid the embarassement of explaining their un-consistant opinion)
First, yes, according to Einstein’s Relativity, space and time are relative, but unless you are an electron travelling in CERN accelerator at 99% of speed of light, there is little chance you ever experience personnaly time dilation ans length contraction. Space-Time relativity is of crucial importance to understand natural phenomenons like electrodynamics, gravitation and Universe expansion, but it does not account for sociological conclusions about relativism, historical conclusions about cultural subjectivity and so on. A very famous “experiment” called “Fashionable Nonsense” by Alain Sokal and Jean Bricmont treats specifically on the pointless transposition of physical theories like Relativity and Quantum Mechanics to sociology and other human sciences.
- “Pink Flamingos are gay”… and don’t deny it you homophobic freak! (misused by: gay and lesbian groups)
That is actually a pretty interesting one because it is one of the few sustained by some scientists themselves certainly to support a cause they believe good or because the topic is still so new we still haven’t gathered enough knowledge. There is indeed a list of animal species with documented homosexual behaviours, among which the flamingos are one of the most popular (see the story of Carlos and Fernando) but first it is just pushing away the question it wants to answer to (to observe an homosexual behavior for a sheep does not say if the animal is genetically “born with it” or if it is some external circumstance that enhanced the behavior), second because animal sexuality studies conclusions cannot be transposed to human beings (alligators sometimes eat their own eggs and babies, many mammals eat the placenta after giving birth… but it would be false to think humans do because those animals do so!), third because if it was conclusive about human sexuality, we would observe as much gay animals than lesbian animals… while we observe almost exclusively gay animals. A struggle for recognition and rights asked by a group of people should never use biased and unsuitable scientific data: not only moral causes have to be moral in themselves without calling for external validation of science, but also try to imagine what happens if the scientific research finally conclude this is false?
- “25% of Nobel Prize winners are Jew while they represent only 0.25% of world population”… and understand that Chosen People don’t have time to waste arguing with you! (misused by: zionists, arabism/panarabism nostalgic, etc)
(Not a scientific fact strictly saying, but statistics are very often used and presented as being scientific facts) First time I read the argument it was in an arabic forum or a group mail or something like this, where the sender (an arabic person) was trying to “prove” that the backwardness of the Arab/Muslim countries was due to the very little interest in these countries for the noble quest of knowledge, and that given the comparision with jewish Nobel Prize laureates, we might well “deserve the way the world treats us”. Later, I became aware that this was actually a very classical argument used and misused by many. When studied carefully, there is only two revelant facts that can be extracted from the winners’ list: so-to-say 100% of science Nobel Prize winners are from and work in rich industrial countries where money is available for scientific research, and the only Nobel Prize categories really accessible for non-rich countries are Peace and Literature, for war and poverty make good reasons to seek peace and write good novels. So the statistics about the Nobel Prize winners is not a proof of some jewish, western, african, asian, men, women significant natural or cultural predominace or any other kind of superiority. Almost any statistic quantifying some complex trend in an ethnic group or population comes with its set of simplifications, underestimation of sensitive parameters, biased conclusions. Whatever you want to say, there always is a statistic you can find to emphasize; this is certainly the deep reason of the success of statistics in politics. This does not mean that statistics should not be trusted, it means only statistics should never be partial, and always carefully analysed.
The success of science is everywhere around us: technology, medecine, knowledge. Scientists generally fight hard against the misconceptions about their field of speciality, but if there is some generalization one can make about scientists, they are often quite weak in communicating efficiently: they generally try to talk reasonalby to the mind, while politicians/advertisers/etc can grant communication success because they rather talk with emotional references, desires, attractivity… and a few “fashionable” scientific facts. And if we, scientists, could learn this from them?