Why Criticizing Science as “Biased” Gets Us Nowhere; An Example with Fox News

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Hi all,

I am always fascinated to hear claims that particular scientific studies are, “biased”. While it is true that there is a lot of unscientific and fradulant findings being published all the time, we need to understand that scientists are people, who hold values and have opinions just as we do. What makes a good scientist is being able to create an objective platform from which empirical research can be conducted. A scientist, or any good thinker for that matter, needs to be able to disconnect their work from their values, beliefs, and attitudes. That being said, it is unreasonable to expect someone to go into science if they have no interest in what their are studying. However, it seems that is what we sometimes expect.

In a recent Fox News article, contributor Kelley Beaucar Vlahos discusses criticism (including her own) of some of the scientific studies that influenced New York State’s recent ban of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. Vlahos accuses the scientists of being “biased” and having ties to the “anti-fracking movement”. This report was peer reviewed, a process that is used to maintain scientific integrity. As reported, the peer reviewers did not know the authors. Furthermore, as a scientist myself (well, studying to be one), I can tell you that the peer review process is often blind, meaning that the authors have no idea who is reviewing their paper and the reviewers do not know whose paper it is at the time of review. The article, however, claims that the authors as well as reviewers were biased, as they are opposed to hydraulic fracturing. What it does not discuss, is why they are opposed. Does their opposition stem from some of their findings as well as other peer reviewed science? Someone is not just simply born a “fractivist”. Scientific studies need to be assessed by their methodology, not the personal characteristics of the scientist. There is no doubt that our attitudes and values affect how we filter information, which can certainly influence how we view findings, but part of being a good scientist is being aware of this.

Finally, the article claims that the scientists did not disclose their political views, etc. in the paper. While it is a standard to disclose conflicts re: financing, stake in ownership, etc., in science, it is not standard to have to disclose political views. For example, do I need to say that I am a “environmentalist, vegetarian…etc.” anytime I write something? Furthermore, if the way to eliminate bias is just to have “pro-fracking” scientists have their own study and then “anti-fracking” scientists have their study, why even have science? That would just be politics.

Dismissing peer-reviewing science as “biased” is totalitarian. It is an attempt to look past important findings that we may not like, which is exactly what Vlahos and Fox News are doing in this instance. We definitely need to understanding the context of scientific studies and it, but there is no purely “objective” study, at the very least there are values implicit in how we measure things. Although minimal, science needs some human input or else there would be no studies; but discarding studies as “biased” that go against your agenda, as opposed to challenging yourself, doesn’t do us any good.

Happy Hermiting, folks.

Image: http://www.stcplanning.org/index.asp?pageId=153

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A Lesson From Jack the Fox

Jack the Fox and his human companion can show us new perspective on animals, especially those regarded as pests.

The clip surely brings a few questions to mind regarding the idea of pets. At what point is human – animal bonding beneficial to a non-human animal? Detrimental? Do they enjoy human company? What differentiates keeping a dog as a pet vs. a fox? Obviously, these are not black and white answers and neither is the complexity of human – non-human relationship dynamics and understanding.

The biggest point to drive home from the video is that observation and interaction with non-human animals will teach us to see these animals differently, to admire them. How many times have you heard someone say they hate opossums. Why? Because they are ugly, scary, vicious, a nuisance. If you were to observe their behaviors and how closely these relate to human compassion, it would be clear that these claims are a stereotype passed down through decades of insecurity (with the nocturnal) and human dominance. So next time you see a fox, or better yet a common squirrel, take some time to admire how its behavior compares to yours.

Video: LPSCreativeMedia 7 May 2010;