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Scientific Studies Don’t Mean Anything


Over-reliance on scientific studies just annoys me.

Ramit Sethi over at “I Will Teach You To Be Rich” has a post about guest posts. I was reading it, not because I wanted to guest post at his blog (I don’t), but because someone directed me to it.

First thing you see is this infographic:

“An overly simplified visualization of how effective guest posts drive traffic.”

Which is a smart-looking way of saying, “Guest posts drive traffic.”

Then you find out in the side-box he graduated from Stanford. Wow, that explains everything.

He goes on to explain how people are only interested in a post if it links to scientific studies and “expert” opinions.

[Don’t make] the blog post all about your opinionUse research, charts, and expert quotes to back up your argument, and create an interesting thesis.

Charts like this:

“An overly simplified visualization of how effective guest posts drive traffic.”

I’m not impressed by a Stanford education – or any education for that matter. I think conventional education systems encourage a rigid and overly left-brained approach to understanding, an over-dependence on the “facts” (which just means something you don’t question because you think the source is infallible), and a production-line end-product of a person, moulded in the same way to use the same “facts” in the same process as everyone else.

And I’m not impressed by infographics that add nothing to a conversation. Is the post supposed to look suddenly that much more believable just because it’s got a sciencey-looking graphic on it?

All Facts Are Opinions

My blog posts are all about my opinion… as are yours, Mr. Sethi. Just because you have studies backing you up doesn’t mean what you’re writing is any less your opinion. Unless I’m reading too far into this, I see this as a repetition of the same fallacy as believing in a set of “facts” which are somehow different from other opinions because the source is just that infallible.

All facts are opinions, and all blog posts are about opinions. Having science to back up your post doesn’t make it less an opinion.

In my time internetting I’ve seen a lot of people make arguments for a lot of different opinions using “science”. To start with, having been taught to believe in “facts” like most people, I believed the first opinion I saw which was backed up by credible-looking “science”. Then I eventually noticed that the opposing arguments also had credible-looking science to back them up. How could this be? Science only backs up the facts… right?

Science Is Subtler Than That

The truth is science is tricky to interpret. It’s as hard to find the “truth” in science as anywhere else. And if you use science to argue for a point or against a point… you lose it. Science was never about arguing for or against something. It’s about being very open minded and trying to find the most likely conclusions from a set of data.


This is what I find funny about Denise Minger arguing against Campbell’s The China Study. She looks into the data to find reasons why meat is not unhealthy to eat, and finds them. But when you read Campbell’s reply, you see not a point-by-point rebuttal of her arguments, but a rebuke for using scientific data in such a crude way. Campbell was never SO sure of his conclusions — because he’s a scientist. He interpreted all the data he had the best he could and came to a tentative, yet fairly assured, conclusion. In his book, he doesn’t present an argument – he presents an interpretation.

But we’ve been trained so hard to accept “authorities” at face value that when we see science it’s like, OK, that’s it, we’re done. Science has spoken. And people listen to Denise Minger because she takes up the role of authority and pushes people’s “believe” buttons by presenting data in a way that looks credible (but isn’t).

Your Opinion Is Still Your Opinion

Let me repeat this. There is no such thing as facts. Everything is an opinion.

I add scientific data rarely to my posts. I do it when I used scientific data to come to a conclusion, or when I think they would help people to understand things. I don’t do it because that’s the only way my writing could be credible, and I don’t think it makes my writing more credible in and of itself.

Appealing to authorities to back up your argument shows that you trust authorities more than you trust yourself.

Sure, add that study, add that link. It can enrich a post. It can show people where you are coming from. But just because you do, don’t think it changes anything. Your opinion is still your opinion.

Peer Reviewed Studies In Journals

A study published in a peer-reviewed journal isn’t what makes something true or not. There are a lot of ways of working out what is true or not, and many of them let you get further than where the scientific consensus currently is.

For instance, I’ve had indisputable proof in my life that psychic abilities exist. Just because the scientific consensus is still in denial, should I ignore that proof? No… why would I?

Journals are biased like anything else. A scientist friend of mine couldn’t get her findings published (something suggesting a quantum mechanism in the recognition of smells) because they were too “far out”. And, while I have heard of studies published showing psychic abilities exist, I think they tend to be marginalised to the less prestigious journals because of this same bias, where they are all too easy to minimalise or overlook.

Trust

In the end, a peer-reviewed study in a journal is an exercise in trust like everything else. Do you trust the scientists not to have lied? Do you trust them to have presented the facts in a way that isn’t misleading? Do you trust the journal to have been unbiased in what it publishes? Do you trust the reporting of the study, if you’re reading it second-hand, to have been transparent?

Sure, there are some mechanisms in this system which allow for some pretty good trustability a lot of the time. But they are not infallible. It’s still an exercise in trust.

And that, my friend, is the same thing as any other source of information. I write about many unusual things in this blog – many unusual life experiences, some which defy scientific consensus. Do you trust me not to have lied? Not to be twisting the facts?

Only you can know that. You apply the same system of evaluation here as you apply with everything. You work out if you think I’m a trustworthy source, and how much you’re willing to bet on that. You make a read of my intentions. You learn to trust or not trust me over time.

Please just don’t place 100% trust on any one source, and don’t make an exception for Science just because it’s Science. There are no “facts”, just opinions, and there are no shortcuts – in the end, the one who decides what’s true or not has to be YOU.


 

Related:

Deflecting Online Arguments

The “Finding The Truth In A World Of Lies” Series:

1. How To Admit You Are Wrong

2. How To Use The Mind

3. Beliefs

4. The Adversary

5. Truth Finding Methods

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