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  • The Real Science

    Ryan Hoffman

    The title of my first TRN contribution is somewhat provocative, like the name "TRN" itself. What's "real" about "real science"? In both cases, "real" means that the motivations behind the stories are transparent.

    All areas of human endeavor are shaped by biases. Science, for all its accuracies, is no different in this regard. In the case of science, it's important to be transparent with respect to ones bias. In real scientific publications, any financial conflicts of interest must be disclosed. So if I'm publishing an article on the biological effects of a drug, and I'm receiving financial support from the people that will eventually market (and profit) from the drug, I have to disclose this conflict of interest in the article itself. (There are also non-financial conflicts of interest relevant to the practice of science.

    No matter the area, the most obvious bias is the credit/reward bias. All scientists are motivated to do good scientific research, publish it, and receive credit for their work. Artists, journalists, chefs, whoever puts their name on their work is under the influence of the credit/reward bias.

    It's pretty difficult to escape the credit/reward bias. Imagine an artist who does not put their name on their work, who stays completely anonymous. This avoids the credit/reward bias, but it also means the artist can't receive any compensation for their work. It would be hard to have a career as an artist without taking compensation for ones efforts. So any artist you can name is subject to the credit/reward bias.

    My role here is to expound real science, and to help debunk junk science. Science that serves undisclosed, or opaque, conflicts of interest, no matter how accurate its conclusions, is not real science in this sense of the term. Fake science loses credibility as soon as the conflicts of interest are made clear. So that's my mandate here at TRN: to present a rational evaluation of the science debates that affect our day-to-day lives. (I think "day-to-day" includes the political sphere.)

    In the up-coming entries I will examine the real science of climate change, and most importantly, to show the reader how I engage junk/fake science. That does not mean I'm going to prove anything or to become an actual climate scientist. That's not my job: I study protein molecules not climate. But I am going to show how some of the scientific consensus is quite likely to be correct, how some of the consensus could be incorrect (but is still probably correct), and how some of the criticisms are simply fake science.

    To illustrate my goals, I'll close with an example. Some people disbelieve the scientifically supported theory that the world is round. ("Round" as in "roughly spherical.") They're ignoring a lot of scientists... I'd guess over 99.99999% of them (that's one deviant per 10 million)... but it's fun to imagine how difficult it would be to reason with a flat-Earther, to convince them otherwise. Certainly, flat-Earth theories are somewhat intuitive based only on most people's direct experience. So how would you approach them? Without the use of scientific observations, or models, how are we to prove the world is round? I suppose I would start with holding a plate and inquiring about what happens when an ant walks off the edge of the plate.

    This obvious example - all of my readers agree the Earth is round - leads us to a more pragmatic question: why bother? Most people just accept that the Earth is round, even if it seems weird that South African heads point upwards, and Canadian heads point downwards, but drinking a beer seems like the same experience in both venues. (So does draining a sink, for the record.) So why bother engaging a flat-Earther? My answer is, even flat-Earthers vote! If they had enough numbers to influence our politics, our civilizations could plausibly go down the drain.

    Any citizen that cares enough to vote with their ballot or with their wallet (a.k.a. the real vote) ought to learn how to advance the values and methods of rational discourse. That's why this lowly protein biochemist is going to trudge into the real science of climate change.


    Ryan MB Hoffman has a B.Sc. in Biochemistry from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, and a Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta. He is mostly interested in how protein molecules fluctuate throughout their functional processes. During his doctoral work he studied troponin, which is a switch that regulates striated muscle contraction. He works as a post-doctoral scholar at the University of California, San Diego, at the Center for Theoretical Biological Physics. He is active with the Intrinsically Disordered Proteins subgroup of the Biophysical Society. Ryan likes to remind people that his contributions to TRN are performed entirely using his personal resources.
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