Twenty tips for interpreting scientific claims

Policy: Twenty tips for interpreting scientific claims

This post isn’t about anything scientists discovered or some new emerging tech.  I found an article authored by William J. Sutherland, David Spiegelhalter, & Mark Burgman, about the process of integrating science into politics.

I thought this article was very interesting and relevant since our class discussions all centered on legal interpretation of scientific findings.  The article discusses twenty tips that laypersons should keep in mind when reviewing scientific data.  Of course it isn’t a textbook manual on complicated theories and equations, instead it’s more a helpful guide on how scientists and politicians and lawmakers should interpret scientific data.  But clearly written for non-scientists.

The 20 tips (they are discussed in greater detail in the link provided above):

  • Differences and chance cause variation.
  • No measurement is exact.
  • Bias is rife.
  • Bigger is usually better for sample size.
  • Correlation does not imply causation.
  • Regression to the mean can mislead.
  • Extrapolating beyond the data is risky.
  • Beware of the base-rate fallacy.
  • Controls are important.
  • Randomization avoids bias.
  • Seek replication, not pseudoreplication.
  • Scientists are human.
  • Significance is significant.
  • Separate no effect from non-significance.
  • Effect size matters.
  • Study relevance limits generalizations.
  • Feelings influence risk perception.
  • Dependencies change the risks.
  • Data can be dredged or cherry picked.
  • Extreme measurements may mislead.

The two that I found most interesting were “correlation does not imply causation” and separating “extrapolating beyond the data is risky.”  These two rules are clearly related and in essence say that jumping to conclusions is dangerous.  I think too often people are too quick to glance over scientific findings and come up with their own conclusions.  I suppose this is a form of bias.  But if lawmakers and politicians are briefed on these twenty tips prior to making decisions based on scientific data, I can imagine a much more efficient and informed machine operating and moving the country towards positive change.

While the article specifically addresses the interpretation of scientific data in political forums, I think these tips could be refined into principles that should be taught in schools as well.  Similar to the scientific method, it would improve people’s understanding of information available through the media by minimizing bias or at the very least teaching people to understand that bias exists.

How interesting would it be if children were taught to understand that their opinions and beliefs are a result of conditioning, and as teenagers learn to form opinions from an almost neutral point of view?


Wolverine Gene Discovered?!

Self-heal like Wolverine? Gene discovery might hold clues

Wow! A researcher from Harvard Medical School accidentally discovered what might be a gene that triggers regeneration of lost tissue!  While conducting cancer research, George Daley clipped holes in the ears of mice genetically engineered with the Lin28a gene so he could quickly tell them apart, however the holes kept closing.  Not exactly sure why he did this but he also clipped off their toes and found that they too grew back eventually.  The fur he shaved from their backs also returned quicker than usual.  The exact process by which the mice were healing was a bit beyond my ability to comprehend, but in a nutshell, the modified gene triggered similar growth patterns experienced during the development from embryo to mouse.

I can already imagine the patent attorneys salivating at this prospect.  If they design a drug or form of treatment that can trigger this type of regeneration, so many problems could be solved.  Of course people think about lost limbs and perhaps even organ replacement, but imagine the impact this discovery could have on world hunger?  Of course it would cause a tremendous amount of controversy, designing livestock that regenerates lost tissue.  Animal rights activists would probably have a field day with the thought of animals mutilated over and over again until their cells can no longer regenerate lost tissue.  But think of the possibilities.  Depending on the length of the regrowth process, one farm might be able to cut costs significantly by not needing to replenish livestock as often.

The article does mention that the gene did not trigger regeneration in all tissues, and it appeared that at a certain age limit it decreased in efficacy, but this discovery shows at the very least the potential of genetic engineering.

I wonder if the stem cell research advocates would find ways to object to this type of genetic research.  From what I understand, many people that oppose stem cell research do so because they fear stem cells come exclusively from embryonic cells.  However with this type of genetic modification, you’re essentially regrowing tissue as if it were the first time.  I think the debates on this subject would be fascinating to hear and I’d love to hear the religious side of the arguments as well.  If we eventually modify ourselves to be able to regenerate lost limbs and organs, a trait not inherently human, would that conflict with religious beliefs of a higher power?

On the flip side, the biggest glaring issue for me would be overpopulation.  The more we invest on lifespan prolonging tech, the more crowded the planet gets.  More people = more pollution.  Although this discovery is fantastic and could help a large number of people, I wonder if the end results would ever see the light of day.  I can imagine world leaders would probably be concerned on the negative effects of a growing population with significantly increased life spans.  If retirement age remained where it is, medical discoveries that lengthen our lifespans would be a significant amount of stress on economic systems.  Bridge clubs and Bingo halls would make a killing though.

Invisibility Cloak No Longer Science Fiction

The scientists in this article introduced the world to an interesting new take on cloaking devices.  The legal implications are endless!  Think of the possibilities for using this kind of technology both for the benefit and detriment of mankind.  Not just in wartime, but law enforcement, commercial industry, entertainment, not to mention if it’s further refined and falls into the wrong hands.  I guess that’s a risk you take with any type of new tech, and so far they’ve only managed to manipulate radio waves according to this article.  But light waves are what they’re working on next.  Imagine how powerful of a tool that would be if someone developed a suit that renders the wearer invisible to the naked eye.  Old school bank heists would be a thing of the past.

Up to now I always assumed cloaking devices would just project the scenery behind the object to the front.  An actual “cloak” if you will.  The thought of actually bending light waves is just baffling to me.  Probably because I’m not a physics guy.  It’s exciting to see where technology is headed in the near future.  Hopefully all this new tech will result in many new areas for legal practice.

The way the cloaking device works is similar to noise cancelling headphones but for visual detection.  The goal of its developers was to create a light weight device that scrambles the waves that bounce off of objects and are picked up by sensory organs or some form of receiver.  In essence, imagine the light waves coming from an object never reaching your eye.  Even if you’re looking directly at it.

Digging deeper into the philosophical realm, if we’re able to eventually manipulate what we see, hear, smell, touch, and even taste by using technology, I wonder if people’s ideas of reality would change.  For lack of a better example off the top of my head, in the Matrix as well as in Inception, the lingering question throughout those films was “what is really real?”  How do you define reality?  Creating a device that manipulates our vision externally would make me wonder eventually if what I’m seeing every day is really what’s there or what someone else wants me to see.