April 29, 2014 | David F. Coppedge

Misleading Data: Scientists Fooled by Their Own Assumptions

Whatever the datum you think speaks verbatim, it ain’t necessarily so.

While scientific observations are the key to reliable theories and predictions, they cannot speak for themselves.  Every person, including a scientist, filters the data through his or her own assumptions and expectations.  Here are examples of assumptions in diverse fields of science that have misled scientists, sometimes for many years.

Astrobiology:  Inconvenient truths:  Ever since the first exoplanets were found, astrobiologists have assumed that they could detect “biomarkers” (hints of life) by looking for disequlibria in their atmospheric spectra: that is, indications that life is tweaking the atmosphere into a non-natural state.  Wrong, says a new PNAS paper.  Three scientists present “Some inconvenient truths about biosignatures involving two chemical species on Earth-like exoplanets.”  The method can produce false positives:

The search for life on planets outside our own solar system is among the most compelling quests that humanity has ever undertaken. An often suggested method of searching for signs of life on such planets involves looking for spectral signatures of strong chemical disequilibrium. This article introduces an important potential source of confusion associated with this method. Any exoplanet can host a moon that contaminates the planetary spectrum. In general, we will be unable to exclude the existence of a moon. By calculating the most optimistic spectral resolution in principle obtainable for Earth-like planets, we show that inferring a biosphere on an exoplanet might be beyond our reach in the foreseeable future.

Such misleading biosignatures are “the cosmic equivalent of fool’s gold,” Science Magazine notes.”

Biomedicine:  Rats! and the de-scent of man:  How long have lab rats been used in research?  A century or more?  What scientists didn’t know is that the smell of men stresses the little rodents out.  This could bias test results and lead to false conclusions.  It’s also a possible reason why some results are not reproducible, a press release from McGill University says.  In all this time, nobody thought to control for gender among lab technicians.

In research published online April 28 in Nature Methods, the scientists report that the presence of male experimenters produced a stress response in mice and rats equivalent to that caused by restraining the rodents for 15 minutes in a tube or forcing them to swim for three minutes. This stress-induced reaction made mice and rats of both sexes less sensitive to pain.

Female experimenters produced no such effects.

An article on New Scientist says that “The finding could mean that thousands of behavioural experiments have overlooked an important factor affecting their results.”

Sociology: from nudge to sludge:  The current American federal branch of the government has relied heavily on the psychological teachings of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, who developed the “nudge” theory for shaping the unconscious mind and influencing collective behavior by the use of subliminal cues (Sunstein was Obama’s regulatory czar during his first administration, then served on the NSA oversight panel).  Wrong-headed, says a new book by Magda Osman, reviewed on Medical Xpress.  The article calls into question the whole idea of the “unconscious,” suggesting instead that conscious thinking cannot be bypassed.

“The UK, US and a growing list of other international governments, want to apply nudge to affect public policy on important issues such as wellbeing, health and financial decision-making. The problem is experimental rigor needs to improve before we can say that nudges are effective. Certainly there is no reliable evidence that nudges lead to significant behavioural change in the long term, just as there is no direct comparisons of the effectiveness of nudges against the introduction of taxation systems when it comes to increasing fitness, reducing smoking cessation, and reducing alcohol consumption.” commented Dr Osman.

People don’t want to hear this, but the most effective way to making better decisions is to first establish a willingness to change ones’ behaviour and values, develop coherent plans, think through the possible consequences of individual actions, and always keeping the far and near future in mind; in other words, hard thinking,” she added.

Geology: fibbing mountains:  You would think that inanimate objects just sit there and reveal objective truth about themselves, but no: Live Science says that mountains can lie.  In “Mountainous fib: Andes lie about their age,”  Larry O’Hanlon of Discovery News describes the confusion geologists are experiencing over one part of the mountain chain that seems old and another part that seems young, depending on the method used.  Conflicting data “adds yet another twist to the puzzling processes that created the range.”

Paleoanthropology: cuddly Neanderthals:  What would researchers from the late 19th century have thought if they knew that in 2014, Neanderthals would be described as good parents?  They might have felt they were living in an alternate universe, but it’s true; Live Science describes “Cuddly Neanderthals” with a drawing of an adult holding a child tenderly.  How did the early researchers get it so wrong?  Notice how their biases affected their data gathering:

The York findings fly against the stereotype partly because most archaeologists ignored the bones of children found in Neanderthal graves. They pored over the bones of adults and stored the bones of children and infants in boxes in the basements of museums, never looking at them, Spikins said. But those bones and the graves in which they were found tell a story.

According to the new thinking, “They cared for their children, teaching them what they needed to know. They also cared for the injured and sick, and when Neanderthals died — particularly children and infants — they were buried with care and respect.”  It should have made sense if the early researchers had thought about this.  A current researcher from Spain who defends the current thinking that Neanderthals were every bit as capable as modern humans asks, “If Neanderthal had not been ‘loving parents,’ how would their offspring and hence the population itself, have survived?”

Phylogenetics: ‘Y’ the chromosome is alive and well:  It looks so shriveled up, the Y chromosome must be on the way out, an evolutionary relic—largely junk DNA.  That’s what many evolutionists have concluded from looking at it.  Not so, says a press release from MIT’s Whitehead Institute.  A re-analysis of genes on the Y take it “from liability to viability.”  Indeed, many of the chromosome’s genes are “essential for male survival,” being expressed in many tissues of the male body, not just the sex organs.  Comparisons of Y chromosomes between rhesus monkeys, chimpanzees and humans supports the new view that the Y is alive and well.  David Page of the Whitehead Institute is debunking a popular—but wrong—notion:

Page believes this research will at last allow his lab to transition from proving the so-called rotting Y theorists wrong to a new era in Y chromosome biology. Over the past decade, Page, who is also a professor of biology at MIT and an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and his group have been debunking the thinly supported but wildly popular argument that because the Y chromosome had lost hundreds of its genes over roughly 300 million years of evolution, its ultimate extinction is inevitable.

The debunking can have dramatic effects on research.  “There is a clear need to move beyond a unisex model of biomedical research,” Page said, “which means we need to move beyond a unisex model of our understanding and treatment of disease.”

Mountains don’t lie; people do.  Some may argue that these examples prove that science is a self-correcting process.  We’re just patching a few cracks in the wall to make it stronger, they may say.  The issue is more serious than that.  For one, some of the wrong notions have been taught as scientific fact for well over a century.  For another, these are just some of the false notions that have come to light; how many more are there?  For a third, how would we know if the debunkers have the last word?  Maybe someone will debunk the debunkers in the future, and then other debunkers will debunk them.  There is no guarantee science is converging on “the truth” in these areas.

In his excellent course on Philosophy of Science sold by The Teaching Company, Dr. Jeffrey Kasser describes in one lecture how a researcher can never control for all the variables.  The story about lab rats above is a case in point; who would have thought that the odor of males would influence the stress level of rodents, and thus the findings?  What else might be a factor?  Could the researcher’s clothing, the color of the paint, or the elevation of the laboratory affect outcomes?  Replication is supposed to overcome some of these factors, but like Finagle’s Laws warn, “Lab results should be reproducible: they should all fail in the same way.”  Even measuring the melting point of ice could require an infinite number of experimental specifications.  We think we know what factors matter, but so did all the researchers above.  They misled themselves by their assumptions.

Most troubling are the cases where researchers waltzed right past “inconvenient truths” or ignored what they thought were irrelevant data, like the bones of Neanderthal children, hiding them away in museum drawers and never looking at them.  The desire to confirm favored hypotheses can mislead the best of scientists.  When ideology is involved, like naturalism, the potential for self-deception is strong – especially when reinforced by social pressure from a powerful consensus.  The faulty conclusions of science can have far-reaching effects, “nudging” politics, education, and international relations.

We need to get past the myth that science is an objectively neutral pathway to “the truth” about the natural world.  Science is mediated by fallible humans who are experts at self-deception.  Scientists can entertain “thinly supported but wildly popular” views for decades, even centuries.  They can envision themselves rich with fool’s gold.  The stronger the ideology, the more skeptics outside the consensus are needed to test for iron pyrite.



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  • John C says:

    One of the truly frightening possibilities is that so much money, time and effort would be wasted in sending humans to stars that show these ephemeral “signs of life,” only to have them arrive, possibly generations in the future (if I truly believed that), to discover this false positive had sent them on a life-time, light-years goose chase. Can you imagine dying in such a hopeless cause? And in all likelihood, taking your entire family down with you?

  • Marc says:

    Scientists believe it is not possible to prove something “true”; however, it only takes one piece of solid evidence to prove something false. Ruling out the possibilities is how science advances. Continuous revolution: anybody who tries to tell you that “The Science is Settled, Totally 100% accurate” is not doing science, or even talking about science, he’s doing PR or Marketing. He’s trying to sell you something.

    Evolutionary biologist Kirk J. Fitzhugh[43] wrote, “‘Evolution’ cannot be both a theory and a fact. Theories are concepts stating cause–effect relations…One might argue that it is conceivable to speak of ‘evolution’ as a fact by way of it being the subject of reference in explanatory hypotheses…In the strictest sense then, ‘evolution’ cannot be regarded as a fact even in the context of hypotheses since the causal points of reference continue to be organisms, and no amount of confirming instances for those hypotheses will transform them into facts…While evolution is not a fact, it is also not a single theory, but a set of theories applied to a variety of causal questions…An emphasis on associating ‘evolution’ with ‘fact’ presents the misguided connotation that science seeks certainty.”

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