Science behind-the-scenes: “And that is a scientific FACT!”

By Bryan Moyers

In the film Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, there is a scene where the quartet of male leads is screaming at their boss.  They are outraged over the hiring of a woman for the position of news anchor.  At one point, David Koechner’s character leans forward over the desk and announces:

“It is anchorMAN, not anchorLADY, and THAT IS A SCIENTIFIC FACT!”

Ignoring the caricature of 1970s misogyny, what does “scientific fact” mean?  The official definition is that scientific facts are verified by repeatable careful observation or measurements.  But wander into the comments section of any news article on climate change, gun control, mass incarceration, or evolution, and you’ll find that people use the term entirely outside of this context.  It’s often used as a bludgeon to support points.  “[X] is a scientific fact, and if you deny it you’re a dummy.”  (Related: Avoid internet comment sections.)

The term “scientific fact” is not only used incorrectly, but sometimes “facts” can appear to contradict each other.  While “scientific facts” are used as bludgeons, they may not always be as sturdy as they appear.   It’s easy to get mixed messages.  After all, science says you should make your bed, and also not make your bed.  Science definitely supports eating eggs, but also that you probably shouldn’t eat eggs.

eggs
Science’s greatest mystery- should I stick this in my mouth? Image credit: Creative Commons

Scientific facts seem to tell us we should behave in contradictory ways. That’s not really how scientific facts work.  Many things that people might call “facts” are really “laws” or “theories”.  More importantly, scientific facts, theories, and laws by themselves almost never tell us what we “should” do.

Facts, laws, and theories

In the common conception of science, “facts” are just about the same things as “laws”, both of them beyond reproach, telling us how the world is in no uncertain terms.  “Theory” on the other hand, is thought to be lower in the truth-hierarchy than facts or laws, like an idea that hasn’t yet been confirmed.  This is illustrated by people’s use of the word to try and dismiss certain areas of science—“that’s just a theory.”  In practice, scientists use the terms “Fact”, “Law”, and “Theory” to refer to largely distinct ideas in science.  (Note: these misunderstandings and misuses affect many scientific terms).  Matt Anticole, an educator at TEDEd, defines the terms “fact”, “theory”, and “law” and their relationships very well in video form.

To summarize the video, scientific theories explain observed facts and make broad predictions about things that we haven’t yet observed, allowing us to predict things like the behavior of cells without having a microscope pointed directly at them.  Scientific laws, on the other hand, make accurate predictions about what will happen under a certain set of conditions, such as Newton’s Laws of Motion (which don’t work when things are moving extremely fast, among other conditions).  Scientific facts aren’t theories or laws, but can be used to confirm or reject either—for example, finding rabbit fossils in Precambrian rock (much earlier than rabbits existed according to evolutionary theory) would put a strong nail in the coffin of the theory of evolution.  (If you’re interested in learning a bit more about facts, theories, laws, and other terms, NASA actually has a fun little quiz to help distinguish them.)

Misuse of scientific facts

Even when scientific terms are used correctly, people might use them erroneously to support particular viewpoints or actions.  For instance, discussions about climate change often have people arguing about its causes and the effects—the theories and laws of how and why it occurs.  Understanding the facts, theories, and laws about an issue is crucial to having a conversation about how the issue could be solved (or if there is an issue to be solved).  But instead people often use scientific facts to try to support things that we should do.

When we discuss what we should do about an issue, it’s very easy to slip into a misuse of scientific facts.  One article interprets a recent study about milk consumption and bone fractures as saying, “the answer is clear: Milk is bad.  Stay away.”  Consider a broader social issue, such as homosexuality.  A fact often creeps up in some moral arguments: gay and bisexual men account for most new HIV infections*.  What should we take from these studies?   We might be skeptical that we should stop drinking milk, that thousands-year-old food.  We should also be careful about drawing moral conclusions about homosexuality because of this statistic—after all, are automobile drivers and passengers less moral than passengers on flights, as flights have fewer fatalities?

Facts, by themselves, don’t tell us anything about what we “should” do.  Thinking that the way something is tells us what we ought to do is a version of the naturalistic fallacy (the “is-ought” fallacy).  Of course, facts guide our behavior.  If you want to make a bridge, knowing the facts about metals is pretty darned important.  If you want the bridge to work, you ought to make the bridge in a certain way.  But facts about metals by themselves don’t tell you anything about what you ought to do.  For this, we need extra information: moral assumptions, goals, desires, and other human elements.

The human element—How science guides us

Consider the bed-making example from the beginning of this article.  Science says that making your bed might be associated with motivation and certain psychological benefits (“You should make your bed!”), but it also increases the chances for mites (“You shouldn’t make your bed!”).  Science doesn’t tell you to do anything, but it can guide your behavior.  Do you want that boost of motivation?  Is the slightly increased risk of mites worth the psychological benefits?  These are questions about your goals and desires.  What we decide to do about bed making, about consuming eggs and milk, about sexually-transmitted disease rates among a population, or any other issue depends on both scientific fact and our view of the world.

So, the “scientific fact” that the word is “anchorMAN” doesn’t mean that Christina Applegate can’t be an anchor.  That’s not how science works.   It’s crucial to be able to distinguish between what’s fact, what’s theory, what’s law, and to know what these types of information tell us (or don’t tell us!) about how we should behave.  Understanding these distinctions helps us avoid being hoodwinked in discussions about science and policy.  And that’s a scientific fact.

*Author’s Note: The use of this fact is not meant to be any kind of moral statement about any portion of the LGBTQ community by the author.  It only demonstrates that how we understand and use scientific facts can have dire influence on important societal discussions, including issues of civil liberties and how to help communities in need.

Read the next installment of “Science behind-the-scenes” here.

About the author

 

bryanOur second co-founder, Logistics Coordinator, and Senior Editor, Bryan Moyers, is a doctoral student in the Bioinformatics program at the University of Michigan. Bryan’s research focuses on methodological problems in molecular evolution, and correctly inferring information from data. In other words, his research sheds light on problems with the methods commonly used in the field of Evolutionary Biology so that improvements can be made. Bryan holds degrees in Biology and Psychology from Purdue University. His interests are in science and education issues, philosophy of science, and the intersection of science and business. Outside of science, Bryan enjoys reading, running, hiking, and brewing/consuming beer.

Read more from Bryan here.

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