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Science Doesn’t Lie

I’ve had a difficult time deciding on my next blog post because so many of the topics I want to discuss rely on an explanation of other topics. It’s maddening because there’s so much that I want to ramble about – why I hate other people, how sitcoms have ruined me for real life, how to be an adult (sort of)…lots of fun stuff, but I’m going to start here because it forms the foundation for most of my life.

Here’s the thing: I’m no scientist. I’m just a guy who learned a lot more after he finished college than he ever did prior; there are some very broad gaps in my knowledge and my understanding is limited.  I know this though: Science doesn’t lie.

Science Does Not Equal People

Before I can talk about how honest science is, I’d like to point out how much people suck.

People lie all of the fucking time. It’s one of the few things that seems to be consistent across cultures, genders, and economic boundaries – people lie without even realizing they’re doing it.

The Obvious Ones (Little White Lies)

Whenever someone wants to illustrate that everyone lies you’ll see something like:

“Of course that doesn’t make you look fat.”
“Was I speeding officer?”
“It was the dog.”

The Jim Carey movie “Liar Liar” more or less addressed a lot of these and of course it works out in the most awful way possible for him; as if to illustrate that in order to adult you have to lie, or else you’re just some jerk.  There’s no third alternative, no means of communication that conveys honesty as well as decency – but I believe that to be flawed.

“You might want to double-check yourself”, while not exactly making everyone in the room feel completely awkward is vastly better than, “yes, it made you look fat 30 pounds ago”
“I was probably going a bit fast” has gotten me more warnings than tickets and, on the few occasions that I’ve been going way over has gotten me a reduction of as much as 20 mph; that could be the difference in jail time*.
“Heheheheheheh” may sound childish, but it breaks the tension and is a perfectly convenient cover for embarrassment.

*(For the minorities that are reading this, none of this will help at all. The best that I can offer you is to not break the law when cops are around, and when they are around to make sure your hands are completely visible and not holding anything.  It may not help, but at least if anyone nearby is recording on their cell phone the offending cop might lose their job. Eventually.)

We Lie To Ourselves (to procrastinate)

“I didn’t have time”
“I forgot”
“I was too sick”
“I didn’t realize the dog shat on the couch.”
“The bank must have made a mistake”
And the good old, “The check’s in the mail”

As I started trying to be honest with myself, I noticed that I was replacing “I forgot” with “I didn’t want to.” and “I didn’t have time” with “I didn’t want to.” and “I was too sick” with “I didn’t want to.” Mainly because most of day-to-day living is tedious suckage, but it certainly helped me to acknowledge the time that I was/am wasting on relaxation (that wasn’t relaxing).

As an aside here, it was about seven years ago that I noticed once every 4 weeks I was too sick to go to work. It’s probably no coincidence that for many years prior to that my sick time accrual was one day per month. After making that observation I started paying a little closer attention – I observed that I felt like shit most of the time and was only forcing myself to go to work because I felt I didn’t have much choice.  I assume most other people are the same way; it’s kind of amusing to notice the “time off” trends with coworkers. Here’s a tip: Mondays and Fridays are always bad to take off; managers and bosses will always assume you’re fucking around. Wednesdays are also bad because, smack in the middle of the week also looks suspicious. Stick to Tuesdays and Thursdays; use excuses that are hard to prove or difficult to question: Explosive Diarrhea is a good one and a sinus infection is pretty easy to get a Doctor’s note for if your boss is a stickler.

Deliberate Misrepresentation

Those of you that have (or have had) kids or have been kids will know how this story goes.  I’m using this example specifically because I’m willing to bet that we all used it when we were younger…but unfortunately, a lot of people never grow out of it.

“Mom, can I go set fire to the cat?”
“Of course, not, that’s awful. Don’t be ridiculous.”
(Five minutes later in the garage)
“Dad, can I set fire to the cat?”
“Did you ask your mother?”
“Yes.”
“Ok then. Be careful.”
(Ten minutes later in the back yard)
“I thought I told you not to set fire to the cat!!!”
“Dad said I could!”

As we get older, we’re supposed to realize that the question is being asked for a reason and that we have an obligation to be completely honest. It’s implied that if you asked your mother, and she said “no”, that her answer wins the day.  It’s expected that we learn it

Expectation rarely meets reality.

A whole lot of people out there have realized that the only words that matter are the ones that can be proven and they rely on that when answering awkward questions that they know the correct answer is “wrong”.

For those of you thinking, “shit, my marriage vows were just words. The Oath I took on the Bible is just words. The promise to not commit perjury is just words. What’s to stop someone from lying about their commitment?” and lots and lots and LOTS of people have already reached that conclusion.

People Lie When (They Think) the Truth (Will) Hurt(s)

I’m a huge fan of constructive criticism. Once we’re born and we’re all growed up, the next 60 or so odd years are going to be “all work and no play”. What in the fuck is the point if you aren’t going to indulge in (at least a little) personal growth? But I can’t grow if I don’t get feedback.

“Dude, that sounds great!” might stroke my ego a bit, but “that last chord was a little sloppy” gives me something to practice. “That sucks” is just hurtful (the point where criticism is no longert constructive).

Look at it this way: If you have a booger hanging from your nose, would you want to know about it? Picture it in your mind’s eye: You’re getting ready for work, finish up your shower, take a last look in the mirror and everything is perfect. You step out in the hall and the sunlight sets off your photonic sneeze reflex. You haphazardly wipe, but miss.

You now have a gross ball of snot clinging visibly to your nostril; your spouse probably didn’t notice or is a horrible person for letting you leave with something like that to parade around at work. The guard at the gate doesn’t say anything – instead opting for the subtle: wiping his own nose surreptitiously, hoping you’ll get the message. You don’t. You stop and chat with a group of your friends outside; the laughing and carousing drowns out the one guy who’s quietly trying to get your attention. Once you get inside, the receptionist notices but she’s talking to the FedEx guy and she wouldn’t dare embarrass you like that.  Eventually, you’re known as “that guy/chick who had a booger hanging for like, all day long. I’m really surprised they didn’t notice at some point. Disgusting!”

My point is that unless you’re really really REALLY good at spotting your own flaws (and none of us are), criticism one of the few direct ways that we can grow.  Ignoring criticism indicates to the world that you are done becoming a better person…you’re the best you’re ever going to be. If that’s you, you’re part of the problem. Of course, not all criticism is grounded in fact – people are petty and will quite frequently verbally flail randomly when they think they’re being attacked.

How about some more examples?

“Of course I don’t think you drink too much.”
“I hadn’t noticed the extra weight”
“This <insert lame gift here> is perfect!” (Although I admit I have bigger hang ups about gift giving, it’s a topic in itself.)

…and by proxy, they lie to themselves.  They noticed the extra weight when their pants stopped fitting. They noticed the alcoholism after their second DUI. I’ve <ahem> noticed my problem with maintaining a job since starting to smoke pot, but correlation does not equal causation.

We all lie to ourselves to protect what we think are the important parts of our personality and our brains are really really good at not paying attention to something they don’t want to see. Lying helps us rectify that conflict without actually putting forth the effort for self-improvement (or that most dreaded of nemesis: change).

When I first started to smoke pot – about ten years ago – I was dead certain that I didn’t want to fall into the downward spiral that seems to afflict so many with drug abuse. I was fortunate in that I have a wife that is firmly grounded in reality and not prone to addiction herself. I gained a commitment from her at that time: “You’ll tell me if this goes too far? You’ll let me know if it’s costing us too much or impacting our lives too much?” and her answer was a very clear “Yes.”  I still periodically check with her just in case; the consensus seems to be that I’m much easier to get along with if I smoke a little weed once in awhile.

People Lie Because Saying “No” is Hard

Last night (what am I saying? 3am isn’t really last night) I was smoking a cigarette and sitting on my front porch, letting the dogs stretch their fuzzy little legs and drop a few steamers. We don’t live in the best of neighborhoods. Our house is awesome, but it’s wedged right in the middle of Meth Central, Portland. We get a lot of transient traffic because we’re close to a main highway – this has lead to a locking mailbox, motion sensing lights, (and when we can afford it, a fucking wall).

A homeless woman walked by looking totally strung out and asked me for a cigarette.

“Sorry, this is my last one.”

Even those of us that try to pay attention, that try to be clear and honest, lie sometimes. And this one? Yeah, I do it a lot. It was much easier when I wasn’t a smoker – “I don’t have any” is a perfectly good (and truthful) statement. You know some other good responses?

“There’s a store about a block away; they carry this brand.”
“Sounds like an opportune time to quit.”

and, of course,

“No.”

I could give them my cigarettes too, but I can’t afford that.

…But Science Doesn’t Lie

Science gives us what we observe. Which requires people. Who (by and large) suck.

  • Scientists, like the rest of us, have egos and don’t like to admit when they’re wrong. In a perfect world, all scientific experimentation would take place without the ego being involved, but we need to be realistic: A limited number of people taking part and an unlimited supply of questions.
  • Science requires rigorous testing.  There are any number of ways that results can (and have been) skewed and manipulated (massaged, as they call it) by people that had something to lose. “If my test doesn’t show anything, my funding will get pulled and I’ll be unemployed!” or “The test shows that _______ is what’s happening, but I know that it works based on my hypothesis.” and my personal favorite “The data shows that marijuana is safe, but I’m being paid to prove it harmful. I’ll just lie in the summary.”
  • That rigorous testing should optimally be performed by independent parties. This helps remove the “ego” from the discovery and helps validate observations (which may have been incorrect on the earlier test(s)).
  • 24 hour media coverage has left an oversaturated market grasping for the “next big thing” (because they have jobs too), and that leads to…shortcuts. It also leads to a lot of “journalists” not actually understanding that they should do their research before they report on something, not after Twitter explodes and calls them idiots.
  • The public confusing someone that is “famous” for someone that is “smart”. This same error is made when someone assumes that the science is accurate because the guy pitching it has “Doctor” in front of their name.  You’ll see people with Doctorates of Christian Studies spouting any old bullshit outside of their field – genetics, the environment, crime, disease – and their entire area of study is in Philosophy.  I will trust my mechanic to work on my car, but I would much rather go to a Neurosurgeon to work on my spine.

Muddy, doesn’t mean “impossible to navigate” though…it just means that in order for you to have an educated opinion about something you need to be (at least a little) educated on something. That means doing some research. In two minutes of DuckDuckGo‘ing (It’s like Google, but they don’t track your information) you can easily find the historical data regarding many popular topics of conversation:

The chances are your pet topic has been discussed to tears – do a bit of reading, find someone that has a similar theory to yours, and then (with an open mind), read the refutations and reassess your opinions.

Science is the Best Answer to “Why” and “What” (So Far)

Since the beginning of recorded history humanity has been asking the questions “Why” and (by extension) “What”.

“Why are we here?”
“What makes a successful hunt?”
“What makes a successful harvest?”
“Why does my tooth ache?”
“Why’s it so fucking cold?”

For 95% of that history the answer has come from Animism, Religion, Spirituality, Meditation, Stars, Stones, Bones, Rocks, Trees, Cards, Eggs, Comets, Crazy People, Eclipses, the Sun, the Moon, Guesswork, and eventually the Scientific Method.

Guess which one has produced the most reliable results?

That’s not to say that science is without it’s scandals or errors. Honest mistakes happen, and deliberate misrepresentations occur. With any amount of luck we’ll find a way to refine the process further; to more clearly identify the questions that we want answers to and get unambiguous answers.

The thing is, of everything that we’ve tried so far Science is the only one that leaves the door open to revision. In fact, it insists on it in order for it to be science.

We are surrounded by examples of evolutionary dead ends – living things that have not kept pace with global changes and are dying out as a result (not to be confused with animals that just haven’t been able to survive in the world that humans have created – that’s a different topic).

And some quite amazing successes that in all likelihood will not only out survive humans, but could some day out-tech us as well.

The Universe is an amazing place if you never run out of questions.

Wow…in just shy of two weeks I managed a second post. More to follow…
–Rok

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