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The Do’s and Don’ts of Trusting Science

It’s been a tough year for science. The American Statistical Association issued a statement scolding1 scientists for misusing statistical analysis. Scientists continued to fight over an evaluation of 100 psychological studies,2 most of which could not be reproduced. Critics have cast doubt3 on a widely believed psychological theory of human willpower.

So yes, science is fallible. Scientists are only human and science is not a synonym for truth. It’s a bumpy, meandering road that heads in that general direction.

That makes skepticism good, up to a point. Beyond that point lie nonsense and superstition. The earth really is round.4

So how do you tell what to believe?

It’s a very old question. But there’s no need to go back to Plato. Let’s just start in the early 1950s, when the Nobel prizewinning chemist Irving Langmuir laid out a set of warning signs about identifying scientific ideas that might not conform to reality. He gave a handful of examples of what he called pathological science,5 including N-rays and mitogenic rays, neither of which exist despite being observed and measured in dozens of peer-reviewed experiments.

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About Skeptical Inquirer

Does Astrology Need to Be True? A Thirty-Year Update Does E = mc2 Imply Mysticism? Does the Universe Revolve around Me? A Skeptical Response to Science Denial Skeptical Inquirer’s 2016 Reader Survey Results