Written for Chroma magazine
In 1633, Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei stood on trial, facing threats of torture from the Roman Catholic Church. The Inquisition forced him to recant his theory that the Earth revolves around the Sun—a compelling explanation of his observations of Jupiter’s moons and Venus’s phases—and sentenced him to a lifetime of house arrest. “The sentence was ordered to be widely publicized in scientific circles,” points out UCLA professor Henry Kelly. For centuries, societal forces have controlled our access to information, influencing how we think about science.
Today, we have access to vast amounts of information, but it hasn’t become easier to handle. The news is riddled with conflicting headlines about science: one day, chocolate does wonders for heart health, and the next week, it’s linked to diabetes. From childhood, we’re taught to think of science as a collection of unchanging truths—a mindset that doesn’t prepare us to make sense of these apparent contradictions. Over two-thirds of Americans lack a clear understanding of what a “scientific study” entails, reports the National Science Board. Because of this, we become susceptible to false optimism and unwarranted fears and remain in the dark about technical aspects of issues that impact us.
In our country, there is an absence of public awareness of how science works. It’s challenging to nurture the notion that science is dynamic, nuanced, and flawed when we naturally crave straightforward conclusions. To tackle this, we must change how we think about science: it is dynamic, not static. Theories are impermanent, and the scientific enterprise strives to turn them over with better ones. This fluidity makes progress possible.
What are the obstacles to fostering this perspective? From the beginning of this pipeline, incentives in academia influence what people pursue and report. David Grimes, a physicist and cancer researcher at Oxford University, states in his 2018 paper that top-tier journals tend to publish “novel, positive findings rather than investigations confirming the null hypothesis.” It’s much more exciting to announce that a particular compound helps cure a disease than to say that we’ve identified yet another molecule that doesn’t help, even though both represent progress. And although being able to replicate findings is crucial to making sure that they aren’t just flukes, it’s often difficult to accomplish and publish.
Unfortunately, researchers’ funding and career advancement opportunities often hinge precariously on the quality and quantity of their publications. As a result, scientists face pressure to perpetuate this cycle. A 2011 meta-analysis of studies across many disciplines found that between 1990 and 2007, the frequency of positive results increased by 22 percent. This problem, called publication bias, is pervasive and growing. A consequence is that a single claim about a drug’s miraculous effects might remain undisputed simply because dozens of experiments that found it to be ineffective were not published.
Journalists and media outlets, as translators between scientists and the public, play an influential role too. The press releases they receive in this big telephone game already contain biased selections of science. Journalists are also encouraged to write simple, exciting, and definitive headlines. Sensational media furthers the separation between how science operates and what the public understands.
Indeed, we have yet to reach a consensus about how science works. Karl Popper, a prominent twentieth-century philosopher of science, proposed that scientists aim to refute rather than affirm previous work. Then, in 1962, Thomas Kuhn argued that science occurs in phases: “normal” periods, and periods of dramatic change, such as the shift from Newtonian physics to quantum mechanics. During normal phases, researchers subscribe to a certain theory and resolve conflicts between that theory and experimental or observational results. Eventually, however, the anomalies add up, a scientific crisis ensues, and a new paradigm replaces the old theory. Whereas Popper viewed advancements in science as linear, Kuhn viewed progress as cyclical and more ambiguous. It’s not surprising, then, that we struggle to interpret the results of science.
Both theories, though, agree that science builds on and sometimes refutes previous work. Each study, groundbreaking as it’s made to seem, is only a single brick in the building that is our knowledge. We must ensure that we’re not throwing out useful but lackluster bricks—studies that confirm null hypotheses or validate prior findings.
To do this, we need to change the way we teach science in classrooms and think about it in our daily lives: dynamic, not static. Theories are temporary, waiting for simpler or more accurate ones. This mindset helps us be more open to new ideas and cope with the change that is inevitable in science. Legend has it that as Galileo left his trial, he murmured, “Even so, it [Earth] does move.” Science, too, moves, and we must learn to move with it.