Jeremy Côté


Cherry Picking

Information is available more freely and readily than ever before. This is something that is evident enough, yet we don’t always consider the implications of such a statement. Because of this wealth of information, it is much easier to have many people who are uninformed spreading information that may or may not be the most accurate. Then, this information ends up getting repeated, before finally rooting itself in someone’s mind, despite being incorrect.

Consider the people who try and discredit global climate change or the theory of evolution. There is a very vocal segment of the population that tries to get their point of view across, despite it having little to no scientific basis. On the one hand, it’s easy to pick most of these people out, since they do not even try to have some sort of scientific grounding for their idea. On the other hand, there is a smaller subset of the population that is even more dangerous. These are the people who wield just a slight amount of science that they appear “legitimate”, masking what they are actually saying.

If we continue with the evolution example, there is a subset of those who don’t support evolution that support the notion of intelligent design. Essentially, these people knew that evolution was going to seem more reasonable since it was based on science, so they crafted a theory of creationism called intelligent design. Without getting too technical, intelligent design revolves around the idea that there was a divine power that designed every different species on Earth, and that they aren’t connected to each other through evolutionary history.

Now, I won’t attempt to analyze each argument for intelligent design (since that is not the purpose of the post). Instead, I want to simply point out what these groups look like to the media. On one side of the coin, you have the strong majority of scientists who support evolution (it is the accepted theory). But on the other side, you only have people who use a supposedly “historical” text to base their ideas on. Quite quickly, it can seem like one side has a mountain of evidence while this other group can only point to a text.

But what if this group re-branded itself? Instead of just using a sacred text as their evidence, they call their group “intelligent design”, giving it a name that sounds more scientific. At the same time, they actually do refer to intelligent design as a scientific theory, therefore pitting it against the theory of evolution.

However, there is a problem with this. While it is great to treat intelligent design as a scientific inquiry, it is definitely not scientific fact. Furthermore, it requires hypotheses that are testable, a difficult feat to achieve for these kinds of ideas.

What it does though is make intelligent design look like the theory of evolution. When it is discussed in the media, the proponents of intelligent design make it seem like there is a lot of science behind the idea, even though there isn’t.

This is the danger of only understanding a little bit of science, or (worse) only communicating a portion of it in order to further your message (and to hide contradictions). When only a little science is known, many things that aren’t true can seem true. One can exploit this by trying to introduce doubt into a conversation that should have been accepted long ago (such as evolution or global climate change). Because of this “scientific” way in which their ideas are presented, it makes the idea seem more legitimate, even if it is not. Therefore, for those that only briefly glance at the actual idea itself, the whole thing can seem quite reasonable. It is the case of fabricating a nice exterior for content that is not sound.

Why is this important? Simply put, a little bit of knowledge can be even worse than understanding the whole concept. When one understands nothing, there is no mistaking their incompetence. This is not meant as a put down. Rather, it’s to illustrate that there is no doubt in everyone’s mind that the person isn’t completely certain about it. When one understands something completely, it is evident in their voice and tone that they know what they are talking about. K

The amount of knowledge a person has in a subject can usually be gleamed from the manner in which they speak.

The problem lies in the person who fits between these extremes. These people can be harmful in both an unintentional and intentional way. The reason this happens is because this person behaves like the person who understands, yet doesn’t quite have the same level of expertise. Sometimes, a person may only make mistakes unintentionally, which can create harm but does not have any malice behind it. But if the person chooses to twist the science and make it sound a specific way, he or she is deliberately creating harm for the people that get misled.

Therefore, we need to be mindful when we encounter information, and recognize that some people try to disguise their ideas with a little bit of science in order to sound legitimate. This can be a tricky problem, but it is one we have to keep our eyes for in the ocean of bold headlines and one-liners. When we use science to back up our claims, we need to be indiscriminate. We cannot cherry pick the bits we like and discard the ones we don’t. Science is a package deal, and we have to be prepared to embrace the things that agree with what we say as much as the things that disagree. Science is about being objective, and there is nothing objective about using a little bit of science to make our claims “sound better”.

A better way of using science is to fit our conclusions to the actual scientific data, and not the other way around. Let’s not allow people to wield a little bit of science to support their claims when the totality of the data says otherwise.