What’s your source?–Identifying reliable information.
A Need for Skepticism
Scientific information and understanding will always be subject to uncertainty. Therefore, predictions will always be inaccurate to some extent. We must critically interpret all information and predictions in environmental science with uncertainty in mind. Apply critical thinking whenever learning about an environmental issue, whether it involves listening to a speaker in a classroom, at a conference, or on video, or when reading an article in a newspaper, textbook, website, or scientific journal. Because of the uncertainty of many predictions in science, and particularly in the environmental realm, a certain amount of skepticism and critical analysis is always useful.
Environmental issues and reducing the impact of geological hazards are acutely important to the welfare of people and other species. Science and its methods allow for a critical and objective identification of crucial issues, the investigation of their causes, and a degree of understanding of the consequences of environmental change. Scientific information influences decision-making about environmental issues, including whether to pursue expensive strategies to avoid further, but often uncertain, damage.
However, scientific information is only one consideration for decision-makers, who are also concerned with the economic, cultural, and political contexts of environmental problems. When deciding how to deal with the causes and consequences of environmental changes, decision-makers may give greater weight to non-scientific (social and economic) considerations than scientific ones, especially when there is uncertainty about the latter. The most critical decisions about environmental issues are made by politicians and senior bureaucrats in government, or by private managers, rather than by Earth and environmental scientists. Decision-makers typically worry about the short-term implications of their decisions on their chances for re-election or continued employment, and on the economic activity of a company or society at large, as much as they do about environmental damage. (Environmental Science – Simple Book Publishing, n.d.) That is why the United States struggled so much with the COVID-19 pandemic. On one end of the response was a focus on health science. On the other were economists worried about collapsing the economy. It was ultimately up to politicians to decide on how much the nation should “lockdown” and how much the nation needed to stay economically “open.”
Introductory science courses usually deal with accepted scientific theory and do not include opposing ideas, even though these alternate ideas may be credible. This makes it easier for students to understand complex material. Advanced students will encounter more controversies as they continue to study their discipline.
Some groups argue that some established scientific theories are wrong, not based on their scientific merit but the group’s ideology. This section focuses on how to identify evidence-based information and differentiate it from pseudoscience.
Science denial happens when people argue that established scientific theories are wrong, or not based on scientific merit but on subjective ideology—such as for social, political, or economic reasons. Organizations and people use science denial as a rhetorical argument against issues or ideas they oppose. Three examples of science denial versus science are:
- Teaching creationism vs. evolution in public schools
- Denying the relationship between tobacco smoke and cancer
- Claiming that human activity is not linked to climate change
Video 1.3.1 Science denial and skepticism (9:16). Learn to recognize the difference!
Let us look at climate change. A climate denier explicitly denies or doubts the objective conclusions of geologists and climate scientists. Science denial uses three false arguments. The first argument tries to undermine the scientific conclusion’s credibility by claiming the research methods are flawed, or the theory is not “universally accepted”—the science is unsettled. The notion that scientific ideas are not absolute creates doubt for non-scientists; however, let’s not confuse a lack of universal truths with scientific uncertainty. Because science is based on falsifiability, scientists avoid claiming universal truths and use language that conveys uncertainty. This allows scientific ideas to change and evolve as more evidence is uncovered.
Video 1.3.2 Why do some people don’t believe in climate science (7:33).
The second argument claims the researchers are not objective, and that they are motivated by ideology or economic agendas. This is an ad hominem argument in which a person’s character is attacked instead of the merit of their argument. Science deniers claim researchers need to justify asking for funding, therefore they manipulate the results. Or they can claim that because the research funds came from the federal government, the researchers use their results to lobby for expanded government regulation. This shows a lack of knowledge of how funding science works.
The third argument is to demand a balanced view, equal time in media coverage, and educational curricula to engender the false illusion of two equally valid arguments. Science deniers frequently demand equal coverage of their proposals, even when there is little scientific evidence supporting their ideology. For example, science deniers might demand the dominant religious explanations to be taught as an alternative to the well-established theory of evolution. Alternatively, all potential causes of climate change are discussed as equally probable, regardless of the heavy body of evidence that shows one dominant cause of our current climate change.
Conclusions derived using the scientific method are different from those based on ideologies. Conclusions about nature derived from ideologies are outside the area of science research and education. For example, it would be inappropriate to teach the Flat Earth model in modern Earth science courses because the scientific method has disproved this idea. Unfortunately, widespread scientific illiteracy allows these arguments to be used to suppress scientific knowledge and spread misinformation.
The formation of new conclusions based on the scientific method is the only way to change scientific conclusions. We would not teach ‘Flat Earth’ geology and plate tectonics because Flat Earthers do not follow the scientific method. See video 1.3.3. That scientists avoid universal truths and change their ideas as more evidence is uncovered means that our knowledge evolves, not that the science is unsettled. Because of widespread scientific illiteracy, these arguments are used by those who wish to suppress science and misinform the general public.
Video 1.3.3 Arguments for Flat Earth vs. Round Earth (10:10).
In a classic case of science denial, beginning in the 1960s and for the next three decades, the tobacco industry and their scientists used rhetorical arguments to deny a connection between tobacco usage and cancer. Once it became clear scientific studies overwhelmingly found that using tobacco dramatically increased a person’s likelihood of getting cancer, their next strategy was to create a sense of doubt about the science. The tobacco industry suggested the results were not yet fully understood, and more study was needed. They used this doubt to lobby for delaying legislative action to warn consumers of the potential health hazards. Those who deny the significance of human involvement in climate change currently employ this tactic.
Evaluating Sources of Information
In the internet age, information is plentiful. Anyone exploring scientific inquiry must discern valid sources of information from pseudoscience and misinformation. Scientifically reliable information is derived through the scientific method and is as unbiased as possible. A valid inference or interpretation is based on objective evidence or data. Credible data and inferences are clearly labeled, separated, and differentiated. Anyone looking over the data can understand how the author’s conclusion was derived or come to an alternative conclusion.
Scientific procedures are clearly defined, so the investigation can be replicated to confirm the original results or expanded further to produce new results. These measures make a scientific inquiry valid and its use as a source reputable. Of course, substandard work occasionally slips through, and retractions are published from time to time. An infamous article linking the MMR vaccine to autism appeared in the highly reputable journal Lancet in 1998. Journalists discovered that the author had multiple conflicts of interest and fabricated data, and the article was retracted in 2010.
In addition to methodology, data, and results, the authors of a study should be investigated. An author’s credibility is based on multiple factors, such as having a degree in a relevant topic or being funded from an unbiased source.
The same rigor should be applied to evaluating the publisher, ensuring the results reported come from an unbiased process. The publisher should be easy to discover. Good publishers will show the latest papers in the journal and make their contact information and identification clear. Reputable journals show their peer review style. Some journals are predatory, where they use unexplained and unnecessary fees to submit and access journals. Reputable journals have recognizable editorial boards. Often, a reputable journal will associate with a trade, association, or recognized open-source initiative.
One of the hallmarks of scientific research is peer review. Research should be transparent to peer review. This allows the scientific community to reproduce experimental results, correct and retract errors, and validate theories. This allows the reproduction of experimental results, corrections of errors, and proper justification of the research to experts.
Citation is imperative to avoid plagiarism and also allows readers to investigate an author’s line of thought and conclusions. When reading scientific works, it is essential to confirm that the citations are from reputable scientific research. Most often, scientific citations are used to reference paraphrasing rather than quotes. The number of times a work is cited is said to measure the acceptance the investigation has within the scientific community, although this technique is inherently biased (Environmental Science—Simple Book Publishing, n.d.)
Critical Evaluation of an Overload of Information
More so than any previous society, we live today in a world of accessible and abundant information. It has become remarkably easy for people to communicate with others over vast distances, turning the world into a “global village” (a phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), a Canadian philosopher, to describe the phenomenon of universal networking). Technologies have facilitated this global connectedness for transferring ideas and knowledge – mainly electronic communication devices, such as radio, television, computers, and their networks. Today, these technologies compress space and time to achieve a virtually instantaneous communication. So much information is now available that the situation is often referred to as an “information overload” that must be analyzed critically. Critical analysis is the process of sorting information and making scientific inquiries about data. Involved in all aspects of the scientific process, critical analysis scrutinizes information and research by posing sensible questions such as the following:
- Is the information derived from a scientific framework consisting of a hypothesis that has been developed and tested within the context of an existing body of knowledge and theory in the field?
- Were the methodologies used likely to provide data that are objective, accurate, and precise? Were the data analyzed using statistical methods appropriate to the data structure and the questions being asked?
- Were the results of the research compared with other pertinent work that has been published? Were key similarities and differences discussed and a conclusion deduced about what the new work reveals about the issue being investigated?
- Is the information based on research published in a refereed journal that requires highly qualified reviewers in the subject area to scrutinize the work, followed by an editorial decision about whether it warrants publication?
- If the analysis of an issue was based on incomplete or possibly inaccurate information, was a precautionary approach used to accommodate the uncertainty inherent in the recommendations?
All users of published research have an obligation to critically evaluate what they are reading in these ways in order to decide whether the theory is appropriate, the methodologies are reliable, and the conclusions sufficiently robust. Because so many environmental issues are controversial, with data and information presented on both sides of the debate, people need to formulate critical judgments. Thus, people need a high degree of environmental literacy – an informed understanding of the causes and consequences of environmental damage. Being able to analyze information critically is a key personal benefit of studying Earth and environmental science.