We all know the famous saying, “opinions are like arseholes*, everyone has one” and it’s completely fair play in our post modern relativistic world. A person’s opinion can be stupid, reprehensible or thoughtless but the one thing it can never be is wrong. By default an opinion must be right, as it is how that individual feels on a subject. The opinion doesn’t have to be based in actual fact or knowledge, or even serious but as Jeremy Clarkson recently found out, if people don’t like your opinion, they’ll let you know (via the BBC).
Facts though shouldn’t be subject to the same level of subjectivity as opinion. Yes, science is based on observation and a lot of scientific theory can be seen as “our best understanding of the empirical data at this time” but increasingly people seem to think that they can dispute research/data/current fact with the impunity they can have an opinion.
A case in point happened to me today. I have, amongst other things, a cold and tweeted as such. Being a man of course I got a lot of “fragile little darling” comments from women. It’s okay though, I expect those, because women don’t actually suffer from colds as badly as men. You see actual scientific research has shown that post menopause women’s immune system suffers an impairment in it’s ability to fight off rhinoviruses (things like colds) that reduces their immune system to the level of a mans. Pre menopause, women are actually better at resisting colds and suffer from them less than men do. The above article in the Telegraph isn’t the first example of this sort of conclusion from research, it’s the latest in a string of findings. My response from a women? “Bollocks”.
If you’re going to dispute information presented as fact, you should do so with a counter argument, not the word bollocks.
That’s not to say having a questioning mind isn’t something we should strive for. It’s important when reading research to look at:-
- Funding. Who has funded the study and do they have their own separate agenda? A good example of this are some of the NRA funded studies that show massacres would be easy to stop if firearms laws were actually relaxed.
- Objectivity.Does the group behind the research have a specific agenda? A study from a right wing think tank might be deemed to support their groups agenda.
- Interpretation. A lot of studies fall down in the interpretation of gathered data. This is highlighted well by Carl Popper and his swans. It’s incorrect on viewing 100 swans flying past to state that all swans are white. The same goes for 1,000,000 swans. All it takes is one black swan to prove your assertion wrong. Causality is also a massive issue. The assumption that Y happens because of X often makes sense on first glance but on closer examination doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. A silly example is “All premier league footballers are millionaires, therefore you need to be a millionaire to play football in the premiership.”
- Source. Reading a newspaper report on research is no where near as good as going back and reading the original research or an article in a scientific journal. Often papers pick and chose what they report on from a research paper, sometimes to the point where it’s either simplified to the point or error or rather misleading.
*or assholes if you’re American.