When do you Science?

[I am now working out this blogging thing. What I’ve determined is that if something needs references and images, it gets delayed – so my new policy is that, for every post that needs references and images, I’ll put up a few that are just basically mental screeds on things I care about. That speeds things up. –KN]

Nearly a year ago now, I was at a conference dinner,  discussing the fact that some scientists appear to have a bit of a cognitive disconnect. Scientists, I lamented in that post-one-or-two-glasses-of-wine sort of way, are so often only scientists from nine to five. Then they go home and stop being rational.

The woman sitting next to me looked taken aback. You can’t be rational all the time, she pointed out. That would be awful.

Since then, I’ve decided that what we are stuck on is our use of the word rational. Take it to mean sensible. Take it to mean, essentially, that most advertising should be taken with a grain of salt, that media rhetoric should be dissected to find the underlying message and to assess whether or not it is supported, that herbal foot baths are not going to remove “toxins” from your bloodstream and that fish oil probably isn’t going to boost your kids’ brainpower.

Don’t take my use of the word rational to mean “unemotional” or “robotic.” That seems to be a common misunderstanding. You can be passionately rational. Being rational – sensible – isn’t at odds with being passionate, or loving, or miserable, or creative. It isn’t at odds with expression or the exploration of ideas and symbolism. It isn’t at odds with artistic or cultural pursuits or loving your children.

To be confessional about my own sins in this regard: I have a guilty irrational pleasure (well, one that I know about, anyways). It’s skincare. I like having soft skin that smells nice. It’s part of a physical indulgence for me. At the same time, I am well aware that stimulating the production of collagen is probably not what is going to happen in response to the use of eye cream. I don’t believe that, every five minutes, someone discovers a new soothing flower oil that magically dissolves wrinkles, clears pores, tightens skin and – how convenient! – doesn’t smell like a horse’s arse (although I appear to be one of the few people in the entire world who hates the smell of both jasmine and lavender, so that’s a qualified feature right there).

I like massages and facials, but I let my eyes glaze over when they start talking about toxins and so forth. There are some truisms in skincare (“sorbolene is an excellent moisturiser”, “barrier creams help stop your skin drying out when you have to wash your hands fifty times a day because you work in a lab” and “antibiotic skin treatments do seem to reduce acne for sensible and obvious reasons”) and it appears to be true that you can make oily skin less oily, dry skin less dry, and neither-oily-nor-dry-skin stay neither-oily-nor-dry. Other than that, I’m not game to commit. I’m not a dermatologist. The only time a dermatologist recommended I use a particular skin product, it was in the well-over-$50-per-jar range which was way out of my budget (if anyone’s curious, it was all that alpha-hydroxy-acid stuff. This was after I finished a course of Roaccutane and my face was feeling rather traumatised).

It’s worth mentioning that when many serums and so forth say “supported by clinical trials!” the actual data is something like “Ten out of ten respondents reported that their skin felt better.” This doesn’t distinguish it from a placebo effect. I pretty much use skincare as a placebo effect, for the most part, unless I have some environmental exposure I need to guard against (i.e. the aforementioned lab work, or SCUBA diving. Diving wrecks my skin. You have no idea), and yes, I am aware that this means I drizzle away money when I do this.

A friend suggested I should use a product on half my face for a while and use that as a test, but I admitted I was too vain to do that. If it was going to work, I wanted it to work, and if it didn’t, well, then it didn’t, and either way I wasn’t willing to look like Harvey Two-Face.


In the end I decided (based on some before and after selfies) that it had a decent effect, but not enough to justify the expenditure, and I moved on to slightly cheaper pastures.

Skincare is just one example. We can stand around in a lab in our seasonally-inappropriate closed-toed shoes, and still someone might recommend homeopathy, or multi-vitamins, or reiki, or one of any number of things that don’t do you any good at all outside of a placebo effect (although the placebo effect can be very powerful, and for reiki and homeopaths in particular, being in an environment where you get to sit down or lie down and relax, where someone is going to actually have the time to listen to your problems, really is a recipe for feeling better. It won’t cure illnesses, but it could definitely reduce stress, and, alright, if stress is causing your illness…) (and having said that, I have no patience with homeopaths. At. All).

The fact is that, sometimes, being rational can be exhausting. Unless it comes from a trusted source with access to solid facts, you can’t take anything on faith. You constantly question your assumptions. You spend most of your time living inside an interrogative framework (when you’re not just mechanically pipetting samples and reagents from one place to another place, which is how I spent half my day yesterday). Does this work? Why does it work? How do I know that this is why it works? Is there a loophole in this reasoning?

I try to do the same thing with my dogs. As any half-decent dog owner knows, you do have to be rational with dogs. You have to remember what you are expecting from them, what signals you are giving them and, crucially, that dogs don’t speak English and don’t necessarily know that the vague fluffy hand signal you’re giving them now means the same as the decisive hand signal you gave them this morning. They don’t necessarily know that the same word, in a different tone of voice, means the same thing (that is a hard one for English speaking humans to learn). They don’t know that the same gesture or command in a different situation means the same thing – or perhaps something different (which is why, in our house, “Down” means “get off the damn couch”, “No jumping!” means exactly that, and the command to lie down is “drop”. If I used “Down” to mean both “drop” and “get off the damn couch”, I have no right to tell off or correct my dogs if they get confused).

It can get messy. Sometimes someone will say something that you know is not supported by the evidence, and you have to choose whether to simply say “Hmmm,” or nod and smile,” or to bite the bullet and say, “Well, actually, there have been a few studies on that…”

Everyone can get butthurt when you challenge them on their use of the word “holistic” or the phrase “Western medicine” no matter how gentle and tactful you are about it. The alternative is to let people muddle on and make inaccurate and potentially harmful decisions based on crappy information.

Now, I was under the (mistaken, naïve, egotistical) impression that scientists would be less butthurt if they were challenged on misunderstandings, instead open to the possibility of “Oh? Really? I didn’t know that. I should look into it!” as a response, since that is what we have to do all day. It turns out even someone who is rigorous and consistent within their area of research and work can start to sulk if you suggest that perhaps homeopathic vaccines are not going to do them any good.

To be fair (and this is important), people don’t necessarily go to work to debate their lifestyle and medical choices, so I can see how it would be confronting regardless of your scientific training.

I don’t have an answer to this issue. It’s not just scientists who need to be rational outside of working hours, of course: everyone does. Irrational decisions lead to, at best, wasted time and money (homeopathy, erm… expensive skincare products) and, at worst, death and suffering (vaccine refusal, terrorist activities). In spite of what I just said, you can’t really expect yourself to be rational all the time – you’re human. You have a number of built-in cognitive biases that actively work to prevent you from being rational, from seeing the big picture, from breaking things down into useful statistical blocks. Humans as a group are bad at risk assessment, bad at probability and statistics, and absolute slaves to confirmation bias (i.e. placing more weight on arguments that support what they already believe rather than the opposite, instead of evaluating the merits of those arguments).

As a take-home message, it would obviously be beneficial for people to think more about some of their decisions as they make them, and try to be more honest about whether they’re rationalising or not. This includes me, looking down upon everyone from my lofty perch on the couch, in my pyjamas. We have to go easy on ourselves (see the aforementioned cognitive biases), but we really should give it a go.

I mostly mentioned the pyjamas because no matter how I edit it, this post sounds a little sanctimonious. I just get frustrated sometimes.

Also, they’re cute pyjamas.


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