Friday Fun: How to argue with a scientist

Dec 16 2011 Published by under academia, culture of science, friday fun

OK, the blog post in question isn't actually that funny. But the title is. And, it's really worth reading for the seriously intentioned message it contains.

How to argue with a scientist: A guide.

I notice it all the time- on Facebook, in the comments of a science blog, over family gatherings, or listening to a radio talk show. Someone, maybe you, is patiently trying to explain how vaccines cause autism, perhaps, or why so-called "anthropogenic" global warming is really just due to sunspots or some other natural cycle. Perhaps you are doing pretty well at first, making use of passionate, heart-felt rhetoric and well-timed anecdotes. People are nodding their heads in agreement, and perhaps you're even changing someone's mind.

And then a scientist joins the discussion.

The conversation tends to devolve from here, turning into a debate and (often) ultimately a debacle. Scientists are notoriously difficult to argue with- for one, they're so sure they're right! This is true of most people, though- and it's probably true of you. What makes it especially frustrating to argue with a scientist is the jargon they use; if you don't speak their language, you're probably not going to change their mind.

I have created this handy guide to arguing with a scientist precisely for people like you! I've collected the most commonly used phrases and translated them into everyday English, so that the next time you argue with a scientist, you'll not only better understand their arguments, but you might learn how to make yours better, too.

Buy me a drink at the next conference you see me at and I'll tell you my tales of emabarassing woe. Let's just say "organic salt" was involved.

Anyways, here's some points on how to argue with a scientist. Or more precisely, how scientists argue, so you'll at least be able to figure out why the whole discussion has gone pear-shaped:

  • Sample size: ...Scientists talk about sample size in arguments all the time, to convince you that they have more "data" (evidence) to support their claim than you do. For example, if you say that there is one study that proves that global warming is natural, but the scientist cites 10,038 studies, their n = 10,038 and yours = 1. You're definitely going to need a bigger sample size to win this argument!
  • Anecdotal evidence:...In fact, your anecdote isn't even as good as a sample size of 1 in this case, because the anecdote is a story, and not a scientific study (remember, each study tends to have a lot of subjects, so really your sample size is closer to 0.001). Anecdotes are messy- they aren't set up like proper experiments, with regulations and control groups.
  • "That's not scientific!"...Things like how much you love your cat or whether the Flying Spaghetti Monster made the universe are not quantifiable, because they can't be measured. Therefore, they are not scientific.
  • Consensus:...The reason scientists generally reach consensus with other scientists (and not, say, your UFO abudction group) is because other scientists also use the Scientific Method, publish in peer-reviewed journals, and are informed by some of the basic principles I've explained above.

Anyways, read the whole thing. It's a terrific article and well worth your time. It may even save you some grief during the upcoming holiday period.

And if anyone is brave enough, please share your "arguing with a scientist" disasters in the comments -- from both sides of the scientist/civilian divide.

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