Rational thinking

Our courts still look at the opinion of experts in some specialised areas; sadly scientific basis for their opinions is rarely questioned.

The take-up of science subjects by Maltese students is always touted as an important educational goal for the country. The rationale is that we need to have an army of people trained in the sciences and ICT if we are to attain our aim of moving towards a knowledge based, high-tech, high value-added economy.

Clearly, it is very important for our economy to have a large number of graduates in science, medicine, pharmacology, engineering and IT – however in my opinion the value of giving our students a good grounding in scientific thought goes beyond the obvious impact on the economy. Understanding the fundamentals of scientific methodology is important in all aspects of life and as such, it should be taught to all students.

The reality at the moment is that our students might be getting lessons in the basic facts of science – for example lessons on biology or chemistry – however they are not getting any understanding whatsoever regarding how science works – namely the basing of findings on concrete facts and not opinions or hearsay.

This failure of our educational system is clearly illustrated when one reads through comments and discussions that follow newspaper articles on the internet. People trawl through the web believing any anecdotal story that they come upon as if it were the gospel, obviously lacking the skills for a proper scientific evaluation of their findings. This problem is not unique to our country – pseudoscientific articles notoriously pop up continuously in the British tabloids with deadly consequences (the MMR vaccine scare is the most notable recent example).

We are bombarded daily with claims of foods which increase the risk of cancer while others prevent cancer – sometimes the same food is praised as a cancer-fighter in one article but made out to be a major cause of cancer in another! In addition, we have to contend with a wide variety of adverts for products such as pills, dietary supplements, foods and creams which cure this or prevent that – and people fall for the hype without even trying to assess the claims that are being made. An excellent example is the wide variety of dairy products that claim to reduce cholesterol – these products have become a multimillion dollar worldwide hit, without a shred of scientific proof that they lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. People simply believe the adverts a face value, without assessing the crafty wording that is used in slogans and advertorial copy.

Many people think that we have come a long way since Galileo and Darwin, but they are patently mistaken. People back then got very emotional at being told that the Bible isn’t really scientifically accurate in astronomy and the origins of mankind – whereas nowadays people get emotional when discussing issues such as the economic effects of immigration, sociological effects of divorce legislation or the effects of childhood vaccines. The great majority do not understand how to scientifically evaluate a problem, so they dismiss any science that changes their preconceptions and welcome with open arms any pseudoscience that helps them retain their old opinions and misconceptions.

One of the poorest forms of scientific facts is the ‘expert opinion’. Experts in different fields vary from PhDs with Nobel prizes to self-styled gurus with £100 online degrees from universities in the Caribbean. The opinion of an expert with a god-complex is as useless as the opinion of the Pope on matters of astronomy. Real experts have no opinion on matters they are supposed to be experts in. Instead they read and sift through scientific data and come up with ‘facts’. Our courts still look at the opinion of experts in some specialised areas; sadly scientific basis for their opinions is rarely questioned. In other cases, scientifically sound opinions are dismissed because they go contrary to the judge’s or the jury’s beliefs. The sad case of a murder during a psychotic episode – when the opinion of three psychiatrists was dismissed by a jury with no knowledge of the human brain – springs to mind.

I have serious doubt – though I have no scientific evidence to back my concerns – that the majority of Malta University graduates of non-scientific subjects have been given any training whatsoever in the basics of scientific thinking.

If I am right, then we have a problem on our hands – for we are churning out a mass of “experts” who have no grounding in the essential skills of sifting facts from fiction.