The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Outlining the Difference Between Good and Bad Science
Ask anyone who works at Kinova — or any other robotics company focused on developing technology to increase human capability, for that matter — and they’ll tell you how rewarding their work can be. They’ll tell you how challenging, and interesting, and stimulating, and how much unadulterated fun it can be.
By Nick Frost
The difference between Good and Bad science
But they’ll also, at times, tell you how it irksome it can be.
Not because of the work itself — rather, because of how, within the field of robotics, the literal life-changing significance of the technology they develop is often overshadowed by seemingly impressive feats that smack of being more gimmicky than anything else.
And that’s with no disrespect to the obviously skillful individuals who work on robots that can mimic human behaviour in cute or funny ways. But when 1,069 dancing robots setting a Guinness World Record for the most robots dancing simultaneously is a more “newsworthy” headline, and given more traction to grab the public’s collective attention than scientific breakthroughs that will impact humanity in a major way, something is incredibly amiss.
Bad Science Under the Microscope
Speaking with regards to the broader scientific community as a whole, why is it that so much bad science (or, as it’s sometimes called, “junk science”) continues to pervade society?
Before we answer that, let’s first clarify what we mean by this decades-old term. Junk science doesn’t just have to apply to the kind of con artistry we see from shysters-turned-TV pitchmen, who offer up false hope to unhealthy individuals in the form of “miracle cures” with zero scientific merit — though, that’s certainly one extreme.
Rather, the term encompasses anything that passes itself off as legitimate science, but is ill-intentioned. Either it has an ulterior motive seeking to counteract credible scientific facts or has little to no real significance to the human population.
This could include several things: studies paid for by companies looking to alter their public perception, results that create a cloud of misconception around things already proven in order to serve politically motivated agendas, or even breakthroughs in which a scientist will skew and manipulate results to make a name for him- or herself.
Sadly, as long as there are scientists willing to act in less legitimate manners, and people who either willfully ignore the merits of good science, can’t tell the difference or upon whom doubts are easily cast, bad science will continue to have an audience.
How does one spot the differences between bad science and good science?
First things first, just to be clear, our definition of good science is any type of science that works constructively towards helping humans understand and function in the world around them.
Spotting the differences can sometimes be tricky, particularly when bad science is presented in a way that makes it appear legitimate.
One might automatically assume that a study receiving news coverage might be a surefire way to determine the legitimacy of scientific information. But, then again, the news sometimes tells us that things (take the health effects of kale, for example) are both good and bad for you.
Certainly, a great deal of media coverage on scientific research is presented in a sensationalistic way with eye-catching headlines made to draw the reader in (many of whom won’t read past the eye-catching headline or, at most, the article’s lede). Part of this, as accomplished science writer Julia Belluz notes, can be attributed to the lack of true science journalists that exist in that industry’s current landscape, where jobs are being cut on an almost monthly basis. Writers who don’t fully understand the research they’re writing about are limited in their ability to present it and, therefore, are more susceptible to overselling the juicier points to attract clicks.
The easiest way to determine the legitimacy of scientific research is to read any study you come across with a critical eye and ask questions:
- What is the source of the research — a university, an independent study, a medical journal or something else?
- What kind of language does the research use — is it affirmative or speculative?
- What methods were used and under what conditions was the sample group tested?
- Are the results peer reviewed?
- Are the results replicable?
Ms. Belluz — a very reliable source in the scientific journalism community — provides a good checklist of even more questions that you run through when questioning the merits of anything scientific.
There are thousands upon thousands of examples of both good and bad science, historically speaking, but here are just a handful to illustrate our point:
Darwin’s Theory of Evolution (1859)
Renowned naturalist Charles Darwin, the father of modern evolutionary theory, lays out the basis for all future study of evolution, stating, among other things, that all life descends from a common ancestor and species develop through the “natural selection” of inherited traits.
MMR vaccine discovered (1971)
American microbiologist Maurice Hilleman, regarded as “the most successful vaccinologist in history,” combines the measles, mumps and rubella vaccines he’s known for discovering to create the first vaccine using live virus strains, almost entirely wiping the diseases out.
SpaceX rockets to success (2006–present)
Though Elon Musk will likely be known for far more wildly imaginative inventions when all’s said and done, his work thus far in space exploration has seen his Dragon rocket become the first commercial vehicle to dock with the International Space Station, and his company, SpaceX, hold the record for a rocket engine with the highest thrust-to-weight ratio.
JACO robotic arms launch (2009)
Eight years ago, Kinova brought one of its most significant inventions to life: JACO, a six-axis robotic manipulator arm with a three-fingered hand. Since then, JACO has played key roles in improving the lives of humans with reduced upper-body mobility and, just this year, was used by Airbus to begin testing its capabilities in helicopter avionics.
Cold Fusion goes cold (1989)
After many failed attempts at replication, electrochemists Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons’ alleged breakthrough on a nuclear reaction at room temperature — and the hopes of cheap, renewable energy — is debunked. (Though, many are still trying to this day.)
Schön scandal (2004)
German physicist Jan Hendrik Schön, once prominent in the physics community for work with single-molecule semiconductors, has 24 charges of misconduct laid against him and his doctorate stripped for manipulating experiment data.
MMR vaccine falsely linked to autism (1998)
British gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield publishes a research paper falsely linking MMR to the autism. While his claims were discredited and he’s since been banned from the UK medical register, the damage has been irreversible, as some parents still refuse to vaccinate their kids.
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