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02 - Limitations, Deception and Openness


Why do I mention deception? I'll be honest, if you're reading this then there's a good chance you're an alternative-thinker and a good juicy deception plot will grab your attention if you're anything like me.

So on the previous page, I mentioned how science works and the whole peer-review process. And again, this is the tippy top quality of evidence we have, especially when multiple peer-reviewed studies all verify each other.

There is deception in science. Not in its core operation, but how it is occasionally hijacked by those with a conflict of interest to support their ulterior motives, even if the science doesn't actually agree with them. But how? What about this grand and superior evidence-based system I've been writing about? Unfortunately, scientists (not science) aren't perfect and science requires money.

Studies have to be funded by someone. Once again, The National Institute of Health comes through with a great read. On the subject of conflict of interest, they write:

"Conflicts of interest may be defined as “circumstances that create a risk that professional judgments or actions regarding a primary interest will be unduly influenced by a secondary interest” . Broadly stated, the primary duty of the investigator in medical research is to obtain scientifically valid results, while promoting and protecting the integrity of research."

"The secondary interest of principal concern is usually financial gain, with the worry that such financial interests (e.g., payments from a manufacturer of a drug or device for services other than the research) will influence the professional judgment or actions of the investigator to obtain and present results that inappropriately favor the source of such financial gain. Such bias affecting professional judgment may then influence the manner in which an investigator conducts or presents the research."

"in addition to the individual and the research process, is a focus on close, skilled, and non-conflicted review of the outcome or product produced by the investigator and the research itself. This final piece is exemplified by the journal editorial process, particularly peer review. This approach has been advocated as a solution for addressing the myriad of non-financial conflicts that may pose an enormous challenge to identify, catalogue, assess, and address."

A lot of quote reading I know. There is much more on the original page to look at. But is this a real thing?

The British Medical Journal has openly refused to accept publications funded by the tobacco industry. Here's a quick snippet:

"As editors of the BMJ, Heart, Thorax and BMJ Open, we have decided that the journals will no longer consider for publication any study that is partly or wholly funded by the tobacco industry. Our new policy is consistent with those of other journals including PLoS Medicine, PLoS One, PLoS Biology; Journal of Health Psychology; journals published by the American Thoracic Society; and the BMJ's own Tobacco Control."

"as long as funding sources are fully disclosed, readers can consider that information and make up their own minds about the quality of the work. Peer review should prevail, goes this line of thinking: it's not the editor's job to make these kinds of judgments. However, this view ignores the growing body of evidence that biases and research misconduct are often impossible to detect, and that the source of funding can influence the outcomes of studies in invisible ways."


It means that researchers paid by the tobacco industry to study the effects of tobacco are more likely to perform a study that will endorse or minimise the negativity of the industry funding them. This can be obvious, or as the BMJ says, it can influence the study in invisible ways. As the NIH and BMJ have both said, peer-review is the best defence we have against this type of bias research.

Examples to be wary of:

Tobacco companies funding research on tobacco

Fossil fuel companies funding research on fossil fuels or renewable energy

Supplement companies funding studies on the utility of supplements

Now, take a moment to not only absorb the obvious potential for bias there but also recognise that this is only potential. Now, of course, it's less likely someone's going to bite the hand that feeds them, but the researchers conducting their investigations aren't known to you. You don't know if, for instance, the most reputable researcher in the field of renewable energy has been paid by fossil fuel companies for research, or if it's someone who just wants the money.

But, also consider the companies. If you believe your supplement to be a good thing that can help people, wouldn't you fund research to prove that? If you're convinced that you're right then there are also plausible good intentions on the side of big corporations. Unlikely, but possible.

This is where the black or white fallacies huge problem is highlighted. There are so many variations of situations and instances to consider and weigh up. Who funded the research? Who actually conducted the research? What's their reputation? Was it peer-reviewed? What did the peer review say? Does it coincide with other publications?

If your automatic response is to go "They funded it, it's wrong", or "it's science, it's going to be right", then you're committing and highlighting how dangerous the black or white fallacy is. With science and life in general, there is always nuance. There are always gradations and levels of observations. The world is never so organised and transparent that it's a black and white situation on anything. You have to employ engaged thinking to make informed decisions.


​The limitations of science should be fairly obvious. Science has only gone so far as it has been discovered and tested. There may be some grand fact of the universe that we just haven't noticed yet. Science isn't the complete definitive guide to everything, but it's our best understanding of what we know based on the evidence conducted through research, observation, experimentation and theory.

So what are limitations on facts?

There exists out there a concept called the half-life of facts. I could write up an explanation for you, but I will allow someone else to do that. The following is from Samuel Arbesman who wrote a book on this phenomenon.

"Samuel Arbesman is a complex systems scientist and writer. He is currently a Senior Adjunct Fellow of the Silicon Flatirons Center for Law, Technology, and Entrepreneurship at the University of Colorado and an Associate of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University. He is the author of the book The Half-Life of Facts."

From this Brain Pickings article about his book:

"Facts, in the aggregate, have half-lives: We can measure the amount of time for half of a subject’s knowledge to be overturned. There is science that explores the rates at which new facts are created, new technologies developed, and even how facts spread. How knowledge changes can be understood scientifically."

Put simply, as we keep discovering more evidence about the universe, and develop better and better understandings of how things work, we find that things once considered facts, aren't as factual as the new and improved body of research.

Or as New Scientist puts it:

"Science has always been about getting closer to the truth, and anybody who understands it knows that a continual transformation of accepted knowledge along the way is how it works. However, sometimes it can feel random and unsettling. Smoking has gone from doctor-recommended to deadly. Eating meat used to be good for you, then bad, then good again; now it’s a matter of opinion."


We can employ the principles of science to ensure we stay truly open-minded in our daily lives. We're perfectly ok to speculate on a matter that hasn't been proven. When something has been proven with sufficient scientific evidence, then we let that become the basis of how we form our opinions. If the science advances and is refined or readjusts itself in light of new evidence, then so do you. Being willfully ignorant of the science, and then claiming to be scientific, just doesn't make sense. 

I will close this page with the following.

-Remember the world isn't black or white.

-Learn to see and acknowledge the nuance and gradations in situations.

-Let the evidence be your guide to opinion, and in the spirit of science, readjust your opinion based on new evidence.

-Be sceptical of information based on where it comes from, but don't outright dismiss it.

-Finally, that being wrong is a humbling experience, that allows you to readjust and be better, just as science does.

The next page: Science - Sources and Fact-Checking

Science Limitations Narratedby Bobby
00:00 / 08:25
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