Fundamental Misunderstandings

“The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

~ Neil deGrasse Tyson

One of the reasons that people come to disagree with the truth is that their understanding of the fundamental argument is so skewed. This could be because someone has deliberately misrepresented the opposing view, but just as often it can be because in an attempt to simplify a topic for easier consumption the original idea gets distorted by the very people trying to explain it.

Take the Big Bang Theory (not the show, dummy), for instance. The whole theory is very complex and encompasses many fields of study and many theories, but the name makes the whole thing sound pretty simplistic and childish. There’s a reason for that. The guy who coined the term was actually mocking the theory. Whereas the theory is well-supported and is the most widely-accepted theory for the origin of the universe, it’s almost impossible to say the name and not roll your eyes a little bit.

Other major scientific principles suffer from similar public relation problems, and it’s often these sorts of simple misunderstandings that lead people down the initial road to doubt.

Let’s look at 3 such fundamental misunderstandings and see if we can’t set them right.*

1. The Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection

I’m not under any grand delusion thinking that any post I write is going to change the minds of people who believe in Intelligent Design. For people who have already sided with that position, there are pages upon pages of well-written responses and rebuttals (that will likely never make a dent). No, I merely hope to reach the few people who generally have never given it much thought but might be susceptible to false information if the facts aren’t explained to them beforehand (like a kid who goes to a Young Republicans meeting for the economic conservatism, but ends up sucked into protesting gay marriage).

What is the fundamental misunderstanding about Darwin’s big theory? Well, it’s all in that famous picture above. From the time any of us hear about evolution, we are shown this (or a similar) picture. It concisely illustrates the notion that humans come from a long line of ancestors who were of a different species. The problem with this picture can be seen every time an evolution denier says something like, “If we evolved from monkeys, how come there are still monkeys.”

We did not evolve from monkeys. Not from apes or orangutans, either. As flashy as that picture is, it gives the false impression that evolution is moving us forward, evolving species with a purpose, an end game. That simply isn’t true. We humans share a common ancestor with apes and orangutans, but that doesn’t mean we evolved from them. The reason there are ‘still monkeys’ is because they, as a species, were well adapted to their environment and survived, just as we did. In fact, the only reason the species we know as ‘humans’ still exists is because at various points in our ancestral history, one species was better adapted to survive than another species.

The better way to illustrate the path of evolution is through a tree illustration. Simple trees can look just like branches or family trees, but the more complex (and accurate) ones are often illustrated in this manner:

As I’ve already said, I know that this explanation will be meaningless to someone who has already dismissed the theory, but for those who are studying it and still trying to figure out where they fall in the debate, it’s important to avoid beginning with such a fundamental misunderstanding.

2. Climate Change

If you’re like me (I’m sorry), then you’re probably irked every time someone says during a massive blizzard, “So much for Global Warming!” Granted, I realize when people post that on Facebook or wherever, half the time they’re being sarcastic or just trolling. But it still bothers me because I know half the time people are serious, and the sentence alone probably gets some people thinking, “Hm, yeah, this doesn’t feel warmer.”

While Global Warming is, indeed, an accurate descriptor (unlike the evolution image above that misrepresents the theory), I prefer the term ‘Climate Change’ because as far as short, eye-catching nomenclature goes, it both accurately describes the phenomenon and doesn’t allow as much room for people too lazy to research the topic to get confused (or sidetracked). Yes, our environment is getting warmer, but no that doesn’t mean every day is going to be hotter.

Day to day temperatures are, of course, affected by the overall climate, but that’s just one of many factors that change as our atmosphere heats up. While Hurricane Sandy can’t definitively be blamed on Climate Change, the increasing severity and frequency of these storms can be. At this point, Climate Change is a fact (like evolution). Humans causing Climate Change is the theory (like the Theory of Natural Selection). As the years progress, we’re seeing an increasing number of Climate Change skeptics change their tune from, “Climate Change isn’t real” to “Climate Change is real, but we have nothing to do with it.”

As we see more and more destructive storms and debilitating droughts, though, the question of whether or not we cause Climate Change becomes academic. It doesn’t matter because if we can do something to counteract these changes no matter what the cause, we should.

3. Statistics

I’m talking about this one because, thanks to Nate Silver and his FiveThirtyEight blog, statistics are all the rage. Who would have thunk math could be so sexy?

As we saw in this election, anybody with a firm enough handle on statistics can look like a friggin’ psychic. Most of us who followed Silver’s blog throughout the election and read his explanations understood the facts that supported his predictions and weren’t at all surprised by the results (unlike some commentators who were apparently blindsided). Before the election, there were a whole lot of reasons being bandied about why Silver’s Forecast was wrong, things like bias and flawed polls. In the echo chamber of the Conservative media where like-minded individuals only heard from each other, it was impossible to align Silver’s predictions with the view they had.

But statistics are a very misunderstood field even when politics aren’t involved. Statistics are the reason I rarely gamble (and why I never play the lotto). Given time, the house always wins. This has to be the case, or casinos would be closing left and right, not giving out free drinks to their patrons.

If you look at the popular literature on statistics, you’ll see a lot of books focused on what is known in the field as “outliers,” those unexpected occurrences where an event happens outside the norm predicted by the stats. These events are called ‘outliers’ for a reason, because they cannot be counted on. But in true American, “I go it alone” fashion, the idea of the outlier has become intoxicating. “Sure,” we think, “most people fall inside the statistical curve, but I’m going to be the Outlier.” (The Outlier would make for a very interesting Superhero.)

Reality hits hard, though.

Contrary to how they are commonly portrayed, statistics don’t make predictions. Statistics, either in the way Nate Silver uses them, or casinos, or baseball general managers, merely determine the odds of a particular event. Statistically speaking, Obama was favored to win. If he had lost, Silver’s methods wouldn’t have been proven wrong, though that would certainly have been the headline (and math education would have taken a major hit). But Obama’s win doesn’t ‘prove’ Silver was right, either, because the math already did that.

Can statistics be wrong? Sure. If the facts are wrong or incomplete. Or if the math itself is done incorrectly. But when the input is correct and the analysis is done properly, the output will be accurate, no matter what. If something is predicted to happen with 75% assurance, but it doesn’t happen, that doesn’t mean the math was wrong. It means that the 25% chance panned out.

Because of that less-than-sexy reality, statistics can be quite frustrating. We want these statisticians to predict the future, but all they can really do is give the odds. This is why accusations of Silver being biased were so unfounded. As a statistician, Silver’s reputation rests on his accuracy, not on his political bent. He didn’t use magic or any crazy tricks to make predictions, he just used math.

And that’s damn sexy.

*This is by no means an attempt to give a thorough overview of these topics. Hopefully, if you’re interested, you’ll seek out reputable sources for further information.

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