Sunday, 20 September 2015


There's a snarky little "meme" doing the rounds about scientists citing articles they haven't actually read due to paywalls. This is intended to discredit their work, and is yet one more attempt to discredit science in favour of woowoo.

Now sit down, shut up, and listen. It is a fact, a reality, that not all scientific research is accurate, and some of it is downright bogus. That is absolutely no reason to decide your version of it is better.

Let's get the paywall thing right out of the way first.

Citations are wonderful things, but in the end it could potentially be a house of cards, if everyone just cites each other and by chance they are all wrong. That's why peer review is so important, and why the internet, with all its faults, garbage, woowoo, and trolls, is a huge help. Just try publishing something that's dodgy science and watch the critiques come in.

Then there's the other extreme. Scientist worship.

Here I side with the Pope, but not because he is a chemist. Many of the scientists regularly quoted by those who do not believe in climate change are, like the Pope, not experts in the field. Climate experts are a subset of scientists. In other words, we need to leave it to the climatologists.

Could they still be wrong? Of course they could, but it's unlikely. If you want certainty, in anything, you're out of luck, and this is why there's so much misunderstanding.

Let's go back to basics. What is science?

It is the careful observation and recording of data, which is then repeated to check results, and finally, as part of your study, you try to prove yourself wrong. These results are then published, i.e. shared, and the expert opinion of peers (other experts in the same field) is taken into acount. Ideally they also try to replicate the findings, or try to disprove it with their own studies. At some point after much of this, it is considered valid and used to teach others.

There is no ultimate authority to check it. (If anyone says God, his research papers were rubbish.)

Why do we go to all this trouble when some things are obvious?

Well, firstly, obvious isn't always correct. It used to be obvious that the Earth was flat but we've come a long way since then. (You will be horrified to learn there are still people trying to prove it is flat. They don't get anywhere, but they call themselves scientists. They forget about the peer review aspect.)

I'd like to give you an example of what "everybody knows" being wrong.

As most of you know, I grew up in England. All the time I lived in England I "knew" that the vast majority of spiders did not bite. I knew, of course, of dangerous tropical spiders that did, but as far as I was concerned the ones I ran into didn't, and therefore it wasn't something I ever worried about.

I also, therefore, ruled them out as suspects when I had an insect bite.

In 1993 I came to live in Canada, and over time I heard many, many people tell me about spider bites. At first I laughed and said "don't be silly, spiders don't bite." I was sure of that. 30 years of experience and all that. But I heard so many instances of spider bites that I came to believe that Canadian spiders must be unusually aggressive. I accepted a new truth, based on the wisdom of those around me.


Scientists, and that is to say experts in spiders, not physicists, or astronomers, or experts in other small critters, have conclusively proven, with multiple studies, that the vast majority of spiders don't bite, actually. That in fact spider bites are even rare among the scary tropical spiders. Spiders prefer to run or hide than attack a human. The small spiders we have in our homes do not even possess the ability to bite us. Oh, and that thing about how many spiders crawl on you at night, or how many we eat as we mouth-breathe? All nonsense. All old wives tales. Spiders avoid us. They are WAAAAAY more scared of us than we are of them. They are not aggressive. Even the spiders who can pierce human flesh (the really big ones) only bite you if cornered. That's why you shake your boots out if you live in Black Widow or Brown Recluse country. The average bedroom spider? Nope. And all that rubbish about "it must be a spider bite, there are TWO holes side by side". No. Actual spider bites never look like that. You're thinking of vampires.

Here's one of many articles on the topic. Feel free to try to prove me wrong. That's GOOD research.

So why do Canadians believe in spider bites? Well, lots of insects bite us here. Some are never seen. We just wake up in the morning with bites, some very small, we are sure there were no mozzies in the room, and then we try to figure out the culprit. We SEE spiders, so they get the blame.

That's not even good police work, let alone good science.

So much of what people believe, because it's "obvious" or widely "known" is complete bollocks, and that's why we need science.

That doesn't mean we know everything, and it doesn't mean science is always right. Nobody ever said it was. Even experts invent data for convenience, because people expect them to come up with figures out of their heads, so they estimate. And as we all know, 50% of statistics are made up on the spot, right? But this is still the right way to go about it. This is the right approach. Not guesswork. "We've always done it that way, and I have never known anyone harmed by it" may work. You may be lucky. But it isn't science until you have studied it properly.

We all know someone who prefers woowoo to science. If they are harmless, we can be kind to them, and hope that one day they'll understand how it all works. And if they don't - so long as they are harmless - we'll leave them to their beliefs. It must work for them in some way.

But thinking, rational, logical people still make mistakes. I already knew about spiders, but allowed myself to be hoodwinked. It can happen to anyone. I should have checked with experts instead of taking on what "everyone knew".


  1. For the past few years my parents have had many "spider" bites. In reality I am 99% sure they were flea bites that got infected. My mom's last spider bite she said she saw something crawling and smashed it with her hand and then her hand was really swollen and hurt. I am pretty sure it was a bee or wasp (my mom is mostly blind). But then the doctors who don't know anything about spiders tell people things are spider bites when they clearly are not. Which means even people I think should know better tend to go with the easy explanation instead of the correct one.

  2. Doctors are not arachnologists. But they are also guilty of using "junk" health words that lay people use, to try to talk colloquially. I ripped a doctor a new one once for "stomach flu". He apologized, but said most people knew what it meant. I was unforgiving. We rely on them to educate.