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COLUMN: When you should trust a scientist



When dealing with issues of an unpredictable world, science should be the guiding light of truth. Too often, scientific research might not be trustworthy.

Much of the recent research in the social sciences, including psychology and sociology, isn’t reproducible. Brian Nosek, professor of psychology at University of Virginia, said only 36 percent of psychology research results in 2008 could be 
reproduced.

This might have been because certain experiments may have confirmed false positives or used different research techniques. When scientists can’t repeat experimental work, they can’t confirm results, check for errors or improve those results in other ways.

And this means that we, the general public, become more confused. It’s difficult to understand what to trust, and it’s easy to be skeptical of everything.

This past weekend, I had the wonderful opportunity to present my research at the Emerging Researchers National Conference in Washington, D.C. I spoke with Marcia McNutt, geophysicist and editor-in-chief of the journal Science, about getting the public to appreciate science while still taking things with a grain of salt.

McNutt said there is no perfect answer to the balance between trust and skepticism of science, but we should teach science as an evolving body of knowledge and a way of thinking about the world, not as a strict set of facts.

She said it’s about continuously and endlessly building and changing theory while simultaneously providing answers we can trust.

In light of McNutt’s response, the science community should teach the general public to trust scientific research both for its benefits to society and the appreciation of science itself.

This means science is less of a collection of information, but more about a way of reasoning, forming hypotheses, arriving at conclusions and finding 
solutions.

If social science researchers can adapt methods of studying science that scrutinize their methods of studying, rather than simply a means to produce results, this may help solve the reproducibility crisis. Psychologists and sociologists should analyze their theories of behavior and make sure their research can be verified by other 
researchers.

McNutt also said the solution should start in the way we teach science in schools. Students should think like scientists to examine methods of inquiry, scrutinize findings and empirically investigate problems with 
deliberation.

This also means we shouldn’t primarily brand science as a way to get jobs. A science-education curriculum focused on this productivity won’t do justice to the true value of science and, as a result, leave future scientists ill-prepared for their careers.

At the Emerging Researchers National Conference, I presented my research on genetic information in the human brain.

I discussed my difficulties of obtaining information from other scientists during my research while respecting the privacy of mental health data.

Similarly, scientists can move to be more transparent with their data by reporting their replication methods during peer review.

Like everything else in the world, scientific research is never simple and straightforward. When we know how to trust science, we can learn more about everything we do. As McNutt put it, “Never stop being a student.”

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