The Scientific Method vs. Truthiness

This is one post in a series, describing what I've learned while attempting to understand my ecological footprint.

As I began to research my ecological footprint I noticed that most people promoting a point of view offer little more than sound bytes. Quotes are rampant, bibliographical information is scarce, and sound bites are taken as fact by a lot of people. If someone actually said it, it must be true.?.

My skepticism grew as I discovered more and more conflicting "facts". How can we hope to learn anything resembling reality while unquestioningly accepting facts from unproven sources? How can you trust the bearer of information if you don't know their motivations? When did truthiness replace the scientific method?

The answers to these questions bothered me, so I committed to research the validity of "facts" before accepting them into my world view. It was simple enough; given a quote or a statement I'd ask a series of questions intended to investigate the source, motivation, sponsors and underlying data or assumptions which serve as the foundation for the statement. Take for example this quote.

"The human appendix is capable of converting 6 out of 7 toxins into water using nothing more that a mixture of club soda and duct tape adhesive."

Now I ask the following questions:
  • Who originally made this statement?
  • What is that persons education or experience?
  • What do they consider a toxin?
  • When was this said and in what context?
  • What data was used to formulate this conclusion?
  • Who paid for the research that produced this conclusion?

Prior to this effort I might have asked things like:
  • How do you mix club soda and duct tape
  • Can I sell my appendix on eBay?

Questioning implicitly silly statements came easily and I never once considered selling my appendix. But, I really started learning when questioning ideas I wanted to believe; such as the panacea of environmental friendliness and economic growth that a hydrogen economy would bring. Not so much a panacea. I'll leave the details of the hydrogen economy tragedy for another post.

For now I'll close with three thoughts. First, if you think someone might be passing of truthiness as fact, try seeing if what they are saying stands up to the scientific method. Second, I made up that thing about the appendix and club soda. If it's true its just dumb luck. And finally an explanation of truthiness:

Thanks to Greg Williams and the Wikimedia Commons for use of the above image. Its licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 license.