Many - perhaps most - see the word “scientific” as a largely non-controversial descriptor of a position or perspective for which there is legitimate scientific evidence. Since many Americans have come to see science as perhaps the most trusted criterion by which truth can be known, virtually all would agree that labeling something with the word “scientific” is a powerful and rhetorically persuasive act. “Is it scientific?” has thus become another way to ask “Is it true?”
Where things get tricky is when the questions arise, such as: what exactly does it mean for a particular method to be scientific? And what does it mean for evidence to be legitimate, trusted scientific evidence? Depending on the (various, contested) answers given to those questions, very different implications ensue for the application of “scientific” evidence for practical, societal problems.
It’s common, for instance, for some to emphasize Randomly Controlled Trials (RCT) - reflecting numerous complex controls such as randomization and controlled groups - to be the “gold standard” for scientific process (due to the intensity of control). It’s common, for example, for physicians to only pay attention to results coming from RCT studies in determinations of which treatments should be trusted.
Others point out that a high percentage of RCTs are funded by industries (e.g., the food industry funds nutritional studies; the pharmaceutical industry funds drug trials). If that’s true, they ask, what does it mean if we are only paying attention to findings arising from RCT studies as the only truly “scientific” (aka legitimate) evidence?
For this reason, some people advocate a broader appreciation of the various kinds of methods that can, together, shed light on a given situation or issue or problem more fully thanks to the diversity of approaches to data gathering. They argue that what we label “scientific” or “unscientific”may have dramatic implications for what we end up doing or not doing, and that we should be having a conversation about what that means.
QUESTIONS TO PLAY WITH:
-What do you think the word “scientific” means or should mean when it comes to evidence or methods that deserve the label? Are there definitions of the word that feel overly narrow or broad?
-If you believe that only scientific evidence constitutes proof, who do you think should be in charge of defining what is scientific evidence and what is not?
-If someone said to you, “Something being ‘scientific’ means nothing, because scientists are people too” - how would you respond?