Avoiding assumptions and scientific faux pas

Never confuse Star Trek fans with Star Wars fans

The first rule of science is ‘question everything, assume nothing’. Even if your results turn out exactly as you hypothesized, it is still not real until it has been repeated in triplicate with all controls accounted for. This basic principle seems to be alone in the world of science.

Out in the real world, the idea of ‘question everything’ is certainly not applied. This obviously includes much of the information gleaned from the internet and also those quirky one line “did you know?” pseudo-facts in magazines or drink bottles.

It is also surprisingly rare in everyday social interactions. I overheard a conversation recently:

“You’re a scientist,” said Person A to Person B, “so you like Star Trek, right?” An awkward silence ensued, much like after asking a woman when the baby is due without first establishing that she is pregnant. Or being asked which part of England you’re from when you are actually Australian. Or vice versa.

Person B scoffed at the idea. And then changed the subject to rave about the upcoming Star Wars movie.

A tip for non-science fiction aficionados: Never make assumptions about a person’s science fiction preferences. It will end badly. Usually with a Jedi mind trick, a Vulcan nerve pinch or, worse, a lengthy explanation as to why one is infinitely better than the other.*

Many people also make assumptions about scientists themselves. On one hand they assume scientists know everything and on the other they presume scientist have not even thought to check the basics.

I’ve had many fascinating conversations with non-scientists that included topics like “You’re a scientist so you should know this…” No, I’m an organic chemist not a zoologist, sorry. Or “It’s not global warming it’s just solar activity…” Because climate scientists didn’t think to check that first.

And this old gem that keeps resurfacing: “NASA scientists spent a billion dollars to make a pen that writes in space and they could have just used a pencil!” Except that pencils can be hazardous in zero-gravity, particularly when surrounded by lots of expensive equipment.

Avoiding assumptions and questioning everything is a first line of defense against the spread of myths and misinformation. And it’s a good way to avoid sci-fi nerd rage.

*For the record, I’m a huge fan of both and will talk a lot about them at every opportunity.