As modern science was emerging during the 18th and 19th centuries, ideas regarding how science should be performed also began to take shape. One particular idea posited that scientists subject theories to test, but do not allow their biases to get in the way. Real scientists, it was argued, are unprejudiced, and rather than try to prove theories right or wrong, they merely seek the truth based on experiment and observation. According to this notion, real scientists don’t have preconceptions, and they don’t hide, ignore, or disavow evidence that does not fit their own views. Real scientists go where the evidence takes them.
Unfortunately, the romantic notion that real scientists operate free of bias proved to be dead wrong. Scientists, even “real scientists”, are human beings, and like all human beings they have biases that influence what they do and how they do it. While a minority of scientists does engage in outright fraud, even honest scientists who claim they are only interested in the truth can unconsciously bias the results of their experiments and observations to support their ideas. In past posts I have already provided notable historical examples of how scientists fooled themselves into believing they had discovered something that wasn’t real such as the cases of the physicist René Blondot, who thought he had discovered a new form of radiation, or the astronomer Percival Lowell who thought he had discovered irrigation channels on Mars.
It is in part because of the above realization, that scientists developed several methodologies to exclude bias and limit the number of possible explanations for the results of experiments and observations such as the use of controls, placebos, and blind and double-blind experimental protocols. This is the first level of protection against bias. Today the use of these procedures in research is pretty much required if scientists expect their ideas to be taken seriously.
However, while nowadays scientists use and report using the procedures described above when applicable, the proper implementation of these procedures is still up to the individual scientists, which can lead to biases. This is where the second level of protection against bias comes into play. Scientists try to reproduce each other’s work and build upon the findings of others. If a given scientist reports an important finding, but no one can reproduce it, then the finding is not accepted.
But even with these safeguards, there is still a more subtle possible level of bias in scientific research that does not involve unconscious biases or sloppy research procedures carried out by one or a several scientists. This is bias that may occur when all the scientists involved in a field of research accept a certain set of ideas or procedures and exclude other scientists that think or perform research differently. Notice that above I used the words “possible” and “may”. The development of a scientific consensus within the context of a well-developed scientific theory always leads to a unification of the ideas and theories in a given field of science. So far from bias, this unification of ideas may just indicate that science has advanced. But in general, and especially early on in the development of a scientific field, science is best served not when researchers agree with each other but when they disagree. So the third level of protection against bias that keeps science true occurs when researchers disagree and try to prove each other to be wrong. In fact, some funding agencies may even purposefully support scientists that hold views that are contrary to those accepted in a field of research. The theory is that this will lead to spirited debates, new ways of looking at things, and a more thorough evaluation of the thinking and research methods employed by scientists.
However, disagreements among scientists do have a downside that is often not appreciated. While science may benefit when in addition to Scientist A, there is a Scientist B researching the exact same thing who disagrees with the ideas and theories of Scientist A, science may not necessarily benefit when Scientist A and B research something and A thinks that B is wrong and doesn’t have the slightest idea of what he/she is doing, while B thinks A is an idiot who doesn’t understand “real science”. There are a number of examples of long-running feuds in science between individual scientists or even whole groups of scientists. In these feuds, the acrimony can become so great that the process of science degenerates into dismissal of valid evidence, screaming matches, insults, and even playing politics to derail the careers of opponents.
But, of course, the problem I have described above is nothing more than the human condition and in this sense science is not unique. Every activity where humans are involved has to deal with bias, but at least in science we can recognize we are biased and implement the three levels of protection against this bias. It may be imperfect, it may be messy, it may not always work, but, being human, that’s the best we can do.
Image from Alpha Stock Images by Nick Youngson used here under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license.
Election 2020 – In the Absence of Safeguards, How Do We Distinguish Fantasy From Reality? A Scientist’s PerspectiveRead Now
Elections are normally not considered a scientific topic. However, when elections take place many scientific questions can be formulated about their outcome. For example, “Which candidate obtained the majority of the votes in a given state or in the overall election?” is a scientific question, as it can be answered by counting the votes. Additionally, and more relevantly to the 2020 election, questions about the integrity of the election can also be formulated as scientific questions. However, and this is the key, BEFORE you ask questions and begin searching for evidence that fraud has taken place, you have to define what would constitute “fraud” (as opposed to mere machine glitches or human error), how said fraud would be detected and investigated, and how much fraud has to be present to label the election as “compromised”. Only then can meaningful questions be asked, evidence procured, and valid conclusions reached. Why is this?
Scientists have known from decades of research into the human mind that people with a strong interest in finding evidence for something will find it even if the evidence is not there. Human psychology is such that even people whose intent is honest will filter reality and find patterns where there are none to be found. This is a process akin to finding shapes in the clouds. Defining a priori what constitutes fraud, what should be considered valid evidence for fraud, and how much of it would have to be present to declare the election to have been compromised is an elemental level of protection against human bias. As far as I can tell, Mr. Trump and his team did not do this. Rather they seem to have cast as wide a net as possible which risks ending up with a trove of false positives.
Another level of protection against bias is to recognize that the people best suited to assess whether there is fraud in the election are not those who WANT to find it. This is a very elemental concept in science which has led to the introduction of many controls in the research process. One possible way to control this source of bias is to rely on evaluations of the evidence and the election conducted by people who don’t share your biases, or at least by people committed to place doing their job and following the law above everything else. If enough of these people look at any evidence of fraud presented to them, or assess the procedures followed in the elections and still reach the conclusion that the election was not compromised, then that is an indication that this was indeed the case.
Based on the foregoing, agencies such as the Department of Justice and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, along with several dozen courts and fact checkers, plus multiple election officials, state attorney generals, and governors (many of them pro-Trump Republicans) have not found convincing evidence of foreign or domestic interference in the election, or of fraud at a level that would overturn the results of the election.
These assessments mentioned above involving many individuals of different political persuasions as well as different courts and agencies should have given Mr. Trump confidence that the election results were fair. Instead, Mr. Trump and his team disqualified these assessments, claiming that the people involved at best were indifferent or incompetent, or at worst had nefarious ulterior motives, and may have even coordinated with each other forming part of a massive conspiracy also involving foreign actors.
Over the past few years, I have exchanged many arguments with what I call irrational skeptics. These are people that defend various conspiracy theories ranging from global warming, 911, and COVID-19 severity deniers to antivaccination advocates, creationists, and chemtrail and flat Earth proponents. All these people share the common trait that they are immune to evidence against their ideas, and that any attempt to discredit their ideas will be considered further proof of the existence of a conspiracy. In this sense, I do not see any difference between these irrational skeptics and Mr. Trump and those that support his election fraud claims.
Of course, I am not naïve. I know full well that there may be political and other types of motivations behind the claims of the Trump campaign that have nothing to do with a desire to find the truth. But the intention of this post is not to speculate about motivations. My goal is just to address the elections from a scientific perspective. And in that vein, I want to propose a thought experiment. I want you to consider what would have happened if Mr. Biden had contested the results of some of the states he lost employing exactly the same methods and arguments used by Mr. Trump and his team.
Suppose that Mr. Biden had selected a team of “colorful” lawyers to find voter fraud. Mr. Biden’s team could have pointed to the fact that Biden was ahead in early voting in some states such as North Carolina but that later this trend reversed, as an indication that something ”strange” happened. They could have gathered affidavits from people that thought they had witnessed something suspicious or irregular going on. They could have interpreted every glitch in the system or any clerical error in the worst possible light. They could have interpreted videos of election workers going about their jobs to suggest irregularities and edited portions of the videos in suggestive ways to make their case. They could have relied on testimonials of selected “experts” that exaggerated their credentials. They could have put forward statistical analyses of voting data based on questionable assumptions. They could have alleged that their observers were not allowed enough access to the vote counting process. They could have even named their lawsuit the “Medusa” lawsuit (Kraken/Medusa - get it?).
My question then is: If Mr. Biden and his lawyers had searched for evidence of voter fraud in some of the states he lost employing these sloppy or questionable procedures, would they have “found” evidence of voter fraud of a magnitude and nature similar to that found by Mr. Trump’s lawyers in other states? The point of this exercise is to consider whether, in the absence of safeguards against human bias, the normal impressions people derive from their assessment of reality, coupled to the glitches and mistakes present in any election, can be spun to construct a narrative of fraud.
I will leave it up to you to answer this question. But if your answer is “Yes”, then it should be obvious that unless rigorous and well-defined procedures are employed to analyze the integrity of a process such as elections, it is impossible to distinguish fantasy from reality. Scientists know this to be true for science which is why they use these procedures. Assuming there is an honest interest in finding the truth, why can’t we accept the same procedures are necessary for evaluating the integrity of elections? And if we accept this is the case, why can’t we accept that any investigation that was carried out without following these procedures is not trustworthy and its premises are questionable?
Election 2020 image by conolan from Pixabay is in the public domain.