Scientists Reveal What They Wish Society Would Better Understand

It's no secret that scientific literacy is on the decline in the United States, and this has resulted in many people failing to grasp some really basic concepts, like what peer reviewed studies are. Or how statistics work. Or that the Earth is round and goes around the Sun. We need to ramp up science education so we can have a brighter future. Our survival depends on it.

TheMeisterAce asked, Scientists of Reddit, what is the one thing that you wish the general public had a better understanding of?

Submissions have been edited for clarity, context, and profanity.

Papers that are peer-reviewed are more credible than one-off reports.

Just because it's a paper it doesn't mean it's credible. The idea behind peer reviewed articles vs non. Along with small sample size studies are generally not a good representation of the entire population.

Anecdotes are not evidence of anything because personal experience can't be replicated.

Averages and Sample Size.

So we can get rid of anecdotal evidence, as often seen in the media.

This makes sense, which in science is not usually necessary.

99% of all accidents happen close to home. BECAUSE THAT'S WHERE YOU ARE MOST OF THE TIME.

We learned this in what, fourth grade?

Also the difference between mean, median and mode.

Read beyond the headlines, especially for science reported in the media.

When mainstream media reports something like "a new study shows that...." the conclusion is either exaggerated or taken out of context to make the news article more attractive.

Scientific discovery leading to understanding is not a quick process.

How long the scientific process actually takes and is accepted by our peers.

I dreamt it would rain, and it rained. Therefore it rained because I dreamt it. NO.

The difference between causation and correlation.

A scientific theory is supported by evidence and accepted as fact - like evolution, or gravity, and heliocentrism.

The word "theory". It doesn't mean the same thing colloquially as it does in science. A scientific theory has an overwhelming amount of evidence to support it.


Antibiotics and antibiotic resistance. A lot of people are under the impression they're a magical pill that will cure a lot of symptoms or diseases, when they are only effective against a handful of bacterial infections. Which means your common cold or flu are not treatable with them. So demanding your doctor to give you unnecessary antibiotics when you're sick is unhelpful and possibly even dangerous, as it may lead to increases in antibiotic resistance. This could make the most basic drugs we have completely useless, and return to a Victorian era of common infections leading to death.

This ties into anecdote not counting as evidence for or against anything.

Error bars.

Sometimes changes are significant. Sometimes they're just random noise. Differentiating between the two is VERY important. See: "Global warming is a hoax cause it was cold yesterday"

Science is a diverse field and not all disciplines are interrelated.

One that bugs me is that science!=engineering. An astronomer does not build rockets. An aerospace engineer doesn't study expansion of the universe. Both are awesome but they are fundamentally different.

Inertia is real.

An object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.

So remember to wear your seatbelt and drive safely.

GMOs are safe. GMOs are safe. GMOs are safe.

Genetically modified foods, it is not what you think.

Darwinian evolution explains our physiology. Cultural evolution explains our psychology. Both are real and quantifiable.

I get a lot of heat when I say this here for some reason, but as an evolutionary biologist with a background in anthropology, I wish people understood that almost all of the behaviors we see in humans around us are due to cultural evolution and not biological evolution.

Cultural evolution is so much faster than biological evolution that these traits we see never had time to develop biologically or to be "hard wired" in. Also, people far too often think that what they see in their culture around them is a universal. One thing I learned as an anthropologist is that for everything we find desirable or natural, another culture finds repulsive or taboo (or vice versa). People are always saying things like, "we do XYZ because back when we were cave men you needed to do it to survive being eaten by a tiger/get more mates" or some such.

Physics explains the how, not the why. At least, for now.

Physics doesnt know why most things work, we just know that they do work, and we work backwards from what we observe.

Also just because we have small computers does not mean the rest of science is at Star Trek levels.

There is no absolute certainty in science.


Scientists are the type of person who do not like saying they're 100% certain of anything (we've been hurt too many times before). So if a scientist says "I'm 99.9% sure it will work," another scientist hears "this is worth betting on working, but we live in a universe where there's always a chance of failure." But a non-scientist hears "this isn't something that's absolutely proven and therefore isn't always true."

For example, there has never been a recorded instance of someone becoming infected with HIV while properly taking Truvada (to my knowledge). But still, any advertisement for it says that it has a 99.9% chance success rate.

Though the takeaway here isn't just to round up and consider a 99.9=100. The takeaway is to realize that it's very hard to be 100% certain about anything, and to understand that

It's been proven as fact, time and again, yet people still deny it. It's not even that hard to grasp.


Science is based on evidence, not opinion or belief.

Applied scientist here (engineer).

Science is NOT a belief system. Attempting to dismiss something studied and supported using science by saying "well, I just believe something different. How can you expect me to respect your beliefs if you won't respect mine?" isn't valid. Further, science should NEVER set out to prove something is true. It should only find out what is supported by evidence, even if it's contrary to your hypothesis (and possibly desires). Honestly, I wish more scientists respected this.

DNA is the most efficient data storage system known to science.

Speaking from my little corner of the scientific community, I wish people understood DNA evidence better.

DNA analysis is a fantastic tool! We can detect very minute amounts of DNA, so in some cases we could tell if you've even just touched something. In the past 20 years, the capabilities of analysis have just gotten better and better. You used to need enormous amounts of stain to produce a profile.

This of course has led to DNA evidence being collected for more than just murder. And that's fine -- we're here to catch the perpetrators. (Though it does mean crime labs suffer backlogs as more and more evidence gets sent to us to test.)

The proliferation of the technology and its recent entrenchment in popular culture, however, has led to a courtroom expectation that it will be present in every case, and that there's some sort of failure of legitimacy if it isn't there. They really do call this "the CSI effect," and while it affects the whole forensic community, nowhere is it worse than in DNA.

What DNA can tell you:

  • a profile that can be compared to a known standard and a probability of a match can be assigned

What DNA can't tell you:

  • how that DNA got there
  • when that DNA got there
  • whether it's probative to the crime (whether it really means anything)
  • whether it means someone is guilty or not

You need more than DNA evidence to convict, and merely having DNA evidence is not indicative of guilt! It needs to be considered as a whole case, not just one piece of evidence.

Please, if you ever get placed on a jury, give your fellow man the proper consideration he's due, and listen to the impartial experts. (Yes, defense lawyers can hire experts to say whatever they want, too, so be careful!)

Listen up, paranoid parents.

Drugs are expensive so I'm not going to put them in your kids Halloween candy.

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