Jack's Insights May 2018

By Jack Whittier, Director, UNL Panhandle Extension District and Panhandle Research and Extension Center

Several weeks ago, a colleague in Lincoln, Dave Varner, who is the Associate Dean/Associate Director for Nebraska Extension, pointed out a book to me called “Unscientific America – How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future.”  I recently began reading this book, and although I have not yet read far into the book, I am alarmed at what I have read about how poorly understood science is in today’s society.

Dr. Jack Whittier

My reading of the beginning pages of this book made me recall an earlier column I wrote for Jack’s Insights a few years ago. I hope you will forgive me for repeating, yet I believe the message in my previous column may be even more important today than when written.

I’d like to briefly explore two concepts.  The first is “misinformation” -- perhaps this might also be called fake news in today’s vernacular. The second concept frequently made in the world is about being “science-based.”  How can we determine if something is “misinformation” as compared to “science-based?” 

While on the faculty at Colorado State University I taught a graduate course in integrated resource management. At the beginning of the course, we would spend a few lectures and discussion periods considering what determines the validity of information. I would encourage the students to closely consider their sources of information, particularly when making decisions about adopting a particular management practice or technology in their businesses, or when making recommendations to others.

In this class we talked about who or what determines if a fact is a fact, and how could they be assured that a recommendation from a university specialist, a company representative, or others was valid. We would then discuss that the progression of discovering facts involves a process called the “scientific method” and that this process involves balancing risk and reward using statistical probability.

The objective of scientific research is to develop greater understanding of a particular question, or sequence of questions, through a process known as the scientific method, which involves a succession of steps: 1) review previous knowledge concerning the question and make observations; 2) based on these observations, propose an hypothesis; 3) design and perform an experiment or series of experiments to test the hypothesis; 4) analyze the data obtained from the experiment using accepted statistical probabilities to determine whether to accept or reject the hypothesis based on risk assessment; 5) if necessary, propose and test a new hypothesis and repeat the process; and finally 6) draw conclusions and make recommendations.

This scientific method is followed so the outcome of the research can be relied upon when the practice is applied across a variety of circumstances to minimize the risk of making an incorrect conclusion. The use of this method and the statistical probability analysis associated with it allows those using the information the opportunity to differentiate random, or chance, occurrences from real biological effects of a treatment.

An additional step in the progression of determining if a fact is a fact, is to subject the discovery process to the scrutiny of peers in a scientific community familiar with the discipline being researched.  This generally occurs within a professional society using the process of publishing in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. 

A colleague at Colorado State would often say, “Science is not science until it is published.”  Meaning that unless the fact-finding process stands up to evaluation by peers to assure that the proper science-based procedures, analysis and interpretation were used, it may lead to a biased, or faulty recommendation.

So, what does all of this have to do with the era of information, or misinformation? 

A key role of the University of Nebraska Panhandle Research and Extension Center (PHREC), along with other parts of UNL and research institutions in general, is to discover facts and make recommendations. At PHREC, we have a group of well-trained professionals whose mission is to investigate methods and practices to advance the vision stated by the UNL’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, which is “ …to serve Nebraska by providing internationally-recognized science and education to assure the state's competitiveness in a changing world.”

Our researchers, specialists and educators use sound research and education practices to discover and validate information so that those who adopt the recommended practices can be assured that they are using facts that have been correctly investigated to balance risk and reward. We believe it is our responsibility to provide science-based information and education during this era of information explosion in order to minimize the impact of misinformation on the citizens of Nebraska.

In conclusion, let me provide one last comment on the age of “misinformation” noted previously.  We must all remember that repetition does not validate misinformation. Just because a statement or report can be accessed or distributed in a split second, does not substantiate it as a fact. A fact is only a fact after being properly scrutinized by an established scientific method and peer-reviewed evaluation.

We work hard at PHREC to follow these processes.