Enter the maze

Peer into science - It makes a good story

Pick up any newspaper and read a story. How do you know the story is true? Did celebrity X really do what they say? With more and more opportunity to tell the world your stories, through web blogging, or networking sites like myspace and youtube, there are so many tales being told, but which of them are true and which of them made up. Where is the evidence to support the tales. What's the whole story?

A man looking over a newspaper

We all like a good story

As human beings we have developed a love of a good story. It's part of our social make up and was the way that useful knowledge was passed through the generations before books. We like to see order in our string of facts and it's easier to remember if the parts all join together, particularly if there is a strong emotional theme running through. This human desire to make sense of often conflicting information may be why so many conspiracy theories are around today. With more and more information it's hard to take it all in, and when terrible things happen we look for ways to understand them. Often conspiracy theories will take some of the facts that fit the story and ignore others that don't. If the set of facts make a good read we tend to believe it. Add to this the power of the Internet to distribute these stories and you can have meme amplification.

Spread the word, and the word is meme

A meme is the cultural equivalent of a gene. A gene, part of the genetic instructions to build you, passes from generation to generations through your parents to you. Similarly a meme is a good story or a fashion craze, an idea that is transmitted from mind to mind. It survives and spreads because it's a good idea, through a process of natural selection just like genes. The idea of a meme was first put forward by zoologist and evolutionary scientist Richard Dawkins, and it's become very popular, so the meme idea has become a meme itself. How fitting.

What about science?

When it comes to science or the law, would we want to have a situation when anyone could say anything just because it was a good story? No, we need to be confident that these things are based on facts and evidence and the results are well supported. In the legal system, to decide if someone is gulty, the lawyers present the evidence on both sides of the case. A jury of people, who are specially selected to have similar backgrounds to the accused, make the deicssion. The jury is a jury of peers. Peers are others who share a similar world outlook and experience. For example your frineds are your peers, and together you make a "peer group".

Peer into science

In science peers take on an important role too. When we hear about important medical breakthroughs or faster ways to compute, science has used its 'jury' to check that things are based on sound evidence. This process is called peer review. Whenever a scientist produces new results they write a scientific paper about them. This paper is then sent to other scientists who are also experts in the field. These other scientists are the peers, and they look at the results. Often they will suggest that the scientist makes changes to the paper to make the writing clearer, or refer to other previous scientists results, or do some extra work to show more evidence. Sometimes they will even reject the paper saying it isn't correct or the argument and evidence presented just isn't strong enough yet. This way you can be more confident that the results and conclusions of the paper are correct.

In everyday life it translates into not just trusting your own evidence outright but trying out your arguments on others and listening to their concerns if there are holes in your arguments ... more evidence to collect before you can be sure perhaps.

Peer review works for science. What about for newspapers? There would certainly be far fewer celebrity stories in newspapers if they had to go through peer review.