NOTE: This discussion about how scientific evidence
is gathered might seem a bit "academic," but I feel 
strongly that the criteria behind my conclusions on 
this website—-that findings are scientific and 
evidence-based-—be clear for everyone. These issues 
will be discussed in many places on this site.

I’ve worked as a science educator throughout my professional career. The “scientific process” is how we know what we know, at least in Western cultures. It’s  always been important to me that everyone have access to understanding how scientific evidence is gathered, as well as what it means for something to be considered scientifically based. That requires a good basic understanding of the collection of methods that make up the process. What follows is a brief explanation with simple examples.

What Makes A Process Scientific

For conclusions to be scientifically based, they must have:

  • Originated in observation of, or questions about, natural (rather than “supernatural”) occurrences
  • Stemmed from a testable hypothesis (a possible mechanism of explanation)
  • Undergone testing of that hypothesis by gathering of evidence (data) from experiments leading to:
    • Data interpretation directly related to the testable hypothesis
    • Sharing with scientific peers who are invited to both evaluate and replicate the results
  • Been subject to ongoing challenge as more scientific evidence (knowledge) accumulates

A Hypothetical Scientifically-Derived Idea

A common science fair project provides a simple example of the scientific process:

Observation

  • A student observes differences in the growth of tomato plants in her parents’ garden compared to a neighbors’ gardenobtaining scientific evidence based on tomato plants growing beside one another in soil
    • She has observed the neighbor adding a white powder to the soil that she never observes her parents adding
    • She begins to explore the idea of gardening by interviewing the neighbor about this powder,  learning that it’s a fertilizer used to improve the growth of tomatoes
    • She confirms that her parents don’t use any fertilizer on their tomato plants

Proposing an Explanatory Mechanism

  • The student generates a testable hypothesis that adding fertilizer does cause better growth of tomato plants

Experimental Design

  • She designs an experiment comparing two groups of six tomato plants started from the same batch of seeds and treated identically, except for addition of fertilizer powder to one group
    • She labels the group without fertilizer the “control” group
    • She labels the one with added fertilizer the “experimental” group

Scientific Evidence Collection and Analysis

  • After an 8-week growth period, she collects evidence (data) from her two groups of plants
    • She measures height, width, weight, and number of tomatoes on each plant
    • She photographs each plant to add to her evidence of its growth
  • She then analyzes her data in relation to her original hypothesis
    • Her data show that the experimental fertilized plants, on average, did grow taller than the control plants
    • Her data also show no difference in the number of tomatoes between the two groups

Drawing Conclusions

  • The student concludes that adding fertilizer powder results in taller tomato plants. It doesn’t influence the number of tomatoes on the plants
  • She can say that the scientific evidence from her experiment does support her hypothesis
    • She understands this is not the same as saying she “proved” anything
      • Although it really appears that the fertilizer in the powder was responsible, the same result could possibly have occurred due to other factors in the fertilizer mix

Presenting the Work to Peers

  • She makes a poster presenting her entire process and its scientific evidence; then she shares her project with peers (other student scientists) at her school science fairexample of a school science fair, where participants share scientific evidence with judges and one another
    • During the fair, she has discussions with judges and her peers about whether:
      • She had enough plants in each group to validly draw her conclusions
      • The weather that season was different than average conditions and maybe played a role
      • Other tomato varieties might respond differently
      • Another student’s results at the fair using a different fertilizer support her conclusion or not
  • She then heads back to the drawing board
    • She considers these questions and many others that have arisen in her own mind
    • She begins designing her project for next year’s science fair, where she will have the results of this year’s projects (both her own and that of her peer who used the other fertilizer) for reference

In a professional situation, the student would have submitted her scientific evidence for publication in a peer-reviewed journal to add to the international database of information about plant science. The entire ongoing process is deemed the scientific process.

A Hypothetical Product Developed Without Scientific Evidence

In this case, an individual formulates a new fertilizer for tomato plants. He knows that plants require the chemical elements nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K), so he makes up a mix of these chemicals and adds vitamin B12, which he’s heard helps provide energy (at least in humans).

professional-looking bag of generic fertilizer not developed by the scientific process and lacking scientific evidenceHe creates a professional-looking package for his new product, as well as a website designed specifically for selling his product.

On the website, he hyperlinks to random pages that discuss the need for N-P-K for plant growth, as well as a possible role for vitamin B12 in treating human fatigue. He makes claims about the effect of his fertilizer by showing pictures he found of straggly-looking plants next to very robust specimens. He sets a price and develops an online strategy for selling his product to those who find his page.

What makes this unscientific?

It does not stand up to the criteria that make ideas scientific (see above):

  • It does not stem from a testable hypothesis (a possible explanation)
    • While he seems to have done a bit of background reading, no hypothesis has been generated (e.g., vitamin B-12 improves plant growth)
  • It does not undergo testing and gathering of data by experimentation
    • There are therefore no data to interpret; he has collected no scientific evidence
      • He only shows supposed “evidence” that was actually the intellectual property of others (the photos)
    • The claim, therefore, cannot be submitted to scientific peers
  • It is not subject to ongoing challenge by scientists
    • The product’s “suggested” claims have never been tested by experiment
    • There is no way for the community of scientists to either substantiate or refute his claims,
      • He shares nothing with others, claiming that doing so might diminish his profits
    • Either the product sells, or it does not—the public decides
      • Marketability is not the same as substantiating a conclusion with evidence

Relating This to Whole Food Healing for Aging

  • The web and new media are brimming over with claims about whole food and nutrition, about nutrition and healing, and about efforts to fight aging.
    • Many such claims are just not scientific, that is they are not based on the process of science.
    • Even when claims are drawn from studies published in scientific journals, media and web bloggers have been known to distort the findings
  • At Whole Food Healing for Aging, I will use my scientific expertise to provide independent investigations of such claims and report back to you what I find.
    • Presumably peer-reviewed journals will have already determined the studies were scientific; some blogs on the other hand…?
    • My task will be to interpret published findings in light of their meaning to you
    • Questions I will address include:
      • Are the reported findings actually true?
      • Do the claims out there represent the whole truth or just part of it?
      • Do the findings really matter to you?
        • How fast might it do what is claimed?
        • Which chronic health conditions might it improve?
        • How much will your health improve by implementing the findings in your own life?
Categories: Food as Medicine

Dr. Paul

Dr. Paul Boyer specialized in science research & education throughout his career. He more recently developed a passion for nutrition as one way of coping with the invisible chronic health issue commonly known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS). He is a Senior Nutrition Specialist and belongs to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

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