Other students at university would often look with envy at those of us who were doing mathematics. Whereas they had large reading lists of books to get through each week, us mathmos would get only a single worksheet per topic. And to top it all off, we would spend a lot of time playing pool.
True, we would occasionally stop to scribble something down on a torn bit of paper. But then it wouldn’t be long before we returned to the table and continued to play. “Maths sure looks easy,” they would say.
But of course you know it isn’t. If I tried to sit down to give an example of what was on that worksheet, most of you would glaze over and move on to the next article.
What grabs attention is something like Covid-19. Somebody shared in a WhatsApp group a study that suggested that the risk of dying from vaccine side effects may be as high as the risk of dying of Covid-19. If the cure is as dangerous as the disease, then that sounds intriguing.
One thing in support of the paper was that it was published in a journal that in turn is managed by a publisher called MDPI. The current consensus is that MDPI is a respectable organisation, so this paper should be taken seriously.
However, when I looked into it, I discovered that less than a month after publishing that paper, the journal retracted it. The reason given was that there was a “misinterpretation of data, leading to incorrect and distorted conclusions”.
I pointed this retraction out in the group chat. To my surprise, the response by the person who shared the paper was that there was “no misinterpretation of data”, and instead this person advised me to “just do what you think is right”.
I resisted the temptation to say, “Well, what I think is right is to assume the guys at the journal understand more about the paper than you might”. But I suppose the real question is, to what extent do you trust scientists and researchers, and why do you feel your minutes of reading stuff on the Internet is worth more than their years of experience?
The Internet has made everybody an expert. I used to joke that if you ever felt ill, you shouldn’t Google your symptoms because you’ll probably find out you have cancer. I personally feel getting a doctor to run tests on you is probably a better indicator of that than answering a multiple choice quiz on the World Wide Web.
The truth is, for many people, “doing your own research” isn’t about going through the literature, understanding the foundations of the science you are studying, and then weighing evidence from multiple independent sources. For most people, it means “Google it until you find something you agree with”.
I’ll let you into a little secret: If you are ever writing a column or making a presentation, and you need some data to back up your assertion, there is always someone somewhere arguing your case.
For example, perhaps you want to say something about Internet access in Malaysia. You might share a 2020 survey by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) that found out that 88.7% of Malaysians use the Internet, and 87.3% of those have good enough access to watch videos online. That is quite impressive.
However, if your opinion is opposite to this, you might look elsewhere for your evidence. You might present a 2020 survey by the International Islamic University of Malaysia’s student union that says 30% of respondents say they don’t have a good enough Internet connection to join online classes.
It is important to note that I’m not talking about fraud here. Both results may be valid and true. But to understand them fully requires you to sit down, and look a little more carefully at the surveys. How was the data collected? Are the results comparable?
Perhaps you might notice that the MCMC survey said that 87.3% of Internet users watch videos, not 87.3% of the country’s total population. How does that compare with the 30% that say they can’t join online classes? Can you even compare the two surveys like that?
The point I am making is that trying to understand science and the research it produces is difficult. To outright accept or reject ideas and theories is dangerous because it leaves less room for you to change your views as scientists learn more.
Those are just simple surveys. Take something more complicated, like, for example, how our understanding of Covid-19 has changed. Recently there has been less emphasis on handwashing and more on avoiding close contact in crowded rooms. Scientists now believe that the virus is mainly spread via airborne droplets. And that it spreads without anybody needing to touch anything (and then rubbing their eyes, for example).
We also used to hope that vaccines would create “herd immunity” and vaccinated individuals would “shield” those who could not be vaccinated. Unfortunately, the evidence is that the virus can still spread through vaccinated people –but it’s still important that as many people get vaccinated as possible because vaccines reduce the severity of the disease (among other reasons), and that we continue to take precautions like wearing a mask and keeping a physical distance.
And underpinning all that is a lot of hard work and effort, and years of experience.
Just because a question on a university maths worksheet can be answered on one side of an A4 paper, it doesn’t say anything about how much work had to go into it. While in other subjects, people could read books, learn what they needed from them, and then organise their answers as needed, if we mathmos got stuck solving a problem, we had no other recourse than to think really hard about it (and play a little pool while we did so).
In his fortnightly column, Contradictheory, mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi explores the theory that logic is the antithesis of emotion but people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Write to Dzof at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.