It's not just the way it's explained -- it's the all-too-common impression media give that every new scientific discovery undoes everything that came before it. How many times have you seen headlines that say, "Scientists Are Back to the Drawing Board Because...", as if the scientists were all sitting around sipping glasses of wine, thinking they had the entire universe figured out, when along comes some pesky upstart making a discovery that causes it all to come crashing down?
Yes, there are times that a discovery overturns a huge chunk of what we thought we knew, but the reason those stand out is because they're so infrequent. (This is the subject of Thomas Kuhn's seminal book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which should be required reading for anyone interested in the scientific process.) Most of the alterations caused by new discoveries are small course changes, not capsizing the entire boat. Not that they're unimportant -- refining the model is what science is all about. But refinement doesn't require destroying the superstructure, any more than remodeling your kitchen requires that you tear down your entire house.
It's why I get frustrated with students who say (usually about evolution) "it's just a theory." "Theory" is a word that is consistently misused by many laypeople, who take it to mean "a wild guess that could just as easily be disproven as proven," when actually what it means is "a complex explanatory model well supported by all of the available evidence." Yes, it's possible that the theory of evolution could be disproven, but in the same sense that it's possible you could throw a deck of cards into the air and have them land in a stack by number and suit. It could happen -- but I wouldn't bet on it.
I saw a frustrating example of this phenomenon yesterday in the usually excellent site Science News, apropos of a discovery in South Africa of a rock that may force a revision of our timetable for the tectonic history of the Earth. Pretty cool, even if the revision isn't that large, in the grand scheme of things -- pushing back the start of tectonic activity from 2.7 to 3.3 billion years ago. The most interesting thing is that this means tectonic movement started right around the same time as life did, leading to speculation that there may be some kind of causation there. (Recall that tectonics isn't just responsible for earthquakes and volcanoes, but for recycling large chunks of the Earth's crust. It may be that this movement of minerals and seawater kicked off the chemical reactions that led to the first living things -- although this is still highly speculative.)
[Image is in the Public Domain]
The truth is, perhaps, not nearly as sexy, but popular media (and especially science-for-laypeople media like Science News) should try to reflect it. In this time when our leaders are actively trying to poison our belief in scientific research on climate change, pollution, and ecology, it is incumbent on media of all type to be as careful as they can about being accurate not only in denotation but in connotation. As a group, scientists are extremely cautious about publishing until their conclusions are supported by a wealth of evidence, and the impression fostered by many elected officials -- that scientific research is biased, tentative, and inaccurate -- is simply false.
So I wish the people who write about research for popular consumption would take this to heart. We can't afford any more blows to our confidence in the experts. Without them, we'd be left with only the politicians to rely on -- and given the choice, I'm trusting the scientists.
This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is sheer brilliance -- Jenny Lawson's autobiographical Let's Pretend This Never Happened. It's an account of her struggles with depression and anxiety, and far from being a downer, it's one of the funniest books I've ever read. Lawson -- best known from her brilliant blog The Blogess -- has a brutally honest, rather frenetic style of writing, and her book is sometimes poignant and often hilarious. She draws a clear picture of what it's like to live with crippling social anxiety, an illness that has landed Lawson (as a professional author) in some pretty awkward situations. She looks at her own difficulties (and those of her long-suffering husband) through the lens of humor, and you'll come away with a better understanding of those of us who deal day-to-day with mental illness, and also with a bellyache from laughing.
[Note: If you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]