Science is a daunting, complex enterprise that, though systematic in its execution, can appear random to those not schooled in its methods. News portals like Medical News Today exist to help translate the reams of data generated by medical studies into something the average patient can understand. In this feature, we speak to scientists and journalists who – in their own ways – are attempting to promote scientific literacy both within the media and the general population.
The advantages of a raised level of scientific literacy within society are obvious. People who are better able to think critically about the information they are receiving and weigh up for themselves the available evidence are more empowered to make important choices, not only about their own health, but as a citizen.
A society that has a grasp of how science works is less prone to being misled or abused by individuals or organizations who may profit from misinterpreting data, or who may distort scientific findings to promote their own agenda.
Science is a constantly self-revising process by which small hypotheses are tested, retested, disproved, modified and retested, slowly and incrementally adding to an increasing understanding of a greater picture.
Like other medical media, Medical News Today deals specifically in bringing you the details of those increments – the testing of hypotheses that you will see most often referred to on our site as “studies.”
In an attempt to demystify the process for our readers, Medical News Today is currently developing a new series of comprehensive Knowledge Centre articles that will provide detailed explanations on how some of the components of medical studies work – such as different types of trial and the process of peer review.
For this feature, we spoke to three professionals who are invested in raising understanding of how studies work.
They are, Jennifer Raff, PhD, a scientist at the University of Texas at Austin and Huffington Post columnist who also writes the Violent Metaphors science blog, which is devoted to debunking bad science; Ian Bushfield, campaigns support officer of Sense About Science, “a charitable trust that equips people to make sense of scientific and medical claims in public discussion”; and Dr. Steven Novella, founder and executive editor of the Science-Based Medicine website.
We asked our experts what the most popular misinterpretations of studies are that they run into as part of their work.
“When results from a single study are reported without context,” says Bushfield, explaining that is what gives rise to those media stories about coffee causing something one week, and protecting against it the next week.
“It makes it seem like scientists have flip flopping opinions when in reality science works by adding incrementally to the body of evidence to answer a question. A single study rarely completely answers a question.”
“Distorting the results of a scientific study rarely seems (in my experience) to be a one-time event,” suggests Dr. Raff. “If you look closely at the person or group who does it, you often see that they have a pattern of doing so to multiple studies in order to support an agenda or position.”
For Dr. Raff, this suggests a misinterpretation of both the purpose and process of science.
“Scientists are aware (I hope, at least) that biases are inevitable – we’re all fallible and prone to falling in love with our own perspectives, and so a careful scientist will constantly question himself or herself,” she says. “You have to become comfortable with doubt and be willing to admit that you’re wrong in the face of evidence that contradicts your ideas.”
This process of submitting your research to the scrutiny of others, Dr. Raff admits, is not an easy way to work. She considers that the point where some people – sometimes described as “pseudoscientists” – fail is by refusing to adopt this approach.
“They start with a position, and any piece of evidence that supports it is accepted, any piece of evidence that contradicts it is rejected, ignored, or distorted.”
“Generally they can’t sustain a coherent evidence-based argument for very long,” she says, “so when interacting with scientists these individuals often slip into logical fallacies, accusations of corruption, or simply try to exhaust the scientist with repetitive arguments.
“All of the above has happened to me,” she adds, “and it’s exhausting to confront. Scientists simply aren’t equipped to deal with these kinds of arguments based on their educational experiences, and I think that many throw their hands up and retreat into their labs as a result.”
“It’s difficult to promote specific scientific literacy in a population without general scientific literacy, but also critical thinking skills,” says Dr. Novella.
“These need greater emphasis in primary education. But given the current circumstances, it’s important to engage with the public in every possible forum promoting general and specific scientific literacy, understanding of how science works, the strengths and weaknesses of different types of evidence, mechanisms of self-deception, and overall critical thinking.”
The mission of Sense About Science is to equip people to make sense of science and evidence, Bushfield says.
“We help people make sense of that evidence by giving them more questions to ask, such as was the research peer reviewed, where was it published, and how many people took part in it. This is a big part of our work which is why we’ve created a number of guides to help, including I don’t know what to believe and I’ve got nothing to lose by trying it.”
Dr. Raff argues that promoting scientific literacy needs to be a collective effort “involving scientists, science writers, public policy makers, and even entertainers.”
She points to the TV series Cosmos – the cult TV show originally presented by Carl Sagan in 1980, and relaunched recently by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson – as an example of how collaborations can make difficult concepts accessible to the general public. “People responded to it so positively because they’re genuinely curious and excited about science.”
Could a similar approach promote understanding of medical science? “Coupled with better teaching of critical thinking skills early in life, this kind of approach would really make a difference,” Dr. Raff says.
“I think that the mainstream media is being asked to do something very difficult – take incredibly complex studies and make them intelligible to the average reader on very tight deadlines with very little institutional support,” reasons Dr. Raff. “I’m sympathetic to this. But like many other scientists, I’m frustrated with the mainstream approach to reporting on our research.”
A particular concern is when, in the interests of editorial balance, media outlets will present the findings of a study alongside the views of someone who disagrees with the findings, “regardless of how fringe this person’s position might be,” allowing equal weighting to both positions.
“Skepticism is absolutely critical and important, but in those rare cases where the majority of experts agree on something, the media is failing by not giving that position appropriate weight,” says Dr. Raff, who praises Mike Pesca’s “The Gist” podcast on the Ebola epidemic as being an instance of non-science media negotiating this problem particularly well.
“Part of the problem is that non-science journalists are covering science stories and reporting to non-science editors,” considers Dr. Novella. “We definitely need to increase the standard of science journalism generally.
“Further, scientists need to be more engaged with the media and directly with the public, which means more scientists need to develop the skill set necessary for such communication. Bloggers and social media can help by being a watchdog on journalists and calling them on sloppy or sensationalized coverage. I have had many experiences where journalists did better follow-up reporting after being embarrassed by science blogger backlash.”
As much as blogging and social media can form a useful critiquing body that can help to make science journalism more accountable, internet groups can equally be vocal proponents of misinformation and bad science.
Sometimes, as demonstrated with the fierce debate over autism and vaccines, these groups can influence popular media. These debates are often very passionate and highly personalized, so how can dispassionate, responsible science reporting be used to neutralize misinformation that spreads via the unregulated internet? Is it even possible?
“Ideologically driven people are extremely unlikely to change their positions, and an online debate simply solidifies their arguments,” says Dr. Raff. She thinks that by giving scientific and non-scientific factions an equal position in a debate, there is a risk of people being recruited to the non-science side.
“This happens all the time in discussions of vaccination, for example. The anti-vaccine community is actually very small, but they are very vocal and they claim a number of traits (the ‘natural’ approach to parenting, such as breastfeeding, eating organic food, exercise, outdoor activities, etc.) to be exclusively associated with their side. It’s branding, pure and simple.
A parent unaware of this might look at the debate and say to himself or herself ‘Well, I am in favor of breastfeeding and healthy food and so that must mean that I should therefore be against vaccines’ without going any further into the details (or realize that they’re being manipulated into making choices based on emotions, not reason).”
“Similarly, if you politicize positions on an issue, for example, ‘Crunchy liberals are dumb because they oppose vaccines,’ people who self-identify as ‘liberal’ will see that and link their identity with the scientific dispute. Once that link is there, they cease to analyze the science. People don’t necessarily ask ‘which side is right?,’ but rather ‘which side feels better to me?’ and will join up based on that.”
All of our interviewees are involved in challenging pseudoscience in their own ways. A current concern of Dr. Raff’s are popular science books that are not peer reviewed and distort science to force through a sociopolitical agenda, for instance, to make unscientific and morally questionable claims about race. She uses her blog, Violent Metaphors, to dissect these works and provide detailed scientific counterpoints.
Sense About Science empower laypeople with the confidence to challenge media representations of health issues that do not provide evidence to support their claims. One of the charity’s biggest campaigns is their involvement in AllTrials, an initiative that demands all clinical trials be registered and all results reported in the interests of public transparency.
Dr. Novella and his scientist colleagues at Science-Based Medicine present “a much needed ‘alternative’ perspective – the scientific perspective” to challenging medical information where the public may have been deliberately misled.
“Poor quality science and critical thinking education generally is a huge hurdle,” says Dr. Novella. “A sensational and insufficiently science-trained media worsens the problem greatly. Further, vested interests with great resources (whether corporations, ideological groups, those selling snake oil of various kinds) are spending time and money distorting the public discourse on many scientific topics, and this often involved distorting science itself.
“There’s no one fix,” he concludes, “but I do think the scientific community needs to engage to a much greater degree in the public discourse, and academia needs to recognize and reward public outreach and popularization of science much more than it does.”