Saturday, February 07, 2015

Whatever Happened to Our Understanding of Science?

20% of adult Canadians think that the measles vaccine causes autism. This according to a survey of some 3,000 people conducted by Mainstreet Technologies.. They are wrong. There is not a shred of scientifically credible evidence to support this view, but it persists. So does the belief that homeopathic medicine is effective in treating specific problems or that Big Foot is alive and well or that organic food is better for you than non-organic food.

This kind of “lets make stuff up” science is worrying. It tells us that real science – the systematic, methodologically rigorous pursuit of truth – is not understood either in terms of process (how science gets done) or in terms of outcome (what we know from science). We have failed to help people understand how to examine a proposition – e.g. “is it a good idea for my son or daughter to have the measles vaccine?” – in a rigorous, science based way.

One reason for this is that the media loves non-scientific ideas, especially when they come from scientists or science advocates. For example “…major European cities will be sunk beneath rising seas as Britain is plunged into a ‘Siberian’ climate by 2020” screamed The Guardian in February 2004. They based this on a “secret” (sic) Pentagon report from a scientist and a business writer who in turn based this claim on their very limited understanding of climate models.

Al Gore once predicted that the Arctic would be “ice free” each summer by 2013, based on his review of a range of scientific studies – a view supported by his own scientific advisors. In fact, by 2013, Arctic sea ice had grown 50% since satellite records began in 1979.

In a typical day, a person who listens to the radio, watches television and reads newspapers will be faced with up to one hundred “quasi” science claims. These will range from “scientists have developed gluten free yeast” (yeast is already gluten free – yeast is a fungus and gluten is a plant protein – they are as related as a cow and a grape) to “coconut oil can increase your calorie-burning power by up to 50%” (well-known studies have shown that saturated fats increase the risk of heart disease).

We need to do a much better job of helping citizens develop the ability to review, question, explore and check scientific claims. Measles can kill – it's a deadly disease. For every 1,000 children who get measles, two will die. Vaccination is an established and safe way of protecting the community. Our communities and each of us is threatened by ignorance and the spread of pseudoscience. It needs to change.

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