Am I allowed to write an Opinion Piece on a Science Blog? Well, here goes (if you don’t hear from me, it’s quite possible the Science-Blog-Police nabbed me. Please send bail $). Scientists are heroes. I can say this because I’m not one, really. I do work for scientists, though, and am interested in what they study and what kinds of conclusions they come up with.
Think about it – where would we be without science and the work that scientists do every day? Medicine, vaccines, healthy diets (<–though I have a beef to pick with those studies, pun intended), computer technology, emergency disaster preparedness, water and air quality, global warming (yes, it’s a thing), crop management, saving the whales (literally), saving our planet (literally)… all of these important areas of influence are affected by scientific discoveries.
Basic science, that may not seem so practically relevant or poignant today, adds to our body of knowledge and helps us understand how our universe works. Another scientist down the line can use that basic, seemingly not-so-impactful study to come up with another one that may really blow something open!
Sometimes it feels like there is a backlash against science and a new big wave of science-skepticism. Of course, there are always some bad apples in any field; for instance, Andrew Wakefield, who wrote a study based on 12 children that linked the M.M.R. shot with the onset of autism in 1998. His findings were widely rejected, the British Medical Journal called his research “fraudulent”, his paper was retracted by the journal that published it, and he was stripped of his license. What was his motivation? I have read he was being paid by a law firm to find the link between MMR and autism so that they could win big money in a case.
Unfortunately, the comment Wakefield made during a press conference upon publication of his paper, where he announced his belief that the MMR vaccine may cause autism, stuck. And that’s a big reason why today we have major outbreaks of things like measles, which was formerly thought of as eradicated.
Typically, peer review, which is where 2 or more external reviewers (hopefully with expertise in the subject they are reviewing) assess the quality of the study, its methodology, and whether or not the research results are credible, before a paper is published, helps us avoid situations like the MMR-Autism debacle. I have read that 4 of the 6 reviewers of Wakefield’s study rejected it, and that it was the editor of the journal who decided to publish it because he was interested in the sensationalism. It ends up, the media loves a story that will scare the poop out of a vulnerable population (new parents) more than all of those studies that refuted Wakefield’s. Science (in this case, a scientific journal), somehow let this one through to publication, but Science soon corrected its mistake with many studies that could NOT reproduce the results. That wasn’t as big of a media splash.
Personally, I get irritated with Science regarding what’s considered healthy and what isn’t. One day eggs are out, the next day they seem to be a super food. One day butter is the devil, the next it’s OK. One day sun exposure is super risky, and the next day we need more of it (in the PNW). I’ve heard this before: “Why bother noting these studies when it seems like soon enough Science will “change its mind”?”
The best explanation I’ve heard about science is this: science is a learning and a building on our body of knowledge – it is an ongoing activity of investigation about our universe and how it works. When science “changes its mind”, it isn’t usually saying it was 100% wrong, but that it wasn’t 100% right. Scientific study adds to our knowledge base and updates it. Science can usually correct its mistakes (results must be able to be repeated and must stand up to peer review) and grow from there.
One thing to watch out for in the media and on the internet: is that splashy science-driven article based on something published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal? If not, it could very well be flawed, incomplete, or just plain bogus.
How can we, as a society, even begin to discuss making decisions together if we don’t first have the facts? Though scientific studies may not give us enough information to feel we have 100% of the facts, the peer review before publishing in a scientific journal, the scientific method based on empirical (observable) or measurable evidence, and the use of carefully controlled and replicated experiments that gather data are the best ways we have right now of rounding up information that helps us learn about our oceans, our animal friends, plants, insects, our bodies, our world, and the universe. The more we learn, the more likely we are to get together and agree on the best way forward with the information we have at hand. That’s the idea, anyway.
There’s a time and place for “going with your gut” and intuition. But when it comes to making decisions we need a majority to agree upon, I’m sticking with the scientists. Let’s work with the best information that we’ve got – provided by our world heroes; no, not the X-Men, Scientists.