Fear Not Science



For scientists, among the most disheartening and maddening opinions to hear from non-scientists is one which rejects science. Science is not a belief system. It just is. Our awareness of it certainly changes. But the science does not change in response to our awareness. Rejecting it is not an option. And misrepresenting it is not an option for any endpoint.

The question we must ask is; why and how do people end up taking an approach contrary to truth or, as in the case of science, the truth as far as we know it?  Why do people persistently resist acceptance of issues such as evolution, climate change science, government vaccination programs, water fluoridation, the moon landings. Why are there people and movements dedicated to such ridiculous concepts such as that the earth is flat, 911 conspiracy theories, alien abductions and, incredibly, a notion that fairies interfere with road building?

I think the answer at least begins with a fundamental inability to acknowledge the difficulty of science for the non-scientist (leading to misinterpretation), and a lack of interest in wanting to learn how it works (which can lead to misunderstanding), and a more general human fear of the unknown (which can lead to garden-variety ignorance), in this case fear of knowledge. An excellent article discussing this issue further can be found here (When Facts Backfire: Michael Shermer).

Furthermore, the issue is propagated by the often simplistic presentation of studies in certain media formats, particularly in their headlines. Considering that most people do not read beyond a headline, the impact of misleading headlines in mass public decision making is clearly becoming a major problem. And that is cause for alarm.

To discuss this, allow me to take as an example how the media react to science reports on wine drinking. I will not use a major headline-making study. Instead, to remove noise interference from a major study, I will look at a minor study from a minor journal that generated a gentle ripple wave of media interest.

This study suggested that a glass of red wine a day may combat cancer (Vartolomei, et al 2018). This was countered in the same study by stating that white wine may actually cause cancer. Consider the resulting media reports:

 “Glass of red wine a day ‘could protect men against prostate cancer’ – but switching to white ‘could increase risk’ ” 

“FRIGHT WINE: Just one glass of white wine a day raises risk of prostate cancer by more than a quarter… but a glass of red is good for you….”

“Glass of Red Wine Protects Against Prostate Cancer”

There was actually more to the published study. The drinks industry was more cautious, focusing on the suggestion of the low risks associated with drinking wine in moderation. They went online with a confronting question:

“Does drinking red wine really prevent prostate cancer?”

And here is the actual title of the peer reviewed published study:

“The impact of moderate wine consumption on the risk of developing prostate cancer.”

And here are the author’s conclusions that all the above refers to:

“In this meta-analysis, moderate wine consumption did not impact the risk of PCa (prostate cancer). Interestingly, regarding the type of wine, moderate consumption of white wine increased the risk of PCa, whereas moderate consumption of red wine had a protective effect”.

This apparently contradictory statement allows for several varying standpoints to be supported. The report itself appears to be sound. It is a review: the researchers did not collect the biological data themselves. Rather it is a survey of 930 previously published research studies on the issue, whittled down to just 17, which were then statistically analysed to find a consensus conclusion. The results were not particularly clear, but they were scientifically informative. After submission and peer review to the journal Clinical Epidemiology, the work was published online. It has not proved that wine, red or white, is safe. It has not proved that wine, red or white, is dangerous. Given the complexity of alcohol metabolism in the human body, neither of these conclusions are possible yet, if ever. In other words, alcohol affects everyone differently; you might get cancer if you drink, or you might not. And from the research, that appears to be a supported hypothesis.

To sum up, we can see that the correct ideally uniformly reported media headline should have been:

Scientists conclude after reviewing 17 studies that maybe red wine will decrease the risk of prostate cancer, and maybe white wine will increase it. But we have no firm evidence of either, and if drinking in moderation, like everything, you most likely will be fine continuing as you are. Until we know more.”

Not very sexy, it won’t work as click-bait, and it won’t catch people’s attention on a newsagent window, but it accurately reflects the report.

Let’s look at a few other related news headlines on different studies published previously to get an idea of the pendulous nature of research.

From July 2017:

“Red wine increases cancer risk – but nine out of ten drinkers are not aware of the dangers”

From December 2014:

“Red wine has ‘both cancerous and anti-cancerous properties”

From February 2009:

“Drinking just one glass of wine a day can INCREASE risk of cancer by 168%, say the French!”

From November 2007:

“Half a glass of red wine ‘protects from cancer”

When considering the above examples, it can be clearly seen that research swings back and forth like a kid on a swing. From that, and from the example of alcohol research in particular, we can see how the public gets confused with the conflicting headlines, and how science can get dismissed. On the other hand, the average person on the street may still have an opinion on the issue, probably based on headlines, no matter how confused. The headlines are eye-catching, using arresting alarmist language. One can imagine how easy it is to toy with other more dangerous headlines, which either inaccurately refer to published research or refer to bad or retracted research, culminating in very real and serious problems of significant public interest. Think here of the role of social media in recent high profile electoral events in the UK and the United States. For example, it was reported that the most googled term in the UK directly after the Brexit vote in 2016 was “what is the European Union?”. This after the people voted on it, not before. (These reports, of course, need to be analysed a little more; who was searching, and why? The young, who comprise most internet users, who may not have, or could not have, voted? Was the surge a natural consequence of the high profile nature of the result? But it is nevertheless revealing and curious behaviour). Think also the now widespread panic over vaccines after one erroneous publication in 1998, now retracted and discredited, but still cited and used to back up calls to avoid vaccination. The vaccine issue is particularly notable due to endorsement by many celebrities and high-profile personalities such as Robert F Kennedy Jr in the US. In fact, I urge the reader to Google that right now.

So, we have shown how news and social media headlines can misrepresent the actual content they refer to. This is not surprising, they are required by their nature to be succinct and snappy. Let us now go behind the headlines and look at science publishing, how it functions, and what papers represent in the repository of scientific knowledge.

Science publishing caters to a wide and complex array of topics. The publications are usually written in a highly technical style with dense jargon-heavy prose which can make them often cumbersome to read. Even scientists can find it difficult to understand and keep up with papers, especially papers outside their field of expertise. Each research article published should be viewed as another brick in the wall, so to speak. One single paper describes just one small section of a larger scientific question. Scientists do not publish their work with the belief that they have solved a major scientific question and decisively changed the world. No paper can or should be viewed and hailed as definitive. Often a paper is not very informative when taken and considered alone. It must be considered within the science it sits, and beside the other research published on the issue. The more papers that get published the more the scientific question gets addressed. As more research becomes available there emerges what is termed a “scientific consensus”, and eventually if research is continued in an area for long enough, a consensus becomes so overwhelming that studies with divergent results become less and less common. Two good examples to give here would be evolution and climate change. Evolution has been so definitively documented that nothing in biology makes sense without it (Link 1, Link 2). The evidence that human activity is causing a systematic climate disturbance is so overwhelming that between 90 – 100% of research in this area supports it (Link 1, Link 2, and here for a detailed list of scientific resources Link 3).

Due to the usual complexity of any given scientific question, there will obviously be papers emerging which propose divergent views and disagree with previous conclusions on the issue. This can be due to different scientific or theoretical approaches which may give different results. Or it could be down to several ego buoyed scientists cultivating personality conflicts. But even in these cases, self-respecting feuding scientists will base the rules of the conflicts on the available data. But this is normal in the science world, and debating these differing views is a cornerstone of consensus development. To go against a consensus is to depart from the prevailing view. If you are an experienced expert in the area such a move carries more weight; in fact, if you have new conflicting data it will be your job to present it. And you will be listened to at first and expected to provide the data to back up your bravery (or stupidity) and you better provide it and it better be good. These scientists often are proven wrong, although if they are proven correct they can become scientific superstars. But if the dissenter is, for example, a blogger or politician with no expertise in the area and no scientific or solid theoretical backup, then they will more than likely end up looking like an idiot. There are many famous examples of these people, but particularly notable are the views of an extremely high profile individual in my own country, regularly feted as a genius whose business model is the most successful in the world within his field; Michael O’ Leary of Ryanair. I do not doubt his success for one minute, but his grasp of science has led to this. Whether he actually believes what he says, or he takes this stance due to the role of aviation in climate change, I shall leave that conclusion to the reader. But don’t be those guys.

Where are the papers? Nowadays they are usually found online but many, especially recent publications, are hidden behind expensive paywalls. Many papers are also available for free. An important part of a science paper is the abstract, which is a succinct description of the work and the conclusions found, and these abstracts are usually available for free for all of them. And in many cases reading the abstract can be enough for a layperson to begin to build a groundwork for understanding what the science is saying. And if you find an abstract which denies access to the full text, but which you really need, the best port of call is your local university library. Choose the largest university as they will have the bigger libraries, and phone to make an appointment to visit as a non-student.  At any rate, the abstract will often act as a spur to find and read other papers on the issue.  I have included a list of scientific databases where papers can be found, and which are used by scientists, at the end of this article. But your new-found knowledge will not be pain-free, navigating these databases will require a little effort.  But the upside is you will be informed.

How should people form an opinion on a scientific issue?

For a start do not form an intransigent stance on a scientific issue based on a brief report in a newspaper. Or worse, by trawling all the wrong websites on the internet. By all means, use these source as a starting point. In fact, they can be good reasons to do a bit of research, but don’t treat them as definitive.  Usually, references for the papers discussed are somewhere in the text or in the footnotes of the article. Start from there and search for these. From there, decide the quality of the referenced paper, and decide if you need to read more on it.

So, for example, if a person wishes to develop an informed stance on climate change they should read up the on the current consensus and see where it is at; easily done with some brief internet searching. Then, they should try to find work with opposing conclusions and make up their mind from there. Climate change and evolution are good examples to test here. Both have overwhelming consensus conclusions so if you are impartial, you will realise that common sense dictates that you should agree with them. If you have an agenda that is impeded by the conclusions you may decide to come down on the opposing side, no matter how silly that may be.

However, the key to science is to leave the mind in a state of open rationality. Good science allows for debate and a change of mind with the correct evidence. This is the key difference between a scientist and those who shout down the science. The former has either investigated the issue, is an expert on the issue, or has read the work of those who are. Meanwhile, the latter presents an opposing view with no credible scientific or theoretical backup. Therefore I ask, who among the two is in possession of an open mind? l strongly suggest that a reader of science holds an open frame of mind when reading science.

Now, the phrase “an open frame of mind” has led me into discussions where I end up countering attacks on the limits of scientific knowledge, so this requires further clarification. An open frame of mind does not, in any way whatsoever, refer to opening mental doors and believing any crazy theory that happens to pass by. A common refrain often heard or understood is “If science does not know, then the alternative must be true”.  This is a fundamental misunderstanding as to what science is and how it works, and we must do our best to fight this line of thinking.

The central tenet of science is the admission of human ignorance. It spurs scientific curiosity. The more we look, the more we know. It is not the hack philosophical relative of this statement: “the more we look, the less we know” When a scientist does not know an answer, they will look at the system and discover the answer, but many more questions and problems may arise due to the scientist having looked in detail at the issue for the answer. To say the scientist actually knows less at this stage is ridiculous. Put it this way – initially they thought there was one question, but in fact, they discovered there are ten. With one answered, there are suddenly now nine more questions. They do not now know less, they just actually need to go away and learn more. The knowledge of science has increased both quantitatively (we know the answer to one more question) and qualitatively (we now understand the complexity of the issue in order to move forward and answer further crucial questions).  It is not philosophical. It is logical.

None of what was discussed here is meant as an attack on the media. But the media are often guilty of a form of inaccurate reporting. And I do feel science stories are presented far too simply, and that leaves too much scope for misinterpretation. And here is the key to this article: misinterpretation leads to misinformation, which leads to misunderstanding. And that can and does lead to people choosing to ignore the best advice if it interferes with a vested interest. And when it is our leaders, or personalities in prominent public roles, who act this way, unopposed by a misunderstanding or a misinformed or an ignorant public, well that will only lead to unmitigated disaster. Think Alex Jones in the United States and the Healy-Raeys here in Ireland. And Trump. And Brexit. And much more.

So, in the meantime, what should we do? Well, we must follow the advice based on available reported evidence until enough further evidence becomes available that allows us to change our minds. Boring yes, but eminently sensible. Because if one was to somehow take all the knowledge that exists and compare it to what human science currently knows, it would be clear we still know not much. This is not anything to fear.

May 2018

Research publication Paper repositories

Wikipedia list of research paper databases

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