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‘Scientists say…’, but how do they know?

Síle Lane wants the public to ask for evidence

When a patient group recently realised they were battling the promotion of unproven stem cell cures they thought they had knocked down three years ago, they wondered what they should do. Exposing dodgy science claims is often very effective – stem cell clinics get shut down – but as soon as attention goes elsewhere they crop up again.

Regulators and science communicators are making efforts to chase down bad science but they can’t be everywhere all the time. How can we make a permanent difference?

The only solution is to get more people to be evidence hunters. People have to critically engage with claims themselves, whether it is advertisers promoting a product, scientists exaggerating research, or government bodies announcing policy.

Popular queries

The people who phone us for help on scientific topics often ask quite generic questions. They are concerned with the validity and legitimacy of studies, the balance of scientific opinion and how much of the picture is known. They ask:

‘Is it the scientists or the companies who say it’s safe?’

‘Is this another scare story?’

‘Can I find out what tests have been done?’

‘Do these people represent the majority of scientific opinion?’

‘How can I tell whether it’s proper research?’

Can we expand this appetite for questions about how much we know and how we know it?

The right tools

Indicators look good. Results from a survey we conducted with Ipsos MORI suggest people understand something of the process a claim has to go through to qualify as ‘scientific evidence’. More than half of the British public (51 per cent) identified activities such as research, clinical trials and fair testing when asked what they associated with ‘scientific evidence’ and the vast majority (87 per cent) were able to name a variety of activities, features and images associated with the phrase. Full results from the survey of public understanding of scientific evidence are available here.

At a discussion of these results at the British Science Festival, panellists agreed that anyone in the public can ask questions about evidence if they have the right tools. Professor Paul Hardaker of the Royal Meteorological Society argued from his experiences that drawing out underlying misconceptions is most useful to help people make sense of claims about climate change science. Dr John McConnell, Editor of The Lancet Infectious Diseases, contended that asking questions about peer review and reliability of evidence is the first thing people can do to get behind claims. Dr Blanka Collis of the Voice of Young Science network made the case for mythbusting as a tool for the public.

Ask For Evidence

All of these approaches have been important in other work we’ve done. Their success is the reason we launched Ask For Evidence: a campaign to encourage everybody, whatever their experience, to ask for evidence for every claim they see.

The campaign has already equipped and inspired people to ask questions of evidence. Patient groups have told us they tell their members always to ask if a treatment has been properly tested in a rigorously designed clinical trial. Parenting websites say members who don’t naturally see themselves as scientists can really use insights about peer review to judge the status of research.

All of this points to the fact that yes, people can grasp the nature of evidence and shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions. The public want to be able to have an adult discussion about research that doesn’t take them back to school. Scientists will have to find a way to talk about the status of knowledge and deal with the difficulties of talking about uncertainty. This is a conversation we can all come to as equals, without losing the contribution expertise can make.

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Síle Lane
Síle Lane is at Sense About Science
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