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17/09/2014

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Tackling pseudoscience

Battles are better than banning, maintains Tracey Brown

What exactly is wrong with tackling pseudoscience? That’s not a rhetorical question. When the Government Chief Scientist John Beddington said earlier this year that scientists should be ‘grossly intolerant’ of the misuse of scientific information there was an awkward response, and not just among people who have heard enough of science.

This unscripted opportunity to discuss pseudoscience vanished quickly as commentators used it to discuss related points on their minds. Respect for science (organised investigation of the natural world, the principles of which are not exclusive to scientists) was taken to mean respect for ‘what scientists say’ (all kinds of things) and many people are rightly uncomfortable with the latter. Intolerance (judging and objecting) was taken to mean intolerance (narrow-minded and objectionable). And Beddington’s poorly plucked example of other things we won’t stand for – racism and homophobia – created an irresistible moment to remind scientists to tread with as much care in sociological territory as they would demand for their own turf.

Sometimes criminal   

Fair enough. Beddington is a man who boasts a full beard and has no need of my assistance in defence of his words. But we ended up missing a few things about the benefits of tackling pseudoscience and the dangers along the way.

If pseudoscience refers to illegal stem cell clinics offering miracle cures for people with multiple sclerosis, or to a Dutch company promoting homeopathy to treat infant diarrhoea in West Africa, then criminal is not an exaggeration. In those cases regulators and officials should be expected to intervene and scientists speaking up may well ask that authorities take action.

Opportunity for engagement

However, we should recognise the risk in this, and in the frustration about other persistent pseudoscience, that calling for official action short circuits engaging the public. It overlooks one of the most valuable reasons for tackling pseudoscience more robustly, which is that in doing so we can engage people, scientists and non-scientists alike, in a discussion about evidence. We talk about what we know and how, about the basis of claims, and such things as peer review, replication, fair tests, stability of findings, levels of confidence and so on. This is different from taking people back to school for a science lesson. Instead it involves scientists and the public working together to call others to account for the claims they make, testing those claims against evidence and what else we know.

Such critical questioning is actually the best antidote to pseudoscience. Whether we’re talking about creationist dogma on the age of the earth or advertising for miracle therapies, these things have a habit of resurfacing. When regulators closed an unlicensed stem cell clinic in Rotterdam, within a year the clinic registered in the Seychelles. Creationists in the US keep reappearing in schools with new names. So if we want to see less dodgy science, we need scientists to encourage critical engagement in civil society rather than go round it.

Skirmishes needed

This is not easy and the temptation is to avoid the hard work of drawing out the underlying assumptions behind claims about science and medicine, and the harder work of convincing people to ask questions about the basis of claims, in favour of just getting the big guns to weigh in.

I’m not advocating going softly. Let’s not hold back from the skirmish when things are wrong and damaging. That is what I think Beddington was getting at. But there is a world of democratic difference between barracking a journalist or embarrassing a politician for espousing something that is scientifically rubbish, and official intervention to stop them doing it. And there’s little point in going to war on pseudoscience if no-one’s coming with you.

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Tracey Brown
Tracey Brown is Director of Sense About Science
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