Issue 45 / 25 November 2013

“I THOUGHT I would just share with you what science says today about silicone breast implants”, US Senator Tom Coburn told a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting in 2005, according to a report in the Washington Post.

“If you have them, you’re healthier than if you don’t. That is what the ultimate science shows … In fact, there’s no science that shows that silicone breast implants are detrimental and, in fact, they make you healthier.”*

The lack of scientific understanding in political circles has long been lamented, yet solutions remain hard to come by. Do politicians need more, or better, scientific advisers? Should they be sent off to remedial science classes?

It’s often suggested we need more scientists to go into politics, though it’s worth noting on that front that Senator Coburn is a medical doctor, as is US Congressman and member of the House Committee on Science Paul Broun.

You can watch Dr Broun on YouTube telling a receptive audience: “All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the big bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell.”

We in Australia can’t match America’s often heady mix of religion and politics, but even here getting more scientifically trained people into parliaments might not be the most practical solution.

A better target might be improving the level of scientific literacy across the community, particularly among political decisionmakers.

To that end, a group of British and Australian scientists has compiled a list of 20 things politicians, policy advisers, public servants and journalists need to understand about how science works.

These are interpretive skills, designed to help non-scientists “to intelligently interrogate experts and advisers, and to understand the quality, limitations and biases of evidence”, the authors wrote in Nature last week.

The tips cover basic concepts such as the placebo effect, the difference between correlation and causation, reversion to the mean, the importance of sample size and the need for replication of results.

You could debate the precise make-up of the list, as the authors acknowledge, but it does seem a useful starting point for helping politicians to engage intelligently — and critically — with their scientific advisers.

“We are not so naïve as to believe that improved policy decisions will automatically follow”, the authors write. “We are fully aware that scientific judgement itself is value-laden, and that bias and context are integral to how data are collected and interpreted.”

They do, however, believe their list could help decisionmakers “to parse how evidence can contribute to a decision, and potentially to avoid undue influence by those with vested interests”.

Worthwhile aims indeed in a world where scientific developments are having an ever greater impact on our lives, and where science needs to be part of solutions to the major challenges we face in areas such as the environment and health.

For the first time in more than 70 years, Australia does not have a minister for science. Let’s hope that does not portend a turning away from engagement with science and scientific understandings of the world.

Perhaps the question is broader. A citizenry that had the skills to grapple intelligently and critically with science would demand no less of its elected representatives.

Maybe high school science should spend less time with the Bunsen burners and more on training young people to understand and interrogate the scientific process. These 20 tips might be a starting point.

 

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.
 

* I couldn’t track down the “ultimate science” behind Dr Coburn’s claim that silicone breast implants make you healthier. Pointers welcome.

7 thoughts on “Jane McCredie: Why is it so?

  1. Anne Whatman says:

    Great article & heartening to hear that scientists are giving politicians a guide to evidence based decision making. It is appalling that there is not a Minister for Science in this Government and CSIRO is facing cutbacks again. The Universities should take some responsibilty for the excess of unemployed teachers, but shortage of science & maths teachers. Lets hope Bill Glasson wins Kevin Rudds seat.

     

     

     

  2. Chloe Mason says:

    Many thanks to MJA for publishing this invaluable piece by Jane McCredie, particularly with its links to the article in Nature. I shall “share” the Nature link on my Facebook page!

    I also request the MJA  send this article to the NSW Law Society, plus journalism schools. 

     

     

     

     

  3. Richard says:

    Fascinating.

    To this should be added the urgent need to actually understand Science 101.

    Topics such as the mean of ‘g’, density, simple radiation physics, physical and chemical constants and their implications. Oh, perhaps a class or two in Logic 101, after they have passed Manners and Common Sense 100.

  4. Philip Dawson says:

    Congressman Paul Broun is probably right, he was most likely taught a lot of rubbish. Us older types remember being taught Haeckels “embryonic recapitulation” ideas (ontology depicts phylogeny), complete with (fake) drawings of human embryos with fish gills. This rubbish persisted in english speaking universities until the late 1980s, even though the perpetrator Ernst Haeckel was prosecuted for fraud in his native Germany in the 1870s! I still have my student textbooks complete with the fake pictures. As for other evolutionary fakes we have had piltdown man (for 40 years regarded as a human ancestor, until on his deathbed the perpetrator confessed to sticking an ape jaw on a small human skul!), we had Nebraska man (identified later as a pigs tooth), we had the peppered moth saga ((moths were stuck on trees and photographed with flat wings, supporting the theory that birds could see their colour).The photos were doctored so you couldnt see the pins holding the moths. Moths sleep in crevices with wings folded where birds cant see what colour they are. In general politicians, as representatives of the people, are quite right to be sceptical of scientists. Each generation of scientists think they know best, better than the last lot, but of course they are human too, and whats worse now have computers to really get it wrong. If 90% of published articles in the scientific journals are proved at least partly wrong within five years (as is claimed, I havent seen the data, so that could be wrong too!), then its best not to be too cock sure you know the truth, and certainly prudent to not jump in boots and all on each scientific claim affecting the public purse!

  5. Peter Kraus says:

    Further to Phillip Dawson’s well stated comment above and also Chris Strakosch’s comment to the item by Jane McCredie on chiropractics, those who say that they will believe only things that are able to be “scientifically proven” misunderstand what science is about. Apart from the deliberate deceptions, not only of embryology but of several articles in the modern scientific press, science is the growing edge of our knowledge, it is not absolute.  It is where we are at today.  Tomorrow we will be further.  Thus “scientific facts” we were taught as students are now long outmoded as will today’s knowledge be tomorrow.  There is more to life and truth than science.  For example, in what way is appreciation of good music or fine food and wine, or are charitable acts, “scientific”?  Clearly we must do our best to base our professional skills and knowledge on evidence but science makes a good guide but a bad god.

  6. Rod Givney says:

    It is easy to make fun of the politicians of other democracies.

    The United States government & the public which elects it can risk having individual politicians swayed by the demands of  irrational  and often self-interested pressure groups, because they also receive advice from , for example, the Centers for Disease Control. The real difference between Australia and the United States in the matter of science in government is the strength and authority of such largely independent  US national scientific institutions and the complete dearth of ours.

    These “20 questions” are  a nice journalistic ploy  to bring attention to the problem & make us feel clever, because we “know” the answers. They won’t achieve a Damascus Road conversion in an anti-science, self-styled, pseudo-sceptic who has already been elected to our Parliament.  Only the counter weight of independent, national, expert scientific institutions can provide Australia with the best scientific advice developed in an open process, for us to use or ignore in accordance with our democratic whims.

  7. Michael King says:

    It is truly said that science does not prove, only supports or disproves. And much as we like to tout the objectivity of scientists as seekers of truth following only where the evidence leads, we all know (or should know) that almost all scientific endeavour is carried out within the framework (confines?) of the current paradigm. Studies critical of or contrary to that dominant ideology find it difficult or even impossible to get a hearing, leading to confirmation bias and claims that “such and such can’t be scientific because it doesn’t get published in peer-reviewd journals” when those peer-reviewed journals won’t publish contrary work, not because it’s not well done but because it goes against what is currently held to be “the truth”. It frequently requires the death of the older generation of thought leaders before the paradigm shifts and allows previously heretical ideas to come out of the closet. As neither the public nor our politicians seem to understand this, or even be privy to it, improving education on how the system actually works (or doesn’t) rather than the white-coated idealised version usually presented, may help our leaders and our patient be better prepared for the discussions we have to have in order to ensure evidence-informed practice that accommodates the complexity and individuality of each human we encounter.

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