“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.