This week, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson gave a lecture at the University of Utah on “Science as a Way of Knowing.” He cautioned against the devaluing of science in our society, and everyone had a laugh at a slide that showed many Americans still rejecting the theory of evolution. In the face of scientific evidence! he gasped.
But for those of us who have embraced science as a way of understanding the world, are we in the clear? Or is science in some ways our new religion, where we accept things like medical research and health advice on blind faith?
For example, how much of the details of medical studies do we actually see? The general public: little or none.
We trust the word of the institutions, news sources and experts that seem the most credible. (And perhaps also the most confident and attractive.) But can our Dr. Oz’s really have all the answers?
After all, research is complicated. By its nature, it is — and on top of that, there are many factors that lead to unconscious and conscious bias. Researchers want to come up with new findings in order to keep their jobs and gain tenure. Journalists need “news.” Medical experts make mistakes. And drug companies can’t afford for their drugs not to work.
No one wants to learn that some old findings have been replicated and “they’re still good!” Publications don’t want to publish studies that show negative results. And companies invested in the research *really* don’t want to publish studies showing negative results. This leads not only to serious publication bias, but to harmful advice and harmful drugs entering the market.
There’s a pair of TED Talks by epidemiologist Ben Goldacre that illuminates how rampant publication bias is.
The Cult of the Expert
Sticking with packs, trusting leaders, following clear-cut rules… the very mechanisms that we might employ in order to survive can also put our lives in danger. Our quickness to trust as gospel the results of research and the advice of health experts — and to discount our own responsibility and judgement — is an example.
Comfort, too, is a survival mechanism. Without authorities, absolute truths and someone saying if we just do “X” we’ll be okay, life can be scary. (In this way, does medical science serve some of the same functions as religion?)
But scarier is what we give up for a false sense of comfort.
We give up skepticism. Self responsibility. Self awareness. Often we know our own bodies as well as a doctor can, yet we trust their diagnoses over our own observations. We might even accept prescriptions against our better judgement.
Thankfully there are people like Goldacre, as well as some of my friends who study medical ethics, who have dedicated their medical understanding to holding experts and research accountable. But we need to be held accountable, as well. Our survival is at stake. We can’t expect absolute truths, and we can’t expect anyone (especially those with commercial interests) to care about ourselves as much as we do.
And Then There’s Journalism…
Last year I took a psychology statistics course and completed a certificate in the Responsible Conduct of Research. After all this, I realized how fragile the medical research process really is, and how the best outcome a scientist can hope for is a “current best guess.”
I also realized I’d been failing as a journalist.
I should have been digging deeper before regurgitating “the latest findings.” I should have been pointing out flaws and pitfalls in research design, rather than citing study results as fact, in order to help the public better understand how to use medical studies and health guidelines.
Taking the time to understand how to read research and then correctly translate it is, often, not only incredibly boring (just being honest) but also sadly not deadline- or profit-friendly for journalists. But not doing it is misconduct.
These days when I read studies in health or consumer behavior, I can see that most of them are at least a little, if not completely, suspect. And what they’re reduced to in popular health magazines usually makes me cringe.
This awareness is empowering, though. I no longer feel *as much* at the mercy of researchers, experts and other journalists. And I no longer shy away from exploring the mercurial nature of health guidelines in my writing. This is something I hope to share with others.
Over the years, people have left frustrated comments on my articles about the lack of a clear-cut stance on any health claim. Believe me, I sometimes share the feeling. But while a lot of “maybes” might make looking after our health seem futile, I think we actually have tremendous opportunity for progress by taking a more scientific approach to medical science research.
We can conduct our own studies. We can be open to new possibilities. And we can closely consider the medical doctrine we’re presented with.
Really, it’s the know-it-alls we should be wary of. As for doing everything Dr. Oz says? Well, you probably shouldn’t.