Purely a figment of your imagination

What amuses, annoys, concerns or otherwise interests me – Noodlemaz

Scientific “Mythbusting” and Dialogue


BSA SciComms Conference 2010 (Part 2)

I’m going to work backwards with the rest of Day 1, going over the final session first.

I was torn between attending Engaging with Parliamentarians (at which Dr Evan Harris was speaking!) and Warriors Against Claptrap: are mythbusters the new generation of civic scientists? In the end I opted for the latter, consisting of speakers from Sense About Science (from whom I receive regular updates), Voice of Young Science (of which I am a member) and Chris Smith, creator of The Naked Scientists, whose podcast I used to listen to travelling to/from lectures at university. So if anyone writes about the Parliamentarians session, let me know – I heard good things!

Warriors Against Claptrap

Fiona Fox introduced mythbusting as, perhaps, the ‘Terrorist wing’ of science and put forward the questions that many have asked:

1/ is it patronising?

2/ is it adversarial?

3/ is it preaching to the converted?

Is this kind of activity the way forward, an important part of a wider set of activities, or just unfavourable?

Alice Tuff of SAS started by pointing out that the USA feels the public is irrational and therefore doesn’t seem to make much effort or give them credit – we don’t seem to be quite that bad here.

You can immunise people against bad science (through public engagement, including dialogue – see below) by giving them important tools: questions and critical thinking. It is NOT taking people back to school.

People are often unclear on concepts like placebo, anecdotal evidence and have skewed views of terms like natural and chemical – SAS produces guides to try to counter some of the misinformation that comes from media, celebrities etc. – I myself contributed to last year’s Celebrities and Science review.

Unfortunately I can no longer find Suzanne Somers’ full comments, obscured now by trashy, twisted celeb mag rubbish. I do note that she’s apologised for what she said, but nevertheless, her stance was and is misleading.

She is a breast cancer survivor, yes, and she is correct that eating well is vital for anyone recovering from serious diseases and surgery. Butshe did not only self-medicate with ‘alternative therapy’ she herself hadsurgery and radiotherapy.

It’s important to remember that cancers in different parts of the body are effectively different diseases and are often treated in different ways, depending how much we know about them and how effective our current treatments are.

With pancreatic cancer (an organ right in the middle of the body, hidden, inaccessible), 5-year survival is only 2-10%, compared to approximately 80% for breast cancer, for various reasons. So for Mr. Swayze to survive 2 years with his cancer (whilst working!) is in fact an admirable achievement, and in dismissing his battle as one lost to poison, she insults both him and his doctors; his cancer ultimately killed him, not the treatments that bought him some time.

Although chemotherapy is poison in a sense (it has to be in order to kill cancer cells), it is used at carefully optimised levels. Side effects are due to the agents not being entirely specific for cancer cells and also affecting some normal cells (something I hope to cover in later posts); getting around this problem is a main focus of cancer research.

The Costs of Conmen

Patient groups are being bombarded by ‘miracle cures’ including stem cells for paralysis, cancers, degenerative diseases and more, bracelets for arthritis and goat-blood extracts for MS.

People have said that SAS information and support has given them the ability to say NO to friends and family pushing them to invest time and money in snake-oil remedies.

Others have expressed regret at wasting their last moments with loved ones chasing such things, when they could have instead had a holiday and created many happier memories before their time ran out.

The costs of leaving woo unchallenged are not only financial and physical but also emotional.

It is not people’s choice we wish to remove, but instead inform them so that, when vulnerable, they are not taken advantage of by the unscrupulous and ill-informed.

Tom Wells of VOYS went on to mention (to the dismay of some) homeopathy and SAS/VOYS’ work to get the World Health Organisation (WHO) to condemn the promotion and use of homeopathy to ‘treat’ TB, HIV and other serious disease in developing countries (report at SAS and BBC). Consider the hundreds of thousands of lives  effectively lost due to ‘alternative medicine’ missionary work (as I see it) in poverty-stricken communities, this felt like a significant triumph.

Tom also recalled their endeavour to expose the recurring Detox fad for the nonsense it is; there appears to be no consistent definition and no evidence of actual benefits.

As an example he quoted from a telephone conversation with a Boots representative about their detox brush (amazingly still on their website!!), managing to finally hear them admit that it just exfoliates, removing dead skin – hardly an ‘impurity’ or a ‘toxin’. Alice added that these kinds of claims cause people to have a general misconception of how the body works to process waste products and potentially hazardous substances.

In response to questions, Alice and Tom agree that preventing sales isn’t the main aim of mythbusting regarding products. The stories are about evidence – informing people. Companies didn’t actually expect people to ask questions! Someone asked if we’d like companies to do more proper science. It’s better if they just stop making baseless claims!

Here I considered L’Oreal labs – they’ve got lots of expensive kit I’d love to have in our institute, for example. Sadly, supply and demand; they have  the money to spend because people buy their stuff. Yet again, I fail to understand people’s trust double-standards re: distrust of scientific research vs. products from businesses claiming to have scientific backing – ‘oh but their advert has SCIENCE, it must work!!’)

Buzzwords and phrases such as nano, ‘science proves…’ etc. should be challenged as they are usually nonsensical and/or misleading.

Critical thinking can arm the public, giving the ability to say no, ask the right questions and spot misinformation.

The Advertising Standards Authority do a bit of regulation so if you see something blatantly spurious, do contact them.

I asked if we can (and should) try to address indoctrination (many people have their opinions simply because they run in the family and to question them either never occurred or would make them feel like they are somehow betraying their loved ones/heritage) – is there a role for critical thinking  in schools to try to overcome this?

Alice: it can’t only be a case of ‘get them when they’re young’       Tom: we need to respect people’s beliefs. I suppose I agree, but it’s a whole other discussion.

Science Exposed

Dr Chris Smith, founder of Naked Scientists (now 10 years old!) told us that he wanted to do something about the fact that science didn’t seem have a prominent position in media. Now through radio, the internet and podcasting, Naked Scientists has an audience of 20 million/week, equating to 12TB data per month and £30,000’s worth of bandwidth per year!!

The aim is often to demonstrate the scientific method itself, for example working out how fast a sneeze travels.

Kitchen Science has also been a huge success; adding visual elements to the (audio) broadcast, such as actually testing the chocolate teapot. There is a new book on this feature, entitled Crisp Packet Fireworks.

The Naked Science Forum is very busy, with well over 100,000 posts.

I ended up talking with Chris at the open bar afterwards and we heard some sobering things about the time, effort, money, uncertaintly and responsibility involved in a venture like NS.

Balcony; by the London Canal Museum

For those interested in the rest of the day: following a pleasant lunch (it’s quite weird eating ‘properly’ – from plates with knife+fork and wotnot – standing up…), I opted for a session aiming to explore the merits and drawbacks of one of SciComms’ favourite buzzwords of the moment: dialogue.

Elephant in the Room

We sat in groups, which were divided into four sections to be presided over by ‘agitators’ – people selected to make a statement on dialogue (not necessarily representing their personal opinion) that should question established ideas, be provocative and hopefully stir up some trouble.

To summarise the agitators’ points:

  • We know the kinds of questions the public tends to ask so is it time to end dialogue as we do it now?
  • It’s meaningless to use dialogue as the government does (using ‘representatives’ from demographics) as it can’t be scaled up; don’t bother to do it at all, just fund frontline research.
  • Does public dialogue have any impact? Any benefits? For scientists: yes because lay questions and arguments are illuminating. Also no because time and money are taken from core research.

For the public, there are also pros and cons. In addition, why don’t we consider protests to be dialogue?

[My thoughts: I would say because it’s not really discursive, it’s one-sided, often intimidating and sometimes worse; terroristic in nature. Not that I don’t think protesting can be useful].

For example anti-nuclear war demonstration vs. anti-animal research/GM – why is this not considered ‘good citizenship’ and what should we learn from that?

  • Abandon the term “dialogue” – “discussion” is better. Science engagement has changed a lot; it must not betray and disempower the public. Money is not going to engagement.

We were then left to work out, first in pairs then fours then in groups:

What are the merits/drawbacks of dialogue and what are the big questions relating to it?

Merit – Mutual learning experience in terms of insight, context, understanding

Drawback – Managing the ‘great expectations’ people have of making a difference if they give up their time to participate; identifying and communicating outcomes and impact

Challenge – How to get to the most difficult-to-reach; getting representative samples and audiences, avoiding ‘tokenism’, extrapolating results

The ideas were collated by the ‘agitators’ and quickly shared with the room at the end. I found this to be an effective way of examining people’s thoughts and we had some interesting discussion in the group, for example:

–           is engagement the ultimate peer review exercise?

–          is dialogue justifiable and useful? Only as an element of engagement activities, not on its own

–          learning about dialogue just provides good skills; listening to and considering someone else’s point of view then moving on is vital for conversing with people!

Thus concludes (what I can remember of) Day 1. Day 2 to follow!


Author: noodlemaz

I prefer to think of myself as a realist rather than a pessimist, but perhaps that's just optimistic. Honest, atheist, scientist, feminist.

7 thoughts on “Scientific “Mythbusting” and Dialogue

  1. Pingback: Science Communication Conference 2010: Day 1 | Contemplation

  2. This seems as good a place as any to post a link to ‘We Need More Bad Science Writers’ at .

  3. Pingback: Government, Science and Society « Purely a figment of your imagination

  4. Pingback: A “Media Tart” Case Study « Purely a figment of your imagination

  5. Pingback: Science Communication Conference 2010: Day 1 | Akshat Rathi

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s