The nagging contrarian that resides in my head sometimes asks me, why are you even doing this? Is it really that important for people to be scientifically literate? My answer is a resounding yes, and one of my own recent experiences is a great example why.
The college I attend holds some pretty cool lectures once in a while, and it recently invited Jean-Michel and Céline Cousteau, son and granddaughter of oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, to give a talk about their experience with the ocean and conservation. The lecture itself was very interesting, but one video segment that Jean-Michel showed stuck out for me. Jean-Michel was talking about how many chemicals we dump into the ocean, and how little research has been done about the detrimental effects on sea life. As an example, he discussed PBDEs, a flame retardant commonly present in household items (carpets, furniture, children’s clothes, dolls, etc.) that has been the subject of some recent health scrutiny. Since children crawl on the floor and play with toys, they tend to have higher levels of PBDEs than adults. And since PBDEs are so prevalent in the household, they’re bound to get into the ocean, where they’ve been found to bioaccumulate in marine mammals.
As a demonstration of PBDEs, Jean-Michel had himself, Céline, a female researcher, and the researcher’s son tested for PBDEs. During the segment, the four sat down at a table and listened to the test results as they were read by a doctor, authoritatively wearing a white coat and presiding over a computer monitor. The doctor one-by-one revealed the PBDE levels in a graph, which looked something like this (my reconstruction):
The mother broke down crying, and seemed to be in anguish over her irresponsible parenting. The video cut to a clip of her wrestling with the notion that she’s been exposing her son to dangerous chemicals. Here’s the point where I raised my eyebrows. Do you see what’s wrong with this picture?
Look at the chart again. Where are the numbers? You certainly couldn’t see them in the video clip, and the doctor didn’t elaborate. All the doctor gave was the relative concentration of PBDEs among four individuals, a puny sample size. The graph also didn’t show the threshold above which PBDE levels are damaging. Is junior above the threshold, close to it, or well below it? Who knows? Showing this graph to a patient would be the equivalent of having your doctor reveal your test results by saying, “You tested for 34.” Huh? That number, and the above chart, are meaningless unless they’re placed into proper context. Maybe the doctor eventually gave the family some hard numbers. Maybe we didn’t see the whole scene. But the actual test results are pretty irrelevant. What’s important is seeing how easy it is to manipulate people when you’ve assumed the ethos of science.
The issue is that it’s appallingly easy to feed people misinformation about science. It’s as simple as showing a menacing looking graph, or quote-mining a scientific journal, or just making up facts that the average person won’t bother to corroborate. This phenomenon is especially bad with medicine. The number of frauds, liars, and scam-artists peddling misinformation or misleading information about medicine is enough to keep some excellent minds busy around the clock. Children are dying from preventable diseases due to unfounded fears about vaccines. Now I have no interest in outlawing anything that isn’t well-grounded in empiricism. What I have a problem with is when people get ripped off and taken advantage of to the benefit of some crank’s wallet.
So what’s the point, then? The point is that the world is a scary enough place without lying about the things we put in our bodies or expose our families to. The point is that there are plenty of good resources out there for fact-checking just about any claim, as long as you know what you’re looking for and how to find trustworthy sources. The point is that you don’t need to go to medical school to uncover a medical scam; you just need an informed sense of skepticism. It is incumbent on all scientists to make sure that their fields are presented with integrity and honesty. And it’s imperative that scientists and educators do a better job of informing average people about how to understand basic principles of scientific thinking.