Monday, November 30, 2009

Scientific America takes on Unscientific America: Can Science Rescue Parents?

Can science tackle the rampant misinformation on the internet? 

Yes according to Lawrence Krauss who laments the onslaught of bad information in our new media world in the December issue of Scientific America.   Krauss, a theoretical physicist, affirms the value of science, rather, the scientific process (i.e. testing hypotheses in a systematic and rational way) in putting to rest fallacious theories (War Is Peace: Can Science Fight Media Disinformation?):
I cannot stress often enough that what science is all about is not proving things to be true but proving them to be false. What fails the test of empirical reality, as determined by observation and experiment, gets thrown out like yesterday’s newspaper. One doesn’t need to debate about whether the earth is flat or 6,000 years old. These claims can safely be discarded, and have been, by the scientific method.
True, we can never "prove" things to be false.  We can't prove Santa does not exist.  Or that vaccines don't cause autism.  Or that Bisphenol-a isn't too dangerous to use in baby bottles.  But we can disregard these theories when we have a good collection of studies that fail to show a link between vaccines and autism or BPA and various health outcomes.  We do this "disproving" all the time. 

And yet.  Even when we do have good scientific evidence refuting popular ideas we still have people clinging to the debunked claims.  Instead of discovering real solutions we're stuck spending vast sums of money and time on further debunking the by now nullified nonsense.  

What to do about this fine mess?

How about more knowledgable scientists and journalists publicly recognizing and speaking out against poor science or pseudo science.  Taking the time to explain how the often biased research is flawed or limited and doing so without boring everyone.  On the flip side, we need to be more vocal about the better scientific evidence, communicating more about the nuances, things we know for sure and things we don't know.  That holds true for all research, good and bad, discussing the nuances.

And we shouldn't have to go unexpected places to find this more sophisticated perspective.   Like (with an series on autism). Or The Atlantic (Hanna Rosin's The Case Against Breastfeeding, April 2009).  Or (Check out Trevor Butterworth's new column Can Plastic Change Your Sex).

Why can't the usual parenting media get it right?  That is, when they actually chose to publish something with a hint of scientific support.  I know we all need to know how to install a car seat correctly and it's enlightening to hear about how parents solve the evening melt-downs or bath time with 3 toddlers.  But so much coverage is anecdotal, free of any empirical information.  If there is reference to the latest research, often evidence is cherry-picked. 

There is such a thing as good science.  When the media gives equal weight to the crappier studies it's easy to forget.  And we parents aren't completely innocent either, even those of us who aren't pushing bad info.  It's not enough to throw up your hands amidst the conflicting and confusing things we hear and read.  Trust the gradual grind of the scientific method.  Learn to recognize what looks like a good study.  Learn the questions you should ask when you hear or read about the latest study.   

So what would more fact-based journalist look like?

Take breastfeeding.  Sure, there are lots of studies that find benefits but the effects are generally small.  We also have to be careful about attributing significant effects to the breastfeeding itself and not the women who choose to breastfeed.  There are important differences between women who can and do breastfeed and those that don't.  Of course there are also numerous studies that don't find any advantages for breastfeeding.  Due to the null publication bias in the academic world, there are probably not a small number of studies that never entered the public discourse because they never got published because the researcher failed to get significant results (i.e. show any benefits).  

That's what we should be hearing and reading.  But we're often not.  And even when some daring journalist does speak to the real science, there are consequences.  After Hanna Rosin wrote  The Case Against Breastfeeding (The Atlantic, April 2009), she riled many in the breastfeeding-is-next-to-godliness community.  The U.S.  Breastfeeding Committee wants the story retracted.  The blogosphere erupted with counterattacks, yes, more than few Cases Against Hanna Rosin. 

Can science cure the ills of the internet loaded with its fallacies and conspiracy theories and fanatics? Science alone? Obviously it hasn't.  In the realm of parenting and children's health, we have tons of scientific evidence.  The proliferation of half-baked theories outpaces the slow, gradual accumulation of scientific knowledge.  For many of the most important issues, say BPA, we have to wait decades to find answers.   It's hard to be patient and resist the lure of simplistic solutions and easy drama.

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