It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Friday, September 3, 2010

Trick or Treatment

Excellent piece on Wired: Robert Capps interviews Simon Singh. Singh wrote an article in the Guardian about unfounded claims for chiropractic treatment. The British Chiropractic Association sued Singh, hoping to use Britain’s draconian libel laws to force him to withdraw his statements and issue an apology. Excerpt:

Simon Singh: What shocks me is people who have no expertise championing a view that runs counter to the mainstream scientific consensus. For example, we have a consensus amongst the best medical researchers in the world—the leading authorities and the World Health Organization—that vaccines are a good thing, and that MMR, the triple vaccine, is a really good thing. And yet there are people who are quite willing to challenge that consensus—film stars, celebrities, columnists—all of whom rely solely on the tiny little bit of science that seems to back up their view.

Wired: Yet the celebrities sometimes seem to be winning.

Simon Singh: Part of the problem is that if anybody has a gut reaction about an issue, they can go online and have it backed up. That said, they can also find support for their ideas in the mainstream media—because when the mainstream media gives a so-called balanced view, it’s often misleading. The media thinks that because one side says climate change is real and dangerous, the other view is that it’s not real and not dangerous. That doesn’t reflect the fact that something like 98 percent of climate scientists agree that global warming is real and dangerous. And this happens with everything from genetically modified foods to evolution. But, at the end of the day, all that this misinformation does is slow progress—it doesn’t stop it. Antiscientific and pseudoscientific attitudes will get corrected; it’s just a question of how painful that process is going to be.

Wired: Should scientists do more to get real science out there?

Simon Singh: Scientists aren’t necessarily good communicators, because they aren’t trained to be good communicators. A researcher could be doing really important work on global warming, and then somebody writes a column in a national newspaper that completely undermines what they’re saying. But the scientist doesn’t think the column is important—it’s just some nincompoop writing a column—so they don’t take that writer to task in the way they should. It’s a case of saying, “How do we make a difference?” We certainly don’t make a difference by just moaning over coffee the next day.

h/t Scott Mandia


gravityloss said...

That's some quite clear communication, and should be read by many!

Maybe I'm naive, but I'd tone the understanding aspect - not just trust. Lots of things seem commonsensical but if they're exposed a little, they start making a lot of (common) sense.

EliRabett said...

Slowing progress is the goal.

gravityloss said...

ok I wrote it wrong: lots of things *don't* seem commonsensical but if they're exposed a little, they start making a lot of sense.

For example the classic greenhouse effect explanation that shows sun rays coming in just fine but when they bounce from the ground and try to go out, suddenly the CO2 stops them. Uh, how could anybody wrap their head around this explanation? It has to be opened up a little.

Michael Tobis said...

I wish I were convinced that the truth will win in the end. Certainly in the US on the matter of evolution, it's not just a matter of slowed progress. The common sentiment has measurably moved backward. I believe the same is true on anthropogenic climate change.

Antiquated Tory said...

People like simple, reassuring stories. People never really trusted Science, IMO. They believed "sciencism": authority figures in white coats and the explanation that something "was science" or "was known to science." Few people ever cared or bothered to unpack that statement and learn the actual science itself. Now that science-as-authority-figure is much less accepted (mad scientist endangering the world is as likely an image), it's easy to attack science in the public sphere. Just appeal to the lack of trust in the scientist as an authority figure. You don't have to do very much science and you can do that science poorly, because the people whose opinions you're trying to change never understood the science in the first place.