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E. Paul Zehr (University of Victoria)
E. Paul Zehr (University of Victoria)

OPINION

Science writers can help raise knowledge Add to ...

The Globe and Mail has sought out columns from thought leaders in Western Canada, people whose influence is shaping debate, but whose names may not be widely recognized.

I am a neuroscientist with a passion for communicating science. Over the past decade, I have been involved in many public communication activities helping to put science in the hands of those who need it most – every single one of us.

I cannot shake the weight of the words of Carl Sagan (1934 –1996) who wrote “… almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster … sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.” I take his quote as a timely reminder that scientists must be obliged to work toward communicating more effectively with all citizens – not just other scientists – of the societies within which we live and work.

We all need some basic skills to critically evaluate and parse what is going on in our world. Knowledge empowers us to question media coverage, government policy and claims we see and hear every day. We have to rely on effective science communication to help condense, synthesize and translate the ever-increasing body of scientific knowledge into general concepts we can integrate and apply in our daily lives.

This is fairly easy to say, but how is science actually being communicated? For the majority, it’s likely through mass media, which coincidentally bombards us with every other type of information we receive daily. This colossal information download has evolved our society to become mass consumers of knowledge. Making the best choices about what to consume when it comes to science, engineering and technology requires knowledge not just about tidbits of information, but the process of science itself: what science is and is not.

What science is not is absolute truth. Science is the closest approximation to the truth we can have at any given time. We get closer to “absolute truth” with new advances in methods, technology and understanding in many other fields of science. But we never arrive at the final destination despite our best efforts.

Valid scientific outcomes have to be more than single events. Studies and observations need to be “replicable” or repeatable. Failure to appreciate this is the single most problematic issue in science communication and leads to much confusion such as, “Didn’t I just read a study that said the opposite of the study I’m reading about now?”

Lack of effective communication about details of scientific advances and the process of science leads to some staggering issues. For example, the misinformation generated by the widely discredited “research” by Andrew Wakefield and colleagues documented in a 1998 paper published in a leading medical journal, The Lancet. The paper purported to show data that linked the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism and bowel disease.

Other scientists were unable to repeat Mr. Wakefield’s study and reproduce the results from the Lancet paper. Further review of the methods, procedures, and data actually used in the original 1998 study showed why. In 2011, the British Medical Journal described the study as “an elaborate fraud.” The problems here are real and sundry.

The frightening (but completely fraudulent) link between vaccination and the emergence of inflammatory bowel disease and autism has contributed to declining rates of vaccination in the U.S. and Britain among other countries. Due to the lack of vaccinations, there is an increased incidence of measles, mumps and rubella. More importantly, this totally ungrounded concept has made many people distrust the concept of vaccination for other diseases and likely for future interventions.

This is a huge health problem that I think could have been moderated by a better understanding of scientific research and the process of science itself. To help avoid related problems moving forward we need better science journalism and nuanced consumption of science. This requires more journalists with science training or interest in covering science effectively and more scientists as budding journalists.

As scientific advances move ever onward and upward, more and more power is placed in our hands. With a nod to Carl Sagan, it’s up to all of us to add in enough education to dilute his “combustible mixture of ignorance and power.”

Paul Zehr is director of the Centre for Biomedical Research and professor of neuroscience and kinesiology at the University of Victoria where he heads stroke recovery research in the Rehabilitation Neuroscience Laboratory. His pop-science books include Becoming Batman (2008), Inventing Iron Man (2011), Project Superhero (2014), and the forthcoming Beyond Superhero (2015). Paul has a popular neuroscience blog Black Belt Brain at Psychology Today and writes for Scientific American.

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