Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Science V. The Public

Health & Wellness

Imperfect Science: Science is not without its faults, including those of chasing grant money, lacking incentive to investigate certain important topics and facing poor replication of results, Wischhover writes: “It’s also important to note, however, that science is not without its limitations, as noted by a survey of 270 scientists recently published by Vox. ‘Today, scientists’ success often isn’t measured by the quality of their questions or the rigor of their methods. It’s instead measured by how much grant money they win, the number of studies they publish, and how they spin their findings to appeal to the public,’ the authors wrote. There’s not enough interest in certain topics or substances (this seems especially true in wellness and illness prevention), statistics can be manipulated, and there’s often not enough replication of studies to strengthen certain hypotheses.”
Image Credit & Source: NY Mag


An article, by Cheryl Wischhover, in NYMag’s The Cut looks at the conflict between science and wellness advocates; although the latter often claim science on their side, much of what they claim falls under the rubric of alternative and complementary medicine. In other words, outside the domain of what is called evidence-based medicine.

In “Can Wellness Be Scientific” (July 19, 2016), Wischhover writes:
One of the big hallmarks of the modern wellness movement, which helps to explain how the concept got somewhat divorced from science, is a general disdain for traditional experts and western medicine. And no one idea exemplifies this growing chasm between science and wellness more than the ubiquitous concept of detoxing.
It doesn’t matter how many times doctors publicly debunk detoxing; it persists. Charles Mueller, Ph.D., a clinical associate professor of nutrition at New York University, made an indignant sound into the phone upon being asked about detoxing. “It’s very difficult for people like me to keep my head on when I hear about things like alkaline diets and detoxing. There’s no such thing as detoxing your body, absolutely no such thing,” he says.
But the concept is as prevalent as ever, because people keep talking about it and saying it works, which is another common practice in the wellness world, thanks to the ease of sharing information online. (Google “gluten free” for another example of this.)
“I don’t remember who said it first, but the plural of anecdote is not data,” says Folta. In other words, five people saying a juice cleanse cleared up their acne doesn’t mean that juice can help your skin. Folta calls this a “contagion of confirmation bias. People tend to cluster together around their perceived maladies and that’s a horrible problem with today’s online tribal nature of communication.”
True, and I too have doubts about many of the claims put forward by alternative and complementary medicine. Even so, Science is not without its faults and needs to put its house in order. What this article says in an unsaid manner is that many people, including people who are highly educated, are second-guessing the scientific community—and with good and valid reasons. Consider. Scientists are not immune from making dubious claims, from getting it wrong, for even intentionally misleading the public in order to get published in journals and to receive more grant money. What about the studies that are not published, but should be? What about stats that are manipulated and omitted for lack of convenience?

All of these fall within the realm of conflict of interest, including the troubling cases of Big Pharma and their lack of sufficient transparency in drug trials, the increased lack of independent labs and research institutes, the problems with the peer-review process, etc. Combined, this leads to distrust. Much has also been written about Scientism, which shows that scientists can also have too much faith in an instrument of human endeavor and thinking. These have been well documented, but most of the public is unaware of them. (Note: science is not as self-correcting as it ought to be; self-censorship is common as is the adoption of an overt authoritarianism when making public pronouncements—this does not bode well for public acceptance of science.)

Moreover, much of science communication today is via press release, and this lack of skepticism among science journalists also contributes to the distrust between the public and research scientists. Breathless announcements that say or suggest more than they ought to. In the end, it is the public good that requires protection, and not the advancement of scientific careers, which often seems the norm today. 

I am an educated person, who believes in the benefit of scientific research, but I do not have complete faith in science. This would not only be foolish, it would be unscientific.

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For more, go to [NYMag]