Science needs greater public domain transparency- how do we do it?

I’m a relative newcomer to science, despite being involved with psychology for about five years now it’s only been perhaps three that I’ve really come to embrace the awe inspiring predictive power that science confers on the human race. The legacy of science is essentially all facets of discovery, culture, medicine, business, travel. Practically everything to do with the progression of civilization really which is why I’m continually dumbstruck by its negligence within the public sphere.

How is it ignored? Well there are a great deal of examples to choose from, from terrible genres of television that don’t even attempt robust reporting to stupefying and all too common idea that scientists don’t change their minds and/or refuse to accept novel concepts.

Well I think the easiest and perhaps most important place to start would be from a medicinal area. Holistic medicine and the many, many offshoots and variants continue to be immensely popular, some even enjoying status on national healthcare. Now while many people don’t see anything wrong with these alternative medicines, being that they are benign and therefore harmless, the do pose some persistent problems in their current state. The first is that, terrifyingly, they are getting lumped into science. That’s not encouraging, given that by their actions it is more than conceivable many people will judge science as a whole. More pertinently however, is that I wonder how much that legitimacy really earns and how much people would be willing to spend if holistic medicine was found with its pants down.

It should be more transparent. Consumers have a right to know whether or not services rendered confer powerful scientific veracity or work on untested or disproven methods. Over time, exposure to both the scientific and unscientific should let them form their own opinions as whom to trust. How do we do this? One way I thought of is creating a rating system, agreed upon by an independent scientific council. Have practitioners of all types of medicine, both mainstream and alternative, present evidence as to the reliability and validity of their approaches and with consensus, assign a suitable level of scientific merit (how do actually do that I won’t explore here).  These merits can then be placed on consent forms, advertised (as mandate) outside clinics and centres and the populace can make their own decision. You could have a (colour coded?) rating system something like:

1. Firmly scientifically established. Mainstream scientific consensus is overwhelming in its belief the practice is legitimate.

2. Some scientific understanding. This practice is relatively new or under-researched, although current research is promising.

3. Contentious scientific understanding. This practice is in competition with other practices and it is advised the patient/ client investigate alternatives if uncertain.

4. Under researched. Research has yet to build a satisfactory conclusion.

5. No scientific merit.

If alternative medicine wants to play with scientific procedures, it should be classified appropriately. Similarly, public awareness and trust of science should increase.


~ by freeze43 on April 15, 2011.

10 Responses to “Science needs greater public domain transparency- how do we do it?”

  1. A relevant quotation:

    One of the things that I’ve noticed about this is that most people do not expect to understand things. For most people, the universe is a mysterious place filled with random events beyond their ability to comprehend or control. […] Such people have no problem with the idea of magic, because everything is magic to them, even science. […] They’re not used to being able to understand or control anything but the simplest of things, so it doesn’t occur to them to even try. Instead, they just go along with whatever everybody else is thinking or doing. For such (most) people, reality is social, rather than something you understand/control.

    • As a side-anecdote, I know a world-renowned scientist who has a masterful understanding of a complicated and difficult subspeciality of environmental microbiology. He has trouble figuring out how to check his email and frequently manages to lock himself out of his own computer.

      I think this “disbelief that reality is understandable” can be very domain-specific, and an awful lot of people who are otherwise intelligent are crippled by their belief that computers are fundamentally non-understandable. The example you use, medicine, might be another of these domains. People don’t think about the science behind it because it never even occurs to them that it is anything but magic.

      • Well do you think an advertised “scientific rating system” would help this disbelief along? It could give some worthwhile insight based on their own experiences, or at least give them the opportunity to make a more informed decision.

        Consider creationism versus evolution. I really do believe a large proportion of creationists are creationists not because they have some deep luddite-esque hatred of science but because the waters around the subject are sufficiently muddy for them not to realize what is science and what is not. Indeed, the whole creationist campaign in America to have intelligent design in science class and “teach the controversy” is a wholehearted push for muddyfication.

        The waters around alternative medicine I feel are similar in composition. A bit of clarity can only help, even if it is only the ones that are thinking enough (and if they aren’t now, hopefully exposure to science versus non-science will educate them).

  2. “Well do you think an advertised “scientific rating system” would help this disbelief along?”

    Your own example of creationism seems to counter this. There is essentially complete agreement among scientists that the earth is greater than 6000 years old, and creationists know this. They don’t maintain their belief in creationism because they are bamboozled by the muddy claims of ‘creation scientists’; they do it because the idea that beliefs can and should actually reflect reality is foreign to them. To them, a belief is just a thing you think and say that makes you feel good. This is why scientist-types get confused when non-scientist types say things like “I know this is true because I feel it deep down in my heart”, and why non-scientist types get confused when scientist-types say things like “even though this thing is completely counter-intuitive, I believe it because of the overwhelming evidence”.

    • I would argue some people truly are bamboozled by ‘creation science’. If we were to lay everything on a plate at least a strong proportion of people would probably change their minds based on the fact creation has zero scientific capacity.

      You’re right when you say that not everyone would listen, or care, but at least for a proportion of people seeking medical treatment I believe that a system like this would be beneficial.

      • There is good evidence that people frequently fail to update their beliefs on new evidence, and sometimes even increase their confidence in their beliefs when presented with conflicting evidence. See for example Nyhan and Reifler 2008 [pdf link], who famously found that political beliefs are rarely affected by new facts, or the wider literature on cognitive dissonance.

        Interestingly, when it comes to medicine it seems medical treatment may be poorly correlated with health, and there are many widely used medical procedures which completely lack evidential support. This implies that people are generally not interested in seeing more evidence for medicine, even if it is easily available.

      • The way you put it makes it seem that advocacy and/or evidence doesn’t really do anything at all.

      • The way you put it makes it seem that advocacy and/or evidence doesn’t really do anything at all.

        Not always for everyone in all domains, but often with most people in many domains.

      • That’s probably true, but in my opinion it is better to have more information than less. Even if you made it scary a la anti-tobacco advertising there is improvement, however slight.

      • That’s probably true, but in my opinion it is better to have more information than less.

        I thought the point of your post was that information which is already available should be made more prominent, not that more information should be made available. Anybody who is actually interested in knowing whether the claims of homoeopathy (for example) are valid can find the information they need within five minutes on Wikipedia.

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