Communicating Science: Part 2

This is the continuation of talks on communicating science and confronting pseudoscience  at IFT16, a massive conference of food scientists. Part 1 can be found here.

We continue with a short summary of Ben Goldcare’s talk, “Telling the Story of Science in an Age of Misunderstanding”

Next up was Ben Goldcare of the University of Oxford’s Center for Evidence-Based Medicine. His background is as a physician, epidemiologist, and science writer. His talk went more toward proper communication of science. He used to write a weekly column, Bad Science, which ran for nearly a decade in The Guardian.

He presented several examples of misleading representations of data, ranging from inverted y-axes, uniquely scaled y-axes, and various graphs where the diagrams were not proportional to the values. (Stocks are almost always shown with a cropped y-axis so that even the smallest variations are visible on a graph.)

He goes on to point out that the Daily Mail (a British newspaper) has run headlines on almost everything both preventing and causing cancer. You can find references on the internet of many foods and ingredients both causing and preventing cancer. Since consumers cannot be expected to decipher all of these sources, some level of responsibility must be placed on the journalists. However, very few journalists are scientists, so they determine the impact of something by the press release. When press releases contain inaccuracies and exaggerations, the 58-86% of the news articles also contained exaggerate claims. For press releases that did not contain exaggerations, only 10-17% of the related news articles created such claims. http://www.bmj.com/content/349/bmj.g7015

Goldcare also spoke about pulses. This was mostly interesting due to the way he said the word “pulses” and educated the audience about pulses, the dried seeds of legumes.

He also discussed the issue of multiple studies on the same topic with disparate results. With the amount and accessibility of data, the ability now exists to perform systematic reviews where data is weighted and considered as a whole. This sounded similar, and less complicated, than the way that FiveThirtyEight weighs polling data in building a model for election predictions in the USA. Skip down to around the 18th paragraph and Nate Silver starts talking about weighting polling averages (http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/how-the-fivethirtyeight-senate-forecast-model-works/). He did get into some details of funnel plots in systematic reviews; suffice it to say, there are statistical analyses to help determine the validity of systematic reviews.

The last point we’ll make from Golcare’s talk is to direct you to a study on medical advice from doctors with daytime TV shows. (Spoiler alert: most of the advice is not good) http://www.bmj.com/content/349/bmj.g7346

“Taming Dragons in the Age of Pseudoscience”

The last speaker on this topic was Bev Postma of Food Industry Asia. She had the honor of being front and center in Brussels when the European Commission was analyzing the previous 15 years of GMO use. For those unaware, GMOs have been used for over 30 years.

Despite 15 years of successful and safe GMO use in Europe, discussion turned negative as people were swept up in fear and confusion. The pseudoscientists and celebrities were referred to as dragons, mythical creatures striking fear into the populace. The inability of the scientific community to respond was a wake-up call to be effective communicators and always be accurate and consistent if there is any hope of a unified voice of science against an onslaught of fear and misunderstanding.

 

We leave you with a lovely Marie Curie quote used in Postma’s presentation:

Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.

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One Response to Communicating Science: Part 2

  1. Pingback: Communicating Science: Part 1 | Citizenship in Science

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