Friday, March 8, 2013

Ask for Evidence: Making Sense About Science

Every now and then, I learn more about an organization that does really good things. What I learn about them and the people I meet impress me enough to take a break from my usual musings to help spread the word about them. Last month, I became more acquainted with a group that I had already heard about, but didn't know much about them. That changed when I met Julia Wilson, Development Manager for the U.K.-based organization Sense About Science.

Sense About Science is a non-profit charity whose goal is to change how we talk about science and evidence. Their goal is to help people understand a variety of scientific concepts, such as peer review, basic statistics, how to design a fair test of a claim, and the nature of scientific evidence. They have gathered a database of over 5,000 scientists, researchers and other specialists (if you're a scientist and want to help, you can!), connecting them with people who have questions about some scientific claim they've heard. It can be anything from climate change to dodgy medical claims. They also engage young scientists to take an active role in public discussions about science, through their Voice of Young Science program.

They have had great success in the U.K. and have recently launched a campaign here in the U.S.

The Ask for Evidence campaign was launched here in February, just before Valentine's Day. Having a bit of fun, they created an alternative Valentine greeting, looking at the evidence for various supposed aphrodisiacs. They held their launch at the MIT Museum with a "boot camp" of sorts to plan how to spread word about the campaign in the U.S.

The main thrust of Ask for Evidence is to get people to speak up when they hear a claim, whether it's in a newspaper, from a policy maker or in the local pharmacy. When you see or hear a claim, just ask for evidence. See a news story about the latest miracle health benefit? Write and ask for the evidence. See someone at a kiosk in the mall selling little rubber bracelets that purportedly improve athletic performance? Ask for evidence. Hear a senator claiming that natural gas fracking poses no risk (or incredible risk) to the environment? Ask for evidence. Don't settle for vague answers like "a recent study says" or "we've done research". Don't accept testimonials. Ask for the title of the study supporting the science claim, what journal it was published in and who the authors are. And make sure it's peer-reviewed.

In the U.S., stop someone on the street and ask them what peer review is. Chances are, they won't have a clue or will have a misunderstanding of the process. This is something that Sense About Science has had success with among the British populace. They have a number of tools and publications to help people understand evidence and how to evaluate it.

Asking for evidence is a very simple concept and one that, all by itself, can go a long way toward changing how merchants, politicians and the media talk about science. For myself, I can't tell you how frustrating it is when I read a newspaper article about a new study, but the author doesn't provide any links to the study or a citation at the end of the article with the study authors, title and journal information so I can read the article for myself.

There are, of course, limitations to just asking for evidence. For instance, what do you do once you get it? Do you understand it? Is the person providing it being misleading in any regard, or are they acting in good faith? As I said, Sense About Science has you covered and provides material to help people learn more about science and evidence. Got a question? Ask them. They are very willing to help answer questions you might have, and if they can't answer it right away, they'll help connect you with someone who can.

I encourage you to visit their site and learn more about what they do and how you can help change the culture of science communication. And the next time you're at your local pharmacy and see a homeopathic product, Ask for Evidence.

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