As I was reading through the posted articles, two in particular caught my attention, because their topics were near and dear to my interests. I am interested in how the general population interacts with science, scientists, and how this perception can be shaped or warped. The articles posted on Vox and written by Julia Belluz took different angles at examining or negotiating the relationship between the lay and the lab. While I absolutely don’t deny the prevalence of irreproducibility in “science”, I’m not really ready to hop on the hype train like some others who seem happy to disregard the myriad advances which have been made by science despite it apparently being broken. One thing I liked from the articles was the frankness of the interviewee in the Why you can't always believe what you read in scientific journals piece. (S)he spoke candidly about the politics of science, specifically in his last comment, which was tangentially related to irreproducibility or “bad science” but actually highlighted one of the actual problems with science: it’s done by humans. This seems like a far more foundational or central issue, and a more interesting conversation to have. It’s not “peer review” or “good stats” (as someone who is good in lab and terrible at stats, I am herein making the assumption that someone who is as good at stats as I am in lab would find it just as easy to “massage” the data and obtain the answer they desire), it’s that we are prideful, ambitious, and defensive in perfectly normal, human levels.
I honestly have no segue into what my next thoughts were, but I didn’t want to go on for too long about something that wasn’t really that related to the dialogue we’re trying to have. One thing I will note about Ms.Belluz (herself a decorated science journalist) is that she seems a little quick to redirect the attention away from the individuals who disseminate the majority of these falsehoods or exaggerated claims, the journalists themselves. While I don’t believe it is ethical to continue portraying science to the public as this infallible discipline with participants entirely unfazed by their own human emotions, I also think it is important to think about how we phrase and shape arguments out of what statistics or data we have. The example to which I alluded earlier is a clear instance of presentation dictating the takeaway. Belluz doesn’t say “while it is true that about 30% of cases where specific phrases were used are cases where doctors are using these terms, and it is sometimes unjustified. However, dwarfing the 30% of cases which pertained to doctors, 55% of cases pertained to journalists using these phrases.”, a short paragraph I could write in a manner that seems a little biased in favor of scientists. Instead she begins the paragraph by getting that 55% out in the open, then focuses the remaining paragraph elaborating on the smaller percentage of cases which are perpetrated by doctors, leaving readers with the notion of doctors who “medically overhyping”, not journalists. This is then of course laid to rest with a warning statement addressing the grave danger that is medical overhype. The order in which we present data, the careful phrasing we use, and the overall presentation of specific data all have a significant effect on the takeaway message a reader gets. One question I struggle with after reading some of the articles is: how can we have an honest discussion about the realities of science and how reliable or unreliable studies are, without creating a million tiny Jenny McCarthys? Is the nature of public debate and discussion nuanced enough to handle the realities of scientific research, many of which have been true for centuries? How can the largest proportion of cases, perpetrated by journalists, be policed? Should they be?