Monday, December 29, 2008

Scientific illiteracy all the rage among the glitterati

I liked this article in the independant.

Scientific illiteracy all the rage among the glitterati

By Steve Connor, Science editor
Saturday, 27 December 2008

When it comes to science, Barack Obama is no better than many of us. Today he joins the list of shame of those in public life who made scientifically unsupportable statements in 2008.

Closer to home, Nigella Lawson and Delia Smith faltered on the science of food, while Kate Moss, Oprah Winfrey and Demi Moore all get roastings for scientific illiteracy.

The Celebrities and Science Review 2008, prepared by the group Sense About Science, identifies some of the worst examples of scientific illiteracy among those who profess to know better – including top politicians.

Mr Obama and John McCain blundered into the MMR vaccine row during their presidential campaigns. "We've seen just a skyrocketing autism rate," said President-elect Obama. "Some people are suspicious that it's connected to the vaccines. This person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it," he said.

His words were echoed by Mr McCain. "It's indisputable that [autism] is on the rise among children, the question is what's causing it," he said. "There's strong evidence that indicates it's got to do with a preservative in the vaccines."

Exhaustive research has failed to substantiate any link to vaccines or any preservatives. The rise in autism is thought to be due to an increased awareness of the condition.

Sarah Palin, Mr McCain's running mate, waded into the mire with her dismissal of some government research projects. "Sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not," Ms Palin said. But the geneticist Ellen Solomon takes Ms Palin to task for not understanding the importance of studies into fruit flies, which share roughly half their genes with humans. "They have been used for more than a century to understand how genes work, which has implications in, for example, understanding the ageing process," she said.

Hollywood did not escape the critical analysis of the scientific reviewers, who lambasted Tom Cruise, for his comments on psychiatry being a crime against humanity, and Julianne Moore, who warned against using products full of unnatural chemicals.

"The real crime against humanity continues to be the enduring misery caused by the major mental illnesses across the globe, and the continuing lack of resources devoted to supporting those afflicted," said the psychiatrist Professor Simon Wessely.

In answer to Moore, the science author and chemist John Emsley said that natural chemicals are not automatically safer than man-made chemicals, which undergo rigorous testing.

"Something which is naturally sourced may well include a mixture of things that are capable of causing an adverse reaction," Dr Emsley said.

Other mentions went to the chefs Nigella Lawson, who said "mind meals" can make you feel different about life, and Delia Smith, who claimed it is possible to eliminate sugar from the diet. The dietician Catherine Collins said that Lawson's support for expensive allergy foods is a wasted opportunity and too costly for those on limited incomes, while Lisa Miles of the British Nutrition Foundation said that sugars are part of a balanced diet.

Kate Moss, Oprah Winfrey and Demi Moore all espoused the idea that you can detoxify your body with either diet (scientifically unsupportable) or, in the case of Moore, products such as "highly trained medical leeches" which make you bleed. Scientists point out that diet alone cannot remove toxins and that blood itself is not a toxin, and even if it did contain toxins, removing a little bit of it is not going to help.

But top prize went to the lifestyle guru Carole Caplin for denouncing a study showing that vitamin supplements offer little or no health benefits as "rubbish" – it is the third year on the run that she has been mentioned in the review. Science author and GP Ben Goldacre pointed out that the study Ms Caplin referred to was the most authoritative yet published. "Carole should understand that research can often produce results which challenge our preconceptions: that is why science is more interesting than just following your nose," Dr Goldacre said.

Talking sense: Two who got it right

*The writer Jilly Cooper gets nine out of ten for making a stab at why alternative treatments might work: "If you believe them, then they work." That describes the placebo effect, where a harmless but useless remedy seems to work because the patient feels as if it is working.

*The vocal coach and singer Carrie Grant is applauded for raising the profile of Crohn's disease without abusing the science. "There are so many therapies available, but none of them are going to cure you," she said.


Gus said...

Where's the research to support that scientific illiteracy is truly all the rage among celebrities. They're citing, at best, a handful of examples of scientific ignorance, but how can they be sure that those opinions and tendencies represent the entire glitterati? And how are these incidents, perhaps misspoken, proof of scientific illiteracy?

avk said...

In that they are a subset of "pretty much everyone who isn't a scientist," they fall into two groups. The really large one hears about science through the mainstream media. The really small one hears about science through the mainstream media and then does additional research in excess of a google search.

The MMR-mercury-preservative link to autism mistake is, in my opinion, forgivable because of the way that the story was covered in the media. There was some looking into a connection some years ago which lead to a lot of panic-type news stories. The looking into it disproved a link, but by the time that happened the media organizations that wrote those pieces had moved on to something else. As a result, a lot of people hearing about vaccines or autism or mercury have the MMR-autism schema activated in their memory. Since autism doesn't effect enough children to make it more than a fringe issue, it's unreasonable to expect most people to keep up on it. Are you "scientifically illiterate" if you don't happen to know what Coumadin does (it's a blood thinner)? Are you "scientifically illiterate" if you don't know what the Higg's Boson is (it's a speculative particle that is responsible for mass)?

If you really want to worry about "scientific illiteracy," I would start with creationists. Then, I would target Star Trek fans. Then I would campaign against movies in which you can hear explosions in space and where ships traveling light-speed travel interstellar distances in an unreasonable amount of time. Then, maybe, it would make sense to hound people for single statements made with out-of-date information.

andrew said...

Gus, actual data, or even footnotes denoting actual data are never presented in the average newspaper. A little bit of google leads me to the article this article is based on, and the group "Sense about Science" who every year does an audit of science related subjects in the news. So they got a group of grad-students somewhere flipping through articles marking a naughty/nice list.

" but how can they be sure that those opinions and tendencies represent the entire glitterati?"

By doing an 'audit'. As far as representing the entire glitterati, actually this audit has shown an improvement in the UK's glitterati, as well as tracked a downturn in certain mistakes as well as an upturn in others.

"And how are these incidents, perhaps misspoken, proof of scientific illiteracy?"

I'll take that and AVK's together.

You are right AVK about going up to the average non-scientist cold and asking them about random science item 17. However, I see a few very important subsets in your subset.

I don't expect the guy working 50 hours a week doing tax audits, baking strudel, or plowing snow to be up on the current science. If your job happens to entail you spend 50 hours a week practicing your 3 point shot, writing new song lyrics, or reading scripts, same thing.

However, "Decision makers" are a bit different. Their very JOB is to make informed decisions, hence they should be fairly well informed, or at least know where to turn to and get solid science advice. Same thing with knowing Burma is now Myanmar...ESPECIALLY if you plan on citing Mynamar, rather than being asked a question about it.

This also applies to glitterati who choose to get up on the world stage (be it Oprah's show or Letterman's or whatever) and espouse a viewpoint, then they should have done at least a little research on the subject.

It is of course entirely different when some reporter waiting outside the celeb's kid's soccer game starts pelting them with questions about Higg's Boson particles.

However, there is a basic bar that anyone who graduated from high school should be capable of surmounting. Also, after looking at a few quotes it sure doesn't sound like anyone 'misspoke'. It's one thing to misspeak by using Al-Qaeda in place of Terrorist, or slip up and say there are 52 states in the USA. (and it is of course fine to call them on this afterwords) But I don't see how saying

"Because of her history of colon cancer she is absolutely convinced the Pill caused the disease. I don’t have a microwave in my house for the same reason" -Kelly Osbourne

could be construed as misspeaking. It is also a fine example of, as a disease actually affecting a family member, it would be reasonable to expect anyone to have done a bit of research on it. It's the same thing as expecting me to doublecheck the spelling of Myanmar, and change it from my original Mnyamar, as I was going to cite it as an example.

I will say the one possible incorrect example cited is Tom Cruise. He did his research...he just went to a very flawed library to do it, any incorrect conclusion on his part I am going to lay at the feet of his resources, not him.

Finally, once diehard trekkies start running for office and creationist statements made on Oprah are taken for scientific truth, then I will worry about them too.

avk said...

I defy you to find me one person who takes Kelly Osbourne's statements for scientific truth.

Dumb people say ignorant things all the time (and in a free society must be allowed to). The party that needs to be taken to task are those who go to non-scientific sources for scientific information. Putting the statement in the passive voice does not relieve those taking the statements as scientific truth of their responsibility.

There have always and will always be questionable sources. Some (Ms. Winfrey and the Church of Scientology) are obviously and transparently so. You miss the target by not faulting Tom Cruise for consciously and willfully choosing paranoid fantasy over established science. The same goes for those who prefer to listen to Jenny McCarthy and her misguided crusade against the MMR vaccine over the advice of their pediatricians.

"Decision makers should... know where to turn to get solid science advice." And most of them do before they vote for bills or sign legislation. Also, a fair measure of policy on these sorts of issues is left up to governmental organizations that are somewhat insulated (well, insofar as such things can be) from the vicissitudes of politics, like the CDC. Should politicians be expected to be 100% on the spot? Or even 75%? I think most of them can legislate or administrate on scientific issues given the time frame of legislation and administration even if they can't manage it in real-time Q&A.

side note:

Gus said...

My joke about the statistical inaccuracy in an article and headline about scientific inaccuracy was a total dud.

Hose Juan said...

I agree with Aaron's point. No one, not leaders, not scientists, nor doctors, nor any other, will be able to answer all questions off the cuff. The problem with politicians is that they rarely ever admit they don't know and will go research it before taking a position. They may do that afterwards but rarely when in front of the camera/mike/crowd.

andrew said...

AVK, I think you underestimate the raw stupidity of certain individuals. A lot of people, if they see it on TV or in the movies, to them it is REAL.

I don't hang around with the right crowd to have a handy answer of who is dumb enough to believe Kelly Osbourne, but I am sure they are out there.

avk said...

I didn't underestimate anything. Those are the people I referred to when I identified the party that needs to be taken to task in my post above.

I know some people who can't distinguish between TV/movies and reality. I don't call them stupid. I call them clients.

My response to that Yahoo answers link is to say that Obvious Troll is obvious.

andrew said...

Go to yahoo answers, put in 'curve bullet' and look at all the people asking the same question. Some are trolls, but some are not. There are some REALLY dumb people out there. Of course, many of them are 13 so they need to be given some slack.

"I know some people who can't distinguish between TV/movies and reality. I don't call them stupid. I call them clients."

And I call them Congressmen.

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