Monday, May 19, 2014

In Defence of Science

I haven't written for a month because I've been binge watching Homeland. But something came up today that I have to write about. Plus, I finished Homeland this week (seriously can't wait till the next season starts...)

In yet another departure from my usual format, I'd like to address my fellow scientists out there, particularly the ones in life sciences. And despite an ongoing feud with my brother about PhDs vs MDs and who the real doctor is, I'll even reach out to medical doctors.

Hey there. How's work? How's the family? Hope everything is going well.

I know you spent a good chunk of your life preparing for the moment in your life when you have a job, you're settled down, and you can work till your heart's content. It's awesome, isn't it? I consider myself absolutely fortunate to have a great job where I'm nurtured, I'm paid well, and have a nice work-life balance. Yup. I know I'm lucky. But in the last year, I've become obsessed with scientific literacy, so much so that most of my time from the moment that my toddler, Mr Chubby-Cheeks, is in bed till the moment I can no longer see straight, is spent either reading papers or writing. It's weird, eh? I specifically chose a career in industry so that I wouldn't have to spend my life writing grants, but here I find myself engaged in the exact behaviour I so wanted to avoid.

So, why is it that I do this? It's a long story, but I specifically chose to learn and write about GMOs, because I felt that there was a lot of misinformation and I wanted to evaluate the scientific literature on my own. I'm not a plant geneticist nor do I work in Ag. However, I'm in a position to be able to read scientific literature and evaluate if it's any good. And if I do not know enough about the topic to understand the details of what I read, I know where to find the information that will help me understand it better or can ask someone in my network of friends and colleagues. I consider this skill the most important one of a PhD in science. The knowledge that we gained throughout the course of our theses is important, but unless you continue working in that field, your knowledge becomes quickly obsolete given the ridonculously rapid pace that life sciences moves at. What we're left with is the ability to evaluate and understand data.

You, too, have this skill.

The second reason why I write is something that I also share with you: we both got into this disastrous mess of a career because we wanted to make a difference, we wanted to help others, and we have a deep passion for science. Why else would we spend 10 years of our lives on a career path where we earn significantly less than MDs, lawyers, or engineers?

If you combine these two items (an ability to evaluate scientific data and the desire to make a difference), then you have two inescapable responsibilities: to correct a scientific wrong and to promote a scientific truth. Both are achieved through communication.

I know. Most of us hate it. Many of us suck at it. It's why marketing teams exist. It's why many of us aren't necessarily good bosses or managers. Many of us just prefer data over people. Data is clean. It's pretty. It doesn't have a hidden agenda. But we need to get out of our cocoons and start communicating. I don't necessarily mean standing in front of a huge audience or getting a TV show like Bill Nye. I believe that you can make a more substantial change by doing small things. Like when your mom sends you that article about how deodorants cause breast cancer? Write to her and tell her it's a myth and back it up with the article from the American Cancer Association. Or when your friend posts that article on Facebook about how using a microwave changes the molecular structure of water? Write to him and tell him that it's a scientific impossibility and send him the lay-explanation from Snopes. Or when your aunt tells you that you should eat organic because you're poisoning your family? Tell her that organic produce also uses pesticides and that it's all in the dose, and follow it up with the example of how peaches have cyanide. These small conversations are more impactful, because our family and friends trust us and some of them actually believe in us, even though you may lose a friend or two along the way.

Why is this important? A recent study revealed that nearly half of Americans believe in some sort of conspiracy theory. And it wasn't among some fringe left- or right- leaning group. 35% of these individuals were liberal and 41% were conservative. In a piece in NPR, the author of the study explained that these individuals "aren't ignoring their health. Instead, they are normal people trying to make sense of complex issues."

And here is the key point that I'm trying to get at: "People who backed the conspiracy theories were less likely to rely on a family doctor. Instead they looked to family and friends, the Internet and celebrity doctors for their health information. And people who relied on celebrity doctors. such as Dr. Mehmet Oz and Dr. Andrew Weil, were most likely to favor conspiracy, with more than 80 percent agreeing with at least one of the theories."

80% of Americans believe in a theory from a celebrity doctor. 


That is just mind-blowing. And aggravating.

Because if you've watched Dr Oz you know that he's the best in the lot of these fear-mongering, conspiracy-laden shows. Did you know that gets 4 million unique visitors a month? Or that Dr Mercola's website has one million subscribers? Go ahead. Take a look at both of those websites. Peruse and then come back here and tell me that you're OK with someone telling millions of people a day about how they can control the methylation of their DNA or that you don't care if someone is selling probiotic supplements to help buyers take control of their microbiome. Because odds are that one of your friends is reading those articles and believes them.

You and I are generally quiet, introverted people. We don't like to make noise nor do we like to stand out. But while we've been quietly chugging along, minding our own business, the noise-makers have managed to convince the general public that we are not to be trusted and that we're in it for the money. Mommy Bloggers with no scientific background are deferred to on nutritional or medical health information, not because they know what they're talking about, but IMHO, because there's no one else to listen to or trust.

If you think that it doesn't impact you, think again. We've seen a rise in cases of vaccine-preventable illnesses, little action is taken against climate change, and funding for life sciences is less than ideal. These stem from a fundamental lack of knowledge about sciences and can be corrected. You may argue that there are lobbying efforts in play and you're powerless to exert any change. Yes, it's true and it does suck, but grassroots efforts have managed to pass legislation mandating the labeling of GMOs in Vermont and managed to get Subway to remove azodicarbonamide from their bread, despite the absence of a valid scientific argument for both these moves. If you read about the "yoga mat chemicals in bread" petition, knew of the error in the argument, yet failed to say anything, you're accountable to the 22-year-old version of you who used to raid conference rooms to get free Subway sandwiches and stash them for dinner.

But I know you care. If there was anything that came out from Jenny McCarthy's recent public shaming on twitter is that a LOT of you care, but seldom say anything until it smacks you in the face.

What prompted me to write this post is one of the people who has actually stood up and tried to promote scientific literacy is being threatened by a lawsuit by none other than the Health Ranger, Mike Adams, who is the editor at NaturalNews. Jon Entine, executive director at Genetic Literacy Project, had written a very thorough piece for highlighting the many conspiracy theories that Mike Adams subscribed to, with links and references to articles from NaturalNews itself. In what I consider an unfortunate decision, decided to withdraw the piece. But it has left me wondering how we are supposed to highlight frauds and exploiters, when those who try to bring these to our attention, are basically muzzled.

We live in an unfortunate time when poor research can get easily published for a fee. It has led to the ability to promote agendas through poor, but published, "research" and to shun those to highlight such corruptions by labeling them as "shills" or other such titles. I'm not exactly sure what the solution is, and somehow we all need to find a way to stop predatory (i.e. sham) journals. But there is one thing you can do: it's your responsibility to stand up and say something, write something, or comment on something that you know to be a truth or fallacy, and to do it without being a douche. If you don't think it'll work, I refer you to the sentence a few paragraphs back which states that people turn to "family and friends" for their health information, among others. Because to your friends and family, I'm just a person in a lab coat who knows the cure for cancer, but is holding it back because of lobbying by Big Pharma. But to your friends and family, you are "Helen" or "Juan Carlos" or "Nasrin" or "Insert your Name Here": a person they value, believe in, and trust, and can actually teach them a thing or two about their concerns.

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