Science is integral to many, many of the decisions we make every day. But where do people get the scientific information on which they base their decisions?
The current H1N1 vaccine campaign is a good illustration of this. It seems you can’t turn on the television or read a news website (or even a Facebook wall) without being inundated with opinions about the H1N1 flu vaccine – and you hear every possibility stated as absolute fact: “H1N1 vaccine is safe and effective” to “H1N1 vaccine will give you Guillian-Barre Syndrome” to “H1N1 is no more harmful than any other flu, the media/government is just fear mongering and it’s all a conspiracy by Donald Rumsfeld to increase sales of Tamiflu.” Part of the problem is that we live in a time of information overload (e.g., the media, the Internet ((The National Science Foundation reports that most Americans use TV (39%) or the Internet (23%) as their primary source of science & technology information. Not sure what the stats are for Canadians, but I imagine they’d be similar.))), so there’s no shortage of information – but do people have the skills to be able to sort out the wheat from the chaff?
This was one of the things that the group of us who Dave mentioned in his first posting talked about at length. We’d all come across situations where people were very adamant about things that are absolutely not supported by the scientific evidence. Or news stories that took the findings from a scientific experiment and completely misrepresented it (whether that was by oversimplifying the findings or making sweeping generalizations that extend much beyond what the evidence could support, or sometimes even getting the basic facts totally wrong). Often times news stories presented “two sides of the debate” (such as evolution vs. creationism) as if they had equal scientific evidence behind them, when clearly (to anyone familiar with the scientific evidence at least) this was not the case.
Another thing that we talked about was the Conservative government getting rid of Science Adviser to the Prime Minister – a position that had only been created in 2004. The Science Adviser’s job was to be an independent expert on science underlying issues of the day, but the position was first demoted from the Prime Minister’s Office down to Industry Canada and then eliminated completely. As with the general public, the government is constantly needing to make decisions on scientific issues (think of the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen), but where, exactly, do the politicians get their scientific information from?
I can’t say we came up with a lot of answers, but our discussions did generate a lot of questions and ideas, such as:
- how do we ensure the best and most accurate scientific information gets communicated to all levels of government?
- how much scientific training, if any, do journalists have? (apparently, there are fewer and fewer journalists who are scientific specialists)
- how can scientists work with journals to ensure the science they present is correct and complete?
- how can we help the general public to understand how science works and assess the accuracy and validity of information they receive so that they can make evidence-based decisions?