Skepfeeds-The Best Skeptical blogs of the day

On the status of science in society

Posted in Shirley Who by Skepdude on May 29, 2009

READ THE FULL ENTRY AT “SHIRLEY WHO”

As the daughter of two scientists, it never occurred to me growing up that science as a profession or a method of inquiry could be controversial. How else were we to discover life-saving treatments, develop better technologies, or advance our understanding of the natural world? I took for granted the fact that science is the foundation of modern civilization and makes improved standards of living for more people possible.

My recent forays into blogging, however, have shown me that nearly everything is debated, even things that should not even seem debatable. Evolution is one of them, and, apparently, so is vaccination. My open letter to Oprah sparked an unexpected flurry of responses from many scientists, parents, and concerned citizens, giving me a taste of the kind of “discussions” people have on issues near and dear to them. I realized that people on both sides genuinely care about improving health, but also that productive conversation is elusive when the assumptions and objects of trust are different.

Needless to say, I trust those who use the scientific method to probe and learn about the world. Science is an iterative cycle in which we observe phenomena, make testable hypotheses concerning the phenomena, devise experiments to test these hypotheses, evaluate and draw conclusions from the results using rigorous statistical analysis, and form new hypotheses based on our improved understanding. The experiments, including controls, should be devised to help ensure that 1) the procedures we’re using to gather data are doing what they’re supposed to be doing, and 2) other hypotheses or explanations aren’t responsible for the outcome we observe.

There is inherent uncertainty built into this process – for one thing, we can’t definitively rule out all other possibilities because there are, in theory, infinitely many possibilities (but only a few that are reasonable). Then there is the fact that science can never disprove anything, it can only collect evidence supporting a hypothesis or not. If twenty independent and methodologically sound studies all produce the same finding and no other studies show the opposite, we are confident that the finding is accurate. But all it would take is a few studies (again, independent and sound) showing the opposite to make us modify our confidence. As more studies accumulate, the weight of the evidence usually tilts definitively towards one side or the other, and this – the accumulation of evidence – is what should form the basis for technology development, policy, and future science.

READ THE FULL ENTRY AT “SHIRLEY WHO”

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An open letter to Oprah

Posted in Shirley Who by Skepdude on May 18, 2009

READ THE FULL ENTRY AT “SHIRLEY WHO”

But I couldn’t leave the stadium wholly inspired by you, as I’m sure many others did. To me, it is clear that a significant number of people look up to you, and trust your advice and judgment. That is why it is such a huge mistake for you to endorse Jenny McCarthy with her own show on your network.

Surely you must realize that McCarthy is neither a medical professional nor a scientist. And yet she acts as a spokesperson for the anti-vaccination movement, a movement that directly impacts people’s health. Claims that vaccines are unsafe and cause autism have been refuted time after time, but their allure persists in part because of high-profile champions for ignorance like McCarthy. In fact, ten of the thirteen authors of the paper that sparked the modern anti-vaccination movement retracted the explosive conclusions they made due to insufficient evidence. Furthermore, it is now clear that the study’s main author, Andrew Wakefield, falsified data to support these shaky conclusions.

We have come close to eradicating life-threatening and crippling illnesses because of vaccines, but are now struggling to prevent outbreaks because of parents’ philosophical beliefs that vaccines are harmful. Realize this: when someone chooses not to vaccinate their child, they aren’t just putting their own child at risk, they are putting everyone else around them at risk. Diseases with vaccines should normally be of little concern even to unprotected individuals due to herd immunity – with the majority of the population immune, unprotected individuals are less likely to come into contact with the pathogen. Unfortunately, herd immunity disintegrates as fewer people are vaccinated, putting everyone who hasn’t yet been vaccinated at greater risk for infection. Now, the rates of infection by diseases for which we have safe and effective vaccines are climbing, thanks to anti-vaccination activists like Jenny McCarthy.

You reach millions of people everyday and your words and endorsements carry an incredible amount of weight. If you say to buy a certain book, people will buy it. If you do a segment on a certain charity, people will contribute. And if you say that what Jenny McCarthy is saying has merit, people will believe you.


READ THE FULL ENTRY AT “SHIRLEY WHO”