Is Science Bullsh*t?
May 11, 2016
It’s a good question. So often we hear scientific claims about everything from the health benefits of coffee, eggs and wine, to the cancer causing effects of coffee, eggs and wine. The point is that not all studies are good ones and the media tends to oversimplify scientific findings in an effort to create catchy headlines and viral content.
As John Oliver explains in his latest episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, there is a seemingly endless barrage of data being thrown at the public and plenty of BS masquerading as science. In his latest entertaining and informative segment on scientific studies, the satirical commentator made some critical points.
There have been several articles which have reviewed Oliver’s comments, including “How To Spot A Scientific Study That Isn’t Terrible” by Uproxx, “John Oliver teaches us how to interpret medical and scientific studies“ at Respectful Insolence and “John Oliver explains why so much ‘science’ you read about is bogus” in the Speaking of Science section of The Washington Post. This last article detailed four notable points Oliver raised.
1. A single study means basically nothing.
For science to point us in the direction of truth, scientific claims should be supported by duplicate evidence. This has been one of the many reasons Andrew Wakefield’s claims that vaccines cause autism have been dismissed by the scientific community. His single study was unable to be duplicated. Meanwhile, dozens of other studies conducted around the world have indicated that there is no connection between vaccines and autism.
2. Statistics can be very misleading. They can even lie.
Oliver explains that good studies use large sample sizes over long periods of time. (Again, this was another flaw in Wakefield’s study which was limited to an extremely small sample size and the fraudulent and unethical methods that were discovered in the way he collected his data.) Oliver takes the time to review the significance of p-value and explains how scientists are able to manipulate their sample sizes and data analysis to be able to extract desirable data points that can inspire media attention and clever headlines.
3. The system isn’t set up to support good science.
Oliver reminds us that replication studies don’t happen as often as they should. The Washington Post article recapped Oliver’s comments best when stating “Reproducing someone else’s work, while incredibly important, isn’t splashy or exciting. And these days, scientists know that making a splash in the media is almost as important as getting studies published in the first place. That means that reproduction falls by the wayside in favor of novel ideas. We love novel ideas, but they’re not particularly useful until other scientists copy them.”
4. The media is partly to blame for the public being largely misinformed.
A key element in Oliver’s discussion involves the role of the media. He provides hilarious examples of mainstream news media outlets attempting to communicate science to the public. In doing so, he is able to emphasize how and why the media outlets so often get it wrong – reporting untrue or incomplete information as science.
Throughout the segment, Oliver admits that science is imperfect. Yet, he cautions us not to oversimplify things. In conclusion, he argues that strong scientific studies require proper sourcing, solid content and the validity that comes with replication.
If you’re interested in learning more about how to properly evaluate scientific information and studies, check out the following resources:
•Policy: Twenty tips for analyzing claims of a scientific study – Sutherland WJ, Spiegelhalter D, Burgman M. Nature. 2013 Nov 21;503(7476):335-7.
•Good information practices for vaccine safety web sites – World Health Organization’s Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety – (WHO)
•What is a good study?: Guidelines for evaluating scientific studies – Science-based life blog
• Nibbling on Einstein’s Brain: The Good, The Bad & The Bogus in Science by Diane Swanson
• Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum
If you’re interested in learning more about the vaccines and reading the latest scientific studies related to immunizations, visit the Research Section of The Vaccinate Your Family website.
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