Sergio Della Sala: Science facts, not fiction

Children can benefit from science festivals but it is naive to think that discussing science can counter misinformation. Picture: Complimentary
Children can benefit from science festivals but it is naive to think that discussing science can counter misinformation. Picture: Complimentary
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Scientists must follow strict rules to ensure that they themselves are not guilty of spreading misinformation, writes Sergio Della Sala

We go to a burger bar and are tempted by the luscious pictures on the walls showing succulent sandwiches filled with tender beef and moist with the most delicious sauces. Were we to compare what we actually get with the advertisements, then we would be running a rudimentary scientific experiment. This is the essence of science, to compare claims with data.

This is why randomised controlled trials are carried out in medicine. To know whether or not a drug works, researchers give this drug to a group of patients affected by a particular disease. At the same time, they give a “placebo”, typically sugar pills, to another group of patients with the same disease. In so doing, they are able to find out whether or not the drug has any benefit over and above the effect of the placebo.

Our decisions, like whether or not we buy that burger or use that treatment, should be based on evidence. Yet, we are besieged by misinformation on all sides; when this misinformation masquerades as science, we call it pseudo-science.

The scientific tradition has methods that offer a way to get accurate evidence and decrease the chance of misinformation persisting for long. The application of these rules marks the difference between science and pseudo-science. Perhaps more importantly, accepting these rules allows us to admit what we do not yet know, and avoids the pomposity too often associated with the notion of scientific authority.

People are easy prey for pseudo-science. We are natural believers, especially in things that we would like to be true. People believe their children can improve their scholastic performances by gulping up fishy pills or other improbable supplements. We would all like to be more intelligent and show off our skills in solving puzzles. We would wish to have better memory and absorb volumes of material effortlessly, to flaunt our astuteness and acumen at parties.

To reach these goals by long hours of swotting is a daunting prospect, so many jump at the idea of a quick fix and are prepared to pay for it.

Take the simplistic dichotomy between the two brain hemispheres, which informs a series of training programmes. Such programmes are based on the popular assumption that our brains have a nerdy left hemisphere, which acts as a rigorous accountant, opposed to a creative, hippy half, the right hemisphere (which usually needs to be awakened).

How do we stimulate our sleeping right hemisphere? Angela Zakon, a professional life coach, states in the Holland Herald (the in-flight magazine of the airline KLM) that people would become more creative if they learned to breathe through their left nostril to stimulate the right side of the brain.

This asinine advice is doubly flawed: first it is not true that the left hemisphere epitomises the military-industrial establishment of the West, while the right brain has the glamour and mystery of the East; second, even if this were true, we could not specially stimulate the right hemisphere by lop-sided breathing, as the air anyway goes down to the lungs.

Newsmakers fuel belief in tall tales by running uncritical stories advertising outlandish methods and ignoring their obvious flaws. So, we can blame the journalists. Easy target.

In a recent survey by Which? magazine only 7 per cent of respondents said that they trusted journalists (just below pranksters and the management of the Edinburgh tram project).

However, when scientists engage with the public, do we really do better? We are now all desperate to engage the public; our institutions push us to branch out and reach out, and we get brownie points if we do so. We created the 
Public Understanding of Science, then realising that the acronym was less then ennobling; we changed it to Public Engagement in Science and Technology, arguably not much better.

This activity too often translates into a scientist going to the media saying “I have nothing to say, and I want to say it on TV”. It sometimes seems that it is the engagement itself that is valued, independently of what we actually say.

There is nothing wrong if you are not interested in science, but if you are, then nowadays there are plenty of opportunities to indulge your curiosity. Science festivals are springing up in every city. However, the simple idea that simply discussing science publicly can counter misinformation is naïve. I posit that too often than it would be advisable, scientists themselves promulgate pseudo-scientific thinking, so even science festivals may be counterproductive.

An example? Baroness Susan Greenfield, until very recently the chancellor of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, is championing the uncorroborated idea that kids who use social media or spend long periods on the internet are more prone to develop autism.

Baroness Greenfield is a famous neuroscientist, so her unproven statement is taken more seriously than it should be. Her argument rests on a mere correlation: nowadays more children than before use the internet and more kids than before are diagnosed with autism.

This is a bit like saying that global warming is due to lack of pirates because when there were pirates, the temperature of the seas was a few degrees lower. To fight global warming let’s bring back pirates, and to counter autism let’s keep children away from computers.

In the same vein, Napier University in Edinburgh offers courses on complementary medicine, the efficacy of which remains dubious at best. Why shouldn’t it? Even Kathy Sykes, professor of sciences and society at the University of Bristol, appeared to support alternative medicine on prime-time television.

A zoo lion about to be treated with complementary medicine is considered newsworthy. Less newsworthy, for some reason, is the debacle of the multinational pharmaceutical company Boiron being forced to refund buyers of its homeopathic cold remedy, the Oscillococcinum, for failing to inform them that the merchandise contained only sugar.

These alternative, or complementary, remedies bear the hallmark of pseudo-science: they do not change as we accrue new knowledge. Yet, we teach about them in universities, and eminent scientists such as 
Prof Sykes are not ashamed of giving them the benefit of the doubt. Engaging with the public should push scientists to show the evidence: we should not abuse the position to dominate by authority.

The Royal Society’s motto Nullius in verba, is Latin for, roughly, “take nobody’s word for it”. We scientists should remember this motto, not only in our labs, but also when disseminating our ideas. Yet, we seem to know no better. Kary Mullis, Nobel Laureate in chemistry, asserted in his autobiography his belief in astrology.

As a scientist, he should know better. But he is a Capricorn. I’m a Libran – and Librans do not believe in astrology.

• Sergio Della Sala is professor of human cognitive neuroscience, at the University of Edinburgh