Growing up in a typical Indian family, I have been exposed to numerous myths and misconceptions masquerading as the wisdom of the elders in the family. These “fun facts”, often a part of the advice dispensed by my grandmother would range from remote possibilities to the extremely absurd.
A particular favourite of mine was her take on Childhood obesity. She firmly believed that children who were obese in their early years would magically go on to become svelte, nimble teenagers, a fact that I desperately hoped would be true as I turned 13. This unique exposure to a series of unverified facts helped me develop the ability to scrutinize and identify pseudoscientific anecdotes.
Pseudoscience is defined as a claim or belief that is presented as a scientific fact, despite not adhering to existing scientific standards of testing and verification. As a young girl I took most pseudoscience as a joke, laughing it off as too trivial to question or argue about. I never felt the need to correct those around me.
Today, pseudoscience is a multibillion dollar industry that richly rewards its practitioners such as the Food babe, Vani Hari or Dr.Oz with TV shows, book deals and product lines. Shielded by a mix of free speech and scientific jargon, pseudoscience continues to seep into everyday discourse while its practitioners walk away scot free from all responsibility.
Take the case of Dr.Oz, one of the world’s foremost cardio-thoracic surgeons, who has been shilling numerous products that claim to have health benefits with very little evidence or actual trials to prove their efficacy. Dr.Oz ,has in the past, endorsed Green coffee bean extract, raspberry ketones, forskolin and African mango seed to a credulous audience comprising of overweight women awaiting the next miracle weight loss supplement. Each of the worthless products that Dr.Oz has endorsed has seen an exponential jump in sales based purely on Dr.Oz’s messiah like hold on the pulse of the public.
Last year, during his highly publicized hearing before the United States Senate, Dr.Oz admitted to shilling supplements. Despite this he still holds his medical license and his highly profitable alternate career. Dr.Oz’s hypnotic hold on his audience is not unlike the fervent belief in faith healers and alternative medicine practitioners among the desperately ill.
Asian countries like India and China may be fast developing but there are still large sections of these countries that do not have access to advanced medical care and continue to be plagued by dubious cures and medicines by quacks who prey on their trust, ignorance and fears.
Consider the recent study on 104 mentally ill children in India who were tested for cytogenetic abnormalities. These children were born to parents with no chromosomal abnormalities. 14 of the women in the study, admitted to taking a herbal medicine concoction referred to as Sex selective drugs by the researchers. The study highlights the possible consequences of inappropriate use of traditional medicine during pregnancy.
However, it is not just the poor or the uneducated who fall prey to pseudoscience. Indeed, large parts of California suffered the measles outbreak, a direct outcome of wealthy, liberal parents who refused to vaccinate their children based on spurious studies that linked vaccines to autism.
AT THIS JUNCTURE, WE MUST ASK OURSELVES, WHAT BROUGHT US TO THIS POINT? A POINT WHERE PEOPLE WITH NO SCIENTIFIC QUALIFICATIONS DISTILL CRUCIAL INFORMATION TO HELP US MAKE OUR FOOD CHOICES? A POINT WHERE PARENTS PUT THEIR CHILDREN AT RISK OF PREVENTABLE DISEASES BASED ON POORLY ANALYZED STUDIES? A POINT WHERE IGNORANCE AND INFORMATION INADEQUACY ALLOWS QUACKS, HACKS AND CHARLATANS TO PREY ON OUR FEARS?
Starting from Louis Pasteur’s experiment to prove the existence of microbes, we have come a long way to understand the many complex systems that populate the earth. While science has travelled a long way, science writing is yet to catch up. Science is still communicated in the form of complex graphs, heat maps and leaning heavily on jargon. Today science experiments are impossible to understand for people without science education. This leads to a sense of distrust among people. After all, it is natural to fear and distrust something that you do not understand. It is this weakness that the likes of Dr.Oz exploit. Their ability to spout pseudoscience to a naïve audience offers a steady stream of information for gullible listeners.
It is also important to note that these quacks may not be experts but are able to relate to people deeply through their fears and problems in simple language. But we must concede that people’s fears and distrust of scientific studies are not unfounded. Countless agenda driven articles are published every day which seek to tweak the uncomfortable truth.
A disturbing example of scientists pulling the wool over people’s eyes is that of the sports drink industry. The industry, which has sales of €260m per year in the UK alone is built on a foundation of flawed studies by scientists at the Gatorade Sports Science institute to convince people that sports drinks might be better than water. How are scientists conducting such fallacious studies any better than snake oil salesmen? Can we blame people for buying into the words of these pseudoscience media stars?
How do we conquer the seemingly invincible enemy-pseudoscience?
As luck would have it, we might have a solution on our hands. We are enjoying a golden age of journalism where people are getting their biggest chunk of news from the internet. The past few years numerous science blogs that cover the latest breakthroughs in science in an easy to read manner have come up. These blogs also crusade against the anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers and miracle cure shills.
Before we get complacent, it is important to realize that these blogs primarily target scientists and are restricted in their reach. However an active effort by science writers to keep the jargon to a minimum and explaining ideas can go a long way in shaping public opinion. Science writers must also make sure that they scrutinize scientific studies and examine the robustness of the conclusions instead of writing sensationalized headlines.
Let’s face it, a majority of scientific studies are not medical breakthroughs and merely seek to expand our knowledge of the world around us. Not all scientific studies can be the next big headline that goes viral. This is why science writing is going to play a big role. We need to convey the profound value of small insignificant results to people who understand it as well as people who have never heard of it.
George Orwell once said “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act”.
Facts might be uncomfortable, boring or even despairing as compared to the next miraculous cancer cure but we must all be a part of this revolution and bring facts to light. Perhaps the greater role of science writers is to develop in their audience, the ability to questions claims with skepticism. The revolution is happening and we can all be a part of it. All we need to do is ask the right questions.