Everyone has a part to play in exposing misinformation about science, says Mark Brook.
Every day we are bombarded with claims and stories that may not be based on good evidence: in advertising material, product websites, advice columns, campaign statements, health fads and policy announcements.
Regulators and science communicators are making efforts to chase down claims, but they cannot be everywhere all the time. Claims that they think have been knocked down often pop up again in a different place and in a different form. To make a permanent difference we need to get more people challenging claims. Sense About Science has launched the Ask for Evidence campaign, calling on consumers, patients, voters, community groups and scientists to scrutinise every claim they see.
Anyone can phone us about scientific issues. The questions they ask are often quite general: 'Is this proper research?', 'Is it the scientists or the companies who say it is safe?', 'Is this another scare story?', 'How do I know what to believe?'. To explain how scientists present and judge research we produced a public guide to peer review, 'I Don't Know What to Believe'. To date, over 500,000 copies have been requested. We are equipping people with the tools necessary to work out the status of evidence for themselves.
But are more people willing to take on the task? We think so. Results from a recent survey we conducted with Ipsos MORI found that over half of the British public understands that science is a process of fair testing and questioning. People who don't have a background in science and engineering can still ask questions, and need to do this all the time. If you needed a stay in hospital, you might come across MRSA-resistant pyjamas, and have to decide whether to buy them. Even to someone with a scientific background, the concept behind this product might seem plausible. A member of our Voice of Young Science network (VoYS) of early-career researchers phoned Marks & Spencer and found that while a trial was under way, there was currently no evidence to support the claim that the clothes were MRSA-resistant.
If we let claims go unchallenged, we risk more than wasting money on useless products. Our guide 'I've Got Nothing to Lose by Trying It' helps people to weigh up claims for miracle cures and treatments they have read about on the Internet. The widower of one MS'sufferer told us, after reading the guide, that he wished they had spent their money and time on a holiday, rather than chasing false hope.
Politicians and parliamentarians ask for evidence when they scrutinise policy. Lord Krebs, Chair of the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee, told us about his own piece of evidence hunting. He asked government whether class size affected pupil attainment, and was told that, beyond reception year, the evidence showed that it did not. He told us: 'When I tracked down the original papers, this is not what the evidence showed. It indicated that there is little effect once class size is above a certain level, but below this class size counts.'
Some of the stories people have sent us are quite light-hearted: detox shampoo, where the company producing it did not have a definition of 'detox' and just meant 'cleaning', and a face cream claiming to rebuild skin cells, the main ingredient of which turned out to be a protein that was too large to pass through the skin's barrier. A dog trainer told us that some dog training methods are not evidence-based, and are less 'efficacious and humane' than those that are.
The most effective way of uncovering fraudulent claims and misinformation is to expose them. We want to get to a point where those making claims expect to be asked for evidence, and so think twice before making them. To reach this point we want everybody, whatever their experience, to ask for evidence for every claim they see.
A scientific background isn't necessary, but scientists and engineers should be setting the example. We have a database of over 5,000 scientists, specialists and organisations who help us respond to the queries we get. It would be great to hear from you, either to offer your expertise, or with an Ask for Evidence story of your own. Get in touch with us at www.senseaboutscience.org/askforevidence *