Scatter my ashes here...

Scatter my ashes here...
scatter my ashes in the desert...

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

What Needs Fixing!

Speaking of things that need fixing, it's Nurses' Week.

Don't EVEN get me started, because that's not what I want to talk about.

What I do want to talk about is the awesome performance by John Oliver (see video below) the other night talking about the mockery and entertainmentization of science.

This is the thing that gives me fits, day in and out, as a healthcare professional. But it applies to running too!

Cancer is one of the most heavily affected areas of commerce and research when it comes to bad science. There is more misinformation than good information, and it's a uphill battle to fight it. I hate the battle terminology around cancer. I am using "battle" in the sense of beating back the onslaught of scams and pseudoscience that prey on fearful, vulnerable and desperate people.

This applies not only to healthcare but also to anything- these trends that come and go, the popularization of things like supplements or products or running shoe designs, running techniques, what an elite runner swears by so everyone follows along regardless whether it is backed by evidence or common sense, like a bacon diet or running with one eye closed.

Here's what I thought after watching John Oliver.

The problem is that the meaning and purity of science have been diluted by a “science as entertainment” approach in the media. Since everything in the media is based on selling-, which is attracting viewers for advertising, they are going to use sensationalism and eye-catching headlines.

There is no integrity in what they report. And this lack of integrity extends to the people who are putting out press releases that reach the wrong media outlets.

It’s one thing for knowledgeable readers who understand the meaning of “a study”. But the lay public does not. And this has led to the dilution of and confusion of important information, and no one knows what to believe, as Oliver points out so perfectly- cherry picking what you do or don’t want to believe.

And that is what is so frustrating- for health care providers and for people who are trying to provide good information- it gets diluted and washed out in the tide of pseudoscience.

Like the whole gluten thing. People just deciding to be gluten-free because they heard or read somewhere that it's bad. Then a gazillion "gluten-free" products and services become available, and everyone jumps on board, whether or not they understand it. Then you get a bunch of contamination, and the people who truly need to be gluten-free (those with celiac disease), are hurt by it. And the people who don't need to be gluten-free end up enriching the coffers of those who sell the product without any demonstrated benefit to their health.  
Oliver goes on to explain that repetition of a study, having enough subjects, stringent methodology, being published in a peer-reviewed and edited journal combined with the lack of funding for research and the pressure to produce results that are provocative or will sell things, create a problem for the quality of the research that creates a body of evidence.

Then we hear about agencies making decisions based on political appointments, or ties to industry, or other means of corruption. And people are not science-literate enough to understand the difference between scams and real science, and they only know to listen to the media entertainment version, so the most provocative-sounding, attractive, entertaining, and eye-catching content is going to catch the viewers' and customers' attention instead of what is science.

How to solve the problem? Do we place stricter standards on what can be told to the media? How do you stop a train with no brakes? There’s no regulation or control over what happens to the information.
My preference would be to educate the public and increase their science literacy. But our education system is suffering from similar problems: lack of funding, and people who don’t understand what happens on the application, human-interactive level making the decisions. Just like in healthcare.
When it hits them in  the wallet, people do seem to understand. So perhaps showing them the kind of mistakes they could make and how much it could cost them would help.

What we really need is critical thinking. People, whatever divine being you believe in, or not, gave you a brain, so use it. Damn it.


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