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Thursday, January 13, 2011

"Scientific Literacy," or, "Don't believe everything you read"

Note to self:  Always remain skeptical

The whole Power Balance debate is now winding down a bit, although it is still far from over.  On the heels of their announcement, here in America New Balance finds themselves in a similar position as there are threats of a lawsuit against their WW850 "toning shoes."  The shoes, which Reebok and Skechers also produce models, make wild claims about burning more calories and toning certain muscles, but the basis of the potential lawsuit is that one consumer injured herself after using them.  Apparently Reebok and Skechers also face lawsuits.

A common theme arose in the discussion around our Power Balance posts, and that was surprise from you, our audience, that people actually believed the claims in the first place.  It seems self-evident to most of you to be skeptical and wary of these kinds of claims, because you have the training or inclination to be somewhat skeptical, and your "science filter" (or maybe your "BS" filter!) is always on.  But in the broader population this characteristic is lacking. 

We do not teach critical inquiry

Part of the requirements for my undergraduate degree were that I took a certain number of classes that were classified as "Critical Inquiry."  Those were meant to focus on "critical thinking," however you define that, but the gist of it is that we interrogate the source of information and apply some degree of skepticism before accepting statements as 100% truthful.  That was a long time ago, however, and I can tell you with some authority that these days there is no emphasis on critical thinking in higher education.  It is a huge debate that we will not get into here, but the state of affairs in most institutions is that no responsibility is placed on the students to learn the material.  Instead, a customer/provider relationship persists in which the students' demands and complaints are honored in a wholesale fashion---as in, "This class is too hard, there is too much reading," and accordingly the instructor is told to reduce the volume of material.

A great read on this is Michael Specter's 2009 book Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives  Specter is a long time writer for the New Yorker and the book examines several cases where we have lost our scientific literacy or scientific "compass" and replace rationality and skepticism of science with ideological or unscientific irrationality.  Most fascinating is his analysis and comment on the issues of childhood vaccination and organic foods.  Most of you will know that the scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports early childhood vaccination, yet about 10 years ago the idea that those same vaccines cause autism was planted by the British medical doctor Andrew Wakefield---whose research has now been exposed as fraudulent.  But the cause was taken up by celebrities and, in Specter's words, they were winning the publicity war on the topic.  Suddenly, in spite of decades of evidence, parents stopped vaccinating their children.

It is a remarkable thing, and really forces one to see the importance of being rational and skeptical, applying some "critical thought" to new information.  So I can really suggest the book, it is a quick and fascinating read, made possible partly by Specter's engaging style but also because I think this topic will appeal to most of our readers. 

The power of marketing, or the lack of scientific literacy?

It is difficult to say which forces are primarily at work here, but certainly both are powerful currents in our society.  The marketing of the products like the toning shoes is aggressive on every single level, and one thing recent history has shown us is that marketing works.  We only need to look at the growth of the tobacco industry in the last century for a prime example of how to market a product to it maximum.

So marketing works, but surely at the same time being scientifically literate should counter those forces that compel someone to buy a product, especially when the manufacturer makes outlandish claims.  For me the question is whether or not we can teach critical inquiry, and if so then to what extent.  Certainly some individuals seem to be inherently skeptical.  I suppose it makes me an optimist, but I have to believe we can also teach people the skills to be critical of information and claims.  At least I try my hardest with my students, even though most often I am slated for being too hard because of it.

For now, please make a note to yourself to remain skeptical, interrogate the source of the information, and look to the available evidence to guide your interpretation.  I am happy to say for most people in this audience, that will not be such a hard thing to do!