While the majority of researchers agree on topics like nutrition, vaccination, genetically-modified foods and climate change, the general public sometimes disregards their advice. Is the public simply uninformed and ignorant? Or is science arrogant and over-confident? Or both?
I recently listened to a program on NPR’s Science Friday called “Scientists and the Public Disagree on Key Issues.” The gist of it was that although a consensus has been reached among scientists on issues like nutrition, vaccination, genetically-modified foods (GMOs), and climate change, the general public often disregards their advice.
Not surprisingly, the position taken by the scientists interviewed on the program was that this disconnect between scientists and the general public is mostly a communication breakdown. If scientists could figure out a way to better deliver their message to the public, they argued, then the public might finally see the light and start behaving in a more rational manner.
I happen to agree with the scientific consensus on most issues. I would also agree that there are many situations where the public acts out of ignorance, whether intentionally or unintentionally. I think the Science Friday piece did a good job of outlining the many reasons behind the disconnect that often occurs between scientists and the general public.
But in this article, I want to explore other side of the coin. When scientists and the public disagree, is it always the case that scientists are correct? Or is it possible—just possible—that consensus science may not be as infallible it is made out to be?
When science and the public disagree, are scientists always right?
After all, the history of science is essentially the history of most scientists being wrong about most things most of the time. From our current vantage point, we can look back at the scientists of 100 years ago and see numerous examples of where their knowledge was incomplete, misguided, or simply inaccurate. What makes us think the same won’t be true for scientists 100 years in the future? Why are we so certain that the answers we have today won’t be replaced by the answers of tomorrow?
Of course we’ve already seen this play out on a shorter time scale.
- Up until recently (and still today in some circles), the majority of scientists agreed that eating saturated fat and dietary cholesterol causes heart disease. But today we have numerous studies showing that intake of saturated fat and cholesterol is not strongly associated with heart disease after all.
- At one point it was believed that antibiotics were practically miracle drugs, with virtually no downside. But today we know that they can profoundly disrupt the gut microbiome, which has diverse and potentially serious consequences.
- Just two decades ago, mentioning the phrase “leaky gut” would have labeled you a quack in scientific or medical circles. But today, it’s one of the hottest topics in scientific research, and it has been identified as a causative or contributing factor in numerous chronic diseases.
There’s no doubt that science is progressing. The quality of the research we have today is higher than what we had 100 years ago, and it is thus more reliable and less likely to lead us astray.
Yet there are still some thorny problems with how scientific research is done. First, two-thirds of it is sponsored by pharmaceutical companies. This is significant because studies indicate that industry-sponsored trials are more likely than non-industry-sponsored trials to report favorable results for drugs because of biased reporting, biased interpretation, or both. (1) Is it at least possible that industry sponsorship could be affecting studies on controversial topics like genetic modification of foods? The research says yes.
Second, a study is only as good as its underlying data. For example, most nutrition studies rely on self-reported food intake. We’ve long known that this is woefully inaccurate, but a recent paper published in the Journal of International Obesity revealed that the situation may be even worse than we thought. (2) They found that “[The data] are so poor as measures of actual [energy intake] and [physical activity energy expenditure] that they no longer have a justifiable place in scientific research.” This is a monumental “Oops!”, especially when you consider that these data have served as the basis for public health policies and nutritional recommendations for decades.
Third, the quality of scientific research depends entirely upon what questions are asked. If we’re not asking the right questions, we won’t get the right answers. Using the antibiotic example above, the reason scientists didn’t realize how potentially harmful they are is that they did not understand the importance of the gut microbiome in health and disease, and thus did not even ask the question “how do antibiotics affect gut health”? Is it possible that there are questions we are not even asking—but should be—about issues that science has reached consensus on, and that the answers to those un-asked questions may change our understanding in some way? History says yes.
There are numerous other problems with scientific research, which John Ioannidis famously detailed in his provocative 2005 paper “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.” (3) But perhaps the most glaring problem is, as he suggested, that “for many current scientific fields, claimed research findings may often be simply accurate measures of the prevailing bias.”
Does this mean all science should be disregarded and thrown out? Of course not. Despite these shortcomings, science is still the most powerful way for answering many (but not all) of our fundamental questions. I’m simply suggesting that science has limitations, and isn’t always perfect. I would have loved to hear the scientists who participated in the Science Friday program admit that, and I think it would have made for a more interesting—and honest—discussion.
Now I’d like to hear what you think. Do you always agree with consensus science? If not, where do you diverge—and why? Why do you think scientists and the public are so often at odds? Let us know in the comments section.