Inside Trinity One's Biomedical Health Stream

Trinity One student Bianca McLean asks "How Well Do You Know Science?" from TRN125Y - Issues in Health Science.


Gabrielle Warren

Bianca McLean

How do we stop the HIV epidemic in Africa?

Why do people believe vaccines cause autism despite contrary evidence?

Why do respected newspapers misreport science?

 

           Science literacy is an extremely important, but often lacking skill in the general population. Science literacy allow readers to understand the world around them, and it is also necessary for appropriate decision making on how scientific discoveries will impact our lives in the future.

            We are constantly bombarded with jargon and it can be difficult to distinguish fact from fiction. Does the Facebook ad claiming detox tea is crucial for weight loss have any scientific foundation? Probably not. What about an article with anti-vaccination content in the Toronto Star? Even generally well educated people often have difficulty knowing when they are reading reliable and replicable scientific truth.

            In TRIN 125 -- Issues in Health Science -- we study the principles that lead to good science. This knowledge has wide-reaching application, from understanding scientific journals, to designing experiments, to determining when treatment is necessary versus when treatment is profitable. Before taking TRIN 125, I looked at a science article and saw the conclusions. Now, I see crucial details about experimental design, the motivation behind the experiment, possible conflicts of interest, and data that can easily be manipulated to suggest very different conclusions.

            A well-known, but often misunderstood example of the harmful impact of bad science is the anti-vaccination movement. After a paper published by Andrew Wakefield in 1998 suggested that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine may cause autism, the vaccination rate plummeted. Subsequently, measles and mumps outbreaks began infiltrating major cities. Not only did this add huge costs to the healthcare system, it also put millions of children at risk of deadly disease. The world is still recovering from this outcome. While vaccination rates have started slowly increasing again, the damage caused by Wakefield’s paper was immense.

            It was later found that Wakefield had falsified his results, lied about acquiring ethical approval and did not declare his conflicts of interest. Wakefield’s study was the epitome of bad science, as he disregarded every value at the core of scientific research. However, the media’s trust of Wakefield’s study, and the public’s inability to decipher clear indications of fraudulent science is, to me, more shocking.

            Had the reporters been more scientifically literate, Wakefield’s study would have been quickly dismissed and never been disseminated to the public. Further, if the general public had been better educated in looking for indications of bad science, the flawed study would never have convinced so many to make choices that threaten public health.

            TRIN 125 encourages students to look at science with a critical eye. As future leaders in medicine, research and politics, we must not only acquire the skills needed to understand science, but also to explain it to our fellow citizens. Public health depends on being able to convert results from legitimate experiments into health policy. Although many courses may teach about science, few actually teach the practice of good science. TRIN 125 pushes students to challenge our current ways of thinking about scientific knowledge.

 

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