It seems that more and more policy makers, advocacy groups, advertisers and media pundits are making claims based on science: this kind of potion is good for your health, that chemical is bad for the environment, this new technology can reduce crime. How is the public supposed to know what to believe?
The peer review system can help cut through the uncertainty and obfuscation. Yet few members of the public other than scientists know what peer review is or how it can be used.
A charitable trust based in London called Sense about Science aims to change that inadequacy. It is promoting several initiatives to help the average citizen learn how to question scientific claims and to encourage people to demand that anyone providing "scientific" results reveal whether those results have been peer reviewed.
On February 13, for example, Sense about Science launched a U.S. campaign called Ask for Evidence to prompt people to question scientific-sounding information. Leaders from the organization held a "boot camp" at the MIT Museum in Cambridge, Mass., where men and women in its Voice of Young Science USA program planned ways to spread the campaign nationwide. They also decided to target several specific topics: dietary supplements, gun control policy and fracking for natural gas, as well as changing weather patterns, so-called superfoods, vaccinations, alternative medicine and radiation. The program encourages early career researchers to play an active role in public debates about science.
The Ask for Evidence campaign has raised public awareness in the U.K, where Sense about Science has been working for a decade. Today, when Brits are stopped at random on the streets of London and asked if they know what peer review is, "many of them say yes, and can explain the system," said Julia Wilson, development manager at Sense about Science. Yet almost no one on the average U.S. street corner knows the term, she noted.
Most British media also now specify whether a new scientific finding they are reporting on has been peer reviewed or not. In February 2012 the British Broadcasting Company instated an official policy that all of its online reporters should include citations of published papers in their stories. Most British newspapers, even the infamous tabloids, now state where new research has come from, and if the work has been published they will name the journal. American media lags far behind.
A week before the launch at MIT, Sense about Science released the American version of a guide already used in Britain, called I Don’t Know What to Believe: Making Sense of Science Stories. The guide explains how scientists present and judge information, including peer review. In its release, the group said that many British groups use the U.K. version to help them convey information clearly to the public, including health workers, librarians, public-health officials, policy-makers, technology companies, safety bodies, popular writers, educators, parenting groups and local governments.
Wilson said the guide "is being used by over 200 organizations involved in communicating evidence to the public." Philip Campbell, editor-in-chief of the influential journal Nature, said the guide "is invaluable in explaining how peer review contributes to the health of science." (Scientific American is part of the Nature Publishing Group.) It can be freely downloaded here.
Commenting on the Voice of Young Science program, John Durant, director of the MIT Museum, encouraged scientist of all ages to speak out more about issues. "If the non-specialist majority is to have any chance of making sense of science amidst all the hullabaloo," he said, "scientists themselves need to speak up clearly and make sure they're being heard." David Ropeik, who teaches risk communication at Harvard University, added that the program "can play an important role by challenging the hucksters and charlatans and advocates who spin the facts to their selfish use, thereby providing an important public service in helping people make more informed and intelligent judgments about their health and well-being."
Photo courtesy of Sense about Science