By Chiara Facciotto
We live in interesting times. Thanks to the internet, information has never been so accessible as it is today; and, at the same time, misinformation is spreading like a virus. Whether you are a researcher, a doctor, a patient, or just a science enthusiast, here are some reasons why academia and the general public should communicate better with each other. In this mini-series of blog posts on science communication I will first go through why the public should care more about science. In the second blog I’ll discuss why researchers should put more effort into communicating their results; and finally, in the third blog I will give some tips on how to find your own way of telling your science. So here we go!
Too much information, not enough communication
The rate of scientific discoveries has sped up in the last centuries, and novel technologies have made the scientific method more and more reliable. However, it still takes a few years for big breakthroughs to make it to our school textbooks. Even though science magazines and documentaries do important work trying to bridge this time-gap, there are also unfortunate cases in which journalists reporting science news care more about creating click-baits than maintaining the scientific integrity of the discovery. So here is why you should aim to get your information directly from its source.
Empower yourself and protect yourself from hoaxes
Increasing your understanding in one or more scientific fields empowers you to make more informed decisions regarding the world around you. At the same, it also protects you from being scammed into using miracle cures that do not exist, or “technologies” that do not actually work and that, in addition to emptying your pockets, could also damage your health. The case of Stamina therapy is a good example of these alleged “miracle cures”. The red flag here was the fact that Vannoni, the inventor of Stamina therapy, never submitted his method to a journal where it would have been reviewed by other experts in the field. This lack of transparency is always suspicious in science, since peer review is currently the gold standard to ensure the reliability of new findings. However, it is also good to be aware that not all publications follow good scientific practises (like in the case of predatory journals). When a study is published without going through peer review, it’s scientific integrity is to be put into question.
Discussing science with someone who is an expert in a field is a good way to get fact-based information. However, much of these discussions are now happening in social media, for example in Twitter, where people can scroll through the latest discoveries and comment on them. These days it’s easy to camouflage fake information into scientifically-sounding ones, as shown in this video by McGill University. This is why it’s always important to check where the information is coming from. For instance, if you want to know more about ovarian cancer, don’t simply look for posts with certain hashtags (#knowovarian, #OvarianCancerAwarenessMonth, #ovariancancer) but make sure that the source itself is a trustworthy one. National cancer institutes’ websites (like the Finnish, Swedish, French, Italian and British ones) are generally among the best places where to get your information.
Check on your investments
Research is mostly funded with public money, which means that every taxpayer invests in academia. So why not get to know better what you are investing in? Often times the public is also asked whether research should take a certain direction, as in the case of the 2005 Italian referendum on fertility treatments and stem cell research.
In addition to tax money, research can also be funded through certain charities. Contributing to a certain charity is a good way to fund a specific area of research and, by keeping yourself in the loop, you can help make sure that funding goes where needed. Many charities also provide information about the disease in an easily understood form, see for example the 8 common myths about ovarian cancer by Ovarian Cancer Action.
Doctors (and scientists) don’t know everything
I think it’s quite common these days to go to the doctor, list a few symptoms and expect them to come up with a diagnosis almost on the spot. After all, medical and crime tv-series make it look like the state-of-the-art of technology allows to find all answers either right away or, at most, within a few episodes. The reality is quite different and people working in the medical field know that, especially for certain diseases, our understanding is still just scratching the surface. Take resistance to platinum-based therapy in ovarian cancer for instance. Even though platinum-based treatments have already been used for several decades, we still don’t know why most patients develop a resistance to these drugs. This is why projects like HERCULES, focusing on helping us get better diagnostic tools and treatments for patient, are really important. At the same time, interaction between scientists and public can demystify the idea of scientists and doctors having all answers and clarify the borders between what is known and what is still only science-fiction.
About the author:
Chiara Facciotto is a PhD student in Bioinformatics at the University of Helsinki and a science communication enthusiast. Her science outreach projects include, among others, TEDxHelsinkiUniversity and The Science Basement. You can follow Chiara and comment this post in Twitter: @chiara_facciott