I am Awesome…maybe…but only on Tuesdays … in a sample size of one

This post is the opinion of one student after reading one scholarly article. Reader discretion is advised.

“Do you trust me?” It is potentially my favourite line from the Walt Disney movie Aladdin, and the underlying question every time I read or hear new information.  Do I trust the source enough to believe what they are telling me?

Oxygenated water, How to make your won oxy water 

Homeopathy Cure or Con? 

Sometimes the answer is yes and sometimes the answer is no.

As science communicators, how can we make sure that the awesome new research we are presenting is perceived to be credible and trustworthy enough to be believed—especially when science is a discipline filled with uncertainty?  Will the water bath even turn on today?

Is science more credible if presented as indisputable fact or as a very tentative guess?   According to Jensen (2008), cancer research appears more credible to the public if the related researching scientists list the limitations of their experiments.    A newspaper story was also more credible if the journalist presented multiple viewpoints.

I feel like this is an accurate representation of my own feelings.  I know that if tomorrow a friend came up to me announcing that he had found the ‘cure for cancer’ instead of screaming up and down for joy, I would just roll my eyes and say ‘sure you did’.  However, if he said ‘I think maybe the compound I’m working on might have some properties that actively work to prevent cancer’ I might actually ask him a follow up question.

What’s interesting from a science communication view is that hedging (adding caveats and disclaimers like ‘maybe’ and ‘might’ and ‘I think’ ‘under certain conditions’ ‘more research is required’) can actually strengthen credibility whereas normally it decreases credibility.  Barack Obama did not become the President of the United States of America because he thought that ‘well, it was maybe sort of possible to potentially slightly alter American policy if we try really, really hard and make lots of compromises but then depending on attitudes of others and unforeseen world events it might not be the government’s highest priority so it could take a while.  This might be the reality of the situation but it was “Yes we can” change the country that made him President.

What do you think? Are you more likely to believe something that presents its flaws or does the presence of flaws just make you think the research experiment is not ready for media attention?

_________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Jensen, J. D. (2008). Scientific uncertainty in news coverage of cancer research: Effects of hedging on scientists’ and journalists’ credibility. Human Communication Research, 34(3), 347-369

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By shortfletch

12 comments on “I am Awesome…maybe…but only on Tuesdays … in a sample size of one

  1. Hi shortfletch. Personally, I like hearing the flaws, limitations and further research required. I like the realistic approach, no point selling false hope or making something black and white when it is in fact, grey. I don’t often buy into the “I’ve cured cancer” approach, unless there is plenty of proof and plenty of people being cured! I think that’s just the way I’ve been educated — don’t take everything at face value, think a little about the source first, and research further.

    • Thanks for the comment. I agree. Maybe we have grown up in a very cynical society, but I think too many people have cried wolf for us to believe in a fix all cure. Therefore presenting a realistic (but still positive) view of research is appropriate.

  2. Nice post! I too, am in agreement. I’d rather hear what something can actually do which really means defining what it is that it can’t do. Personally, I hate hearing the words “cure for cancer” when really, all it ever means is “treatment for some types of cancer, in certain situations”.
    Sure, cis-platin cured Lance Armstrong of testicular cancer, but there are plenty of other people that the treatment has failed. To me, cure implies that it will be 100% effective, 100% of the time (or close enough to).
    Another thing I wanted to share was this article from New Scientist. I don’t think it is suggesting that homeopathy is valid and real, it’s just some research that is kind of relevant, but I see such potential for this research to be taken out of context and plastered with “HOMEOPATHY WORKS” when really the research is saying “this phenomena may occur, and homeopathy is a bit relevant”.

    • Thanks for showing me that article. It was really interesting. I think your are completely correct when you say this is just the type of research that can be miss-represented. Luckily New Scientist sought other scientist’s interpretations and the article was written with a positive but cautionary tone. This make its much more believable. Personally I think that these researchers did find that diluting a substance in water makes the molecules clump closer together. If Dr. Oz had told me that on Oprah I would have dismissed him as seriously misinformed and wouldn’t have bothered to do any follow up research.

  3. Hello shortfletch! Great post. I reckon there is merit in mentioning flaws and limitations, but in making your argument persuasive, it needs to be framed in the right way. Framing means placing emphasis on a particular aspect or angle of an issue, so you can choose to place emphasis on the potential and possibilities (positive frame), or place emphasis on the limitations (negative frame). I think this may depend also on how “certain” (e.g. multiple evidences) the study’s results are, and who your audience is.

    • I agree that framing is super important and, like you said you can frame the message to highlight the benefits while still listing the limitation. What scientist were worried about was that if the journalist listed both the potential benefits and limitations in a study the public would get too confused. However, I think the do not give the general public enough credit. With the right framing and words, a good journalist should be able to highlight the findings as well as the limitations.

  4. Two interesting you tube videos. I liked the first video and the terms used such as a mitochondria is a spark plug! How many variations are there on the word toxins?. I think the aim of the first video was to blind the audience with scientific terms. The first video was a typical for selling products with a pitch to you really need this to improve your life or simply a negative frame with a solution.
    The Homeopathy issue was taken from a negative point of view, but it did not address some of the underlining issues. Why do people turn to alternative medicines, is it because they have lost faith in the modern clinical approach? Medical issues cannot be dealt with easily when there is an emotional component to it.

    • I totally agree with your thoughts on the first video. They were throwing jargon left right and centre and I was so confused I didn’t know what was going on anymore. Your second point is very interesting and something I hadn’t considered. It would be a very interesting follow up topic though. When I was in Saskatchewan people there swore by garlic to solve all colds and immigrants would probably half a lot of traditional medicine that might might be just as effective as the modern medicine the government gives. Anyway it is definitely food for thought. Thanks

      • I have to admit my family is big on garlic and natural remedies. I have recently had some health issues and all the modern treatments can’t seem to fix it. What has though is garlic. I have no idea why, my aunt suggested it to me and it worked. I’m a huge fan of natural (alternative) medicines, but I also believe in modern medicine. If there is something natural out there that can fix a problem I believe people should look into taking that rather than clogging up hospitals and doctors surgeries.

        I would usually say homeopathy is just water and a waste of time but most of the people I know who are into homeopathy are the sorts of people who seem to have every problem that homeopathy can cure. If the placebo effect can work through homeopathy and keep these hypochondriacs out of the medical system then I think it has much needed place in society.

        What do you think?

  5. Nice post Shortfletch, questioning everything is nature of science, and I also believe showing certain negative conditions and flaws gives more credibility. Nowadays, people never believe black or white argument.

    As science communicator, I personally think we need to step forward a bit, not just showing those viewpoints, but also need to clarify the degree of those elements. Sometimes, science accepts the multiple explanation, however, science also must stands on a qualitative argument.
    For instance, if new treatment works nicely, ordinary media coverage just reports like “a new treatment defeats cancer effectively”, then its our role to explain “How it works? How effective?” with certain figure or data, and apply that calculation for real life context.

    Sounds difficult, and as a scientist, you may not able to say any uncertain idea, but I believe our society still need someone who interprets the data and figure, even if the conclusion contains some uncertainty.

    First video is well-made misuse of (pseudo)science, I enjoyed watching it, and hate to see science is used as such a “hocus-pocus”, though its quite nice example.

  6. I agree. Being honest about research is always the best policy. I also think you need to provide people with enough information so that they can make informed choices themselves (such as with the modern medicine vs. homeopathy idea). I definitely think there is enough room in society to allow for both of these choices and that it is up to the individual to decide. Issues seem to arise when each party (modern medicine vs. homeopathy) think that the other party hasn’t provided the truth and that it is dangerous for the consumer.

  7. To continue on what Madeleine mentioned about the placebo effect, I find the same thing with yoga. Studies have shown that yoga has no extra benefits to stretching, but I think people think it’s so good for them that they ended up feeling better after doing yoga, as opposed to just normal stretching. So some of has to do with people’s mental processes I think.

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