My View - Help the public to understand science

26 Jul 2016 / 20:07 H.

    WHO will speak to lay people on scientific issues when scientists are busy thinking about the next big thing, global rankings and publishing in world-class journals. Of late, quackery, voodoo and pseudo-science seem to have mesmerised the public on at least two issues: the magic water fiasco and the need for vaccinations.
    The intervention by the Health Ministry that it will take action against the sale or promotion of an alkaline water filter which its manufacturers claim produces miracle water is indicative that the public have been led astray.
    Health director-general Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah said the ministry is concerned with reports of the magic water. Marketers have been feeding into the gullibility of the general public. Sworn statements of the benefits of drinking the water have been published in advertorials in government-owned media directed mainly at the rural folk who view it as being government sanctioned.
    “All water packed for consumption must be approved and licensed by the ministry,” Noor Hisham said.
    It is alarming that such claims can be so widespread. The media and universities have been involved in a very public way, instead of being the beacons that protect public interest. What is more frightening is that the each seems to think that it is doing a favour in promoting the product for the public good and wellness although it defies the law, and worst still ignores rational scientific reasoning.
    Pleading ignorance when it runs against the aim of the Food Act and regulations “to ensure that the public is protected from health hazards and fraud in the preparation, sale and use of foods” cannot be a valid excuse when seen in the context of the next big thing and seeking global standing. The Food Regulations are the backbone of the food safety programme. And safety is everything in health and science; a fundamental message that must not be missed by anyone who has the public interest at heart. For institutions tasked with enlightening and educating the general public, there is no room for even a hint of quackery and pseudo-science. But it seems we have let down our guard and the damage control will not be easy.
    Ironically, when it comes to the issue of vaccination against diseases as deadly as diphtheria, safety becomes a central point. To some members of the public, it is not “safe” enough that they have to opt out even at the expense of risking the lives of their children. For the health authorities, the “safety” issue is vital in deciding the fine balance between life and death, and how to tip it more towards the former using proven and scientific evidence.
    The apparent lacuna is so large between the two groups that it brings to question what role the scientists and the scientific community have to assert as public interlocutors, if not as public intellectuals. More often than not, the silence is deafening, even long after the fact.
    One scientific notion has come to light of late that “science is poorly communicated” and is dubbed among the seven biggest problems facing science today. According to an article, the scientific process has been under pressure where “over time the most successful people will be those who can best exploit the system”, said Paul Smaldino, a cognitive science professor at University of California Merced. Allegedly the peer review process, meant to weed out junk science, has by and large “failed”. Thus what comes down to the public arena is even more tentative with lots of grey areas and not always in black and white.
    One review in the British Medical Journal found that one-third of university press releases contained either exaggerated claims of causation (when the study suggested correlation), unwarranted implications about animal studies for people, or unfounded health advice.
    We are back to where we started making a greater case for academics and scientists to take a more active and informed public role in better communicating science to create the much touted knowledge(able) society.
    With some four decades of experience in education locally and internationally, the writer believes that "another world is possible". Comments: letters@thesundaily.com

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