9 thoughts on “Here comes the science bit

  1. Caught an episode of The SImpsons the other night, where they were trying to get the mayor to do something and a recurring female character said "...think about the children...." . Irrelevant, and an emotive cliche, it's (to quote Homer) "funny because it's true".

  2. The next one will be 'no links between smoking & cancer'

    As we all know, you just can't believe everything you see and hear, can you?  (jimi hendrix 1967)

  3. There are certainly what appear to be causal links between smoking and cancer. The evidence for links between passive smoking and cancer is, not surprisingly, less clear-cut.

  4. No.

    The whole point about science is that ideas need to supported by sound evidence. All I'm saying is that the evidence for the dangers of passive smoking are, I believe, overstated (not non-existent; overstated). Similarly, the potential benefits of wind-power are consistently overstated.

    There is, as far as I can see, absolutely no valid evidence in support of hypotheses (I won't dignify them by calling them theories) about the dangers of MMR jabs and mobile phones - and an awful lot of evidence to the contrary. Ditto for homeopathy, acupuncture, crystal healing, and all the other mumbo-jumbo I bang on about in Gruts.

    But the conspiracy theorists and tree-huggers don't want to hear from scientists; they'd rather keep on reading the scaremongering in the Daily Mail and the pseudo-scientific nonsense of New Age gurus.

    (Oh, and ostriches don't bury their heads in the sand either... That's yet another scientific myth!)

  5. I think the tree-huggers' point is that public policy should take a precautionary approach rather than a scientific one; if you think there may be a hazard with something then stop doing it until you know that it's safe, rather than waiting to prove that it's a hazard.  This of course is entirely in line with a our prevailing completely risk-averse culture, but does have merrit in some circumstances, at least where there is some reasonable evidence (the US approach of waiting until global warming can be proven to be related to human activity, for example, may be scientifially sound but is not great policy). 

    In all things, a cost vs risk analysis needs to be made - there is some finite chance that if you take an antibiotic you will have a lethal allergic reaction, but this is rare and if you have a bladder infection, you have 100% chace of being in great discomfort and you will probably take the risk.

    The situation is more complex with passive smoking, because those accepting the risk (the other drinkers) are not those deriving the benefit (nicotine fix).  Clearly Richard will accept the risk for the benefit of a cosy pub atmosphere.  Others would rather not, but accepting risk on another's behalf is more difficult (I would happily drink in Richard's smoky pub, but I wouldn't take my daughter in there, he'll be pleased to hear).

    With MMR, nobody bothered to tell people the benefit (not having a child catch potentially serious diseases) and so parents saw only the risk of autism, which they could not accept on behalf of their chlidren  without a corresponding benefit. Whether there is a down-side to ditching your mobile is a matter of opinion, but in all cases, it's not so much a question of scientific evidence as risk management.

    In all of this, the science is supposed to be the tool to inform the decision as to which risks to take.  Unfortunately, almost nobody understands study design, levels of significance and the idea of meta-analysis of all available data, so instead every study gets a headline and the more attention-grabbing it is, the more public impact it makes.

    There's an easy (theoretical) solution; teach children how science works and what it's useful for, but sadly that's not likely to happen in a hurry.

    Sorry - am I ranting again? I'll stop now.

  6. Longest comment ever, Yog!

    Agree pretty much with what you say, but in the case of MMR what the scientists are effectively saying is that there is NO LINK WHATSOEVER between MMR jabs and autism. But no scientist will ever say there is zero risk, because there is no such thing as zero risk (i.e. nothing is ever 100% 'safe'). It's that minuscule allowance for doubt that the voodoo merchants and papers and the tree-huggers leap on - because they and the scientists are talking different languages. 

  7. My oldest granddaughter has cerebral palsy & is deaf & blind because her mother was afraid of needles & wouldn't have the MMR jab. She contracted german measels while pregnant. The truth is out there, don't make the mistake of clouding it with statistics.

  8. Yeah.  Sorry about that.

    It's unfortunate, but until people understand what scientific results mean and don't, the only way to counter double-page spreads in the Mail showing a child whose symptoms of autism came on the week he had the MMR jab is a similar double-page spread devoted to Owl's granddaughter and those like her.  Many vaccination programs (thinking particularly about polio in Africa) have the problem that they are so successful that about a generation after they are started uptake drops off because nobody remembers what it was like when the disease was prevolent.  They just don't see the risk. 

    It's the percieved risk which needs to be addressed, and newspaper editor know much better than scientists that you control that by making things personal.

    There you go - not such a strain on your servers today!

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