Musings on research, international development and other stuff

Does public (mis)understanding of science actually matter?


Many parents feel reassured by pseudoscientific treatments - although experts point out that a similar amount of reassurance could be achieved by investing the cost of treatments in wine and chocolate.

Babies suffer through a lot of bogus treatments for the sake of placebo-induced parental reassurance.

So, as regular readers know, I have recently become a mum. As I mentioned in my last post*, I was really shocked by how much pseudoscience is targeted at pregnant women. But four months after the birth, I have to tell you that it is not getting any better. What I find most concerning is just how mainstream the use of proven-not-to-work remedies are. Major supermarkets and chemists stock homeopathic teething powders; it is common to see babies wearing amber necklaces to combat teething; and I can’t seem to attend a mother and baby group without being told about the benefits of baby cranial osteopathy.

I find this preponderance of magical thinking kind of upsetting. I keep wondering why on earth we don’t teach the basics of research methodologies in high schools. But then sometimes I question whether my attitude is just yet another example of parents being judgey. I mean, other than the fact that people are wasting their money on useless treatments, does it really matter that people don’t understand research evidence? Is worrying about scientific illiteracy similar to Scottish people getting annoyed at English people who cross their hands at the beginning, rather than during the second verse, of Auld Lang Syne: i.e. technically correct but ultimately unimportant and a bit pedantic?

I guess that I have always had the hypothesis that it does matter; that if people are unable to understand the evidence behind medical interventions for annoying but self-limiting afflictions, they will also find it difficult to make evidence-informed decisions about other aspects of their lives. And crucially, they will not demand that policy makers back up their assertions about problems and potential solutions with facts.

But I have to admit that this is just my hypothesis.

So, my question to you is, what do you think? And furthermore, what are the facts? Is there any research evidence which has looked at the links between public ‘science/evidence literacy’ and decision making?? I’d be interested in your thoughts in the comments below. 


* Apologies by the way for the long stretch without posts – I’ve been kind of busy. I am happy to report though that I have been using my time to develop many new skills and can now, for example, give virtuoso performances of both ‘Twinkle Twinkle’ and ‘You cannae shove yer Granny’.†,‡

† For those of you unfamiliar with it, ‘You cannae shove yer Granny (aff a bus)’ is a popular children’s song in Scotland. No really. I think the fact that parents feel this is an important life lesson to pass on to their children tells you a lot about my country of birth…

‡ Incidentally, I notice that I have only been on maternity leave for 4 months and I have already resorted to nested footnotes in order to capture my chaotic thought processes. This does not bode well for my eventual reintegration into the world of work.

6 thoughts on “Does public (mis)understanding of science actually matter?

  1. Pingback: Doh! | kirstyevidence

  2. There’s probably a do-no harm principle – is the ‘wrong’ intervention bad, or just pointless? I think in the issue of child health this is probably quite important in some respects – if the ‘wrong’ intervention either prolongs poor health, or exposes a child to greater risk (I guess vaccines are an obvious example) then evidence really matters. If no-one suffers – eg there isn’t a ‘better’ alternative that works, but the ‘wrong’ intervention makes the parent feel better (and is consistent with particular beliefs and values which are important, socially, culturally, religiously) maybe it’s ok to be less ‘evidence literate’.

    • OK but… isn’t there a risk that turning a blind eye to pseudoscience, even if it doesn’t cause immediate harm, might have negative effects in the long term? The most obvious risk is that if someone believes in bogus remedies for minor ailments, they might then turn to similar remedies even for serious diseases. There are some pretty horrible examples of people who have shunned conventional medicine for illnesses and died horrible deaths as a result – and don’t get me started on people who push homeopathy in developing countries as a cure for malaria, HIV etc. And then I also wonder whether belief in bogus remedies might be correlated with a lack of scrutiny of policy makers’ decisions; maybe if people are willing to take anecdote as proof of one thing, they will be equally willing to do so for bigger societal issues?? But even as I write that I feel that I sound like a bit of a paternalistic prat so am still not sure what I think…!

  3. Fascinating! I consider myself a public health practitioner (having worked in tobacco control, mental health promotion and now reproductive health). I vote green, basically because of the overwhelming evidence that green politics are based on. I also educate my children in an alternative education framework because it’s the closest style of education I can find that applies the latest evidence of neuroscience, mindfulness and educating the whole child for a future we have no idea about. I am continually bombarded by the people I met through these areas of my life with pseudo-science! What I have found is when they passionately and whole heartedly believe in what they say, nothing I say, no evidence or research I present to them will sway them. And more confusingly, lots of what they believe in has evidence to support it. The debate about homoeopathics is a done deal. There is no evidence to support it and I can pretty confidently say there never will be. But other areas like education and mental health are more fluid. When the research is thin, pseudo-science is ripe to fill the gap. I think we’d be better collaborating (where there is willingness) to conduct more research. Walking alongside each other is a much better path to discovery and understanding than preaching from a pulpit.

  4. PS I think putting an amber necklace on your baby to help with teething is more about belonging to a group than the effectiveness of the therapy. It’s about identifying with a group of women/parents who care, who want a clean, green, healthy future for their children.

  5. Hi Kirsty, of course the do-no harm principle has a longer dimension too, or an unintended consequences dimension (we don’t know now what the future implications of what we do now might be). But I also believe really strongly that we have to respect and understand where people come from – social and cultural dimensions of understanding and knowledge, and not stray into the ‘but it’s just wrong, we have to convince them to do it differently!’ territory. (I know you’re sensitive to this need too of course!) I think there are some great examples in the Ebola outbreak, and the important role that anthropologists have played in helping broker understanding between medics (who know the science of disease and transmission) and the people who are suffering (who have beliefs, knowledge of their own, fears, distrust of government/outsiders etc).

    I think this might help answer one of the questions you’re perhaps implicitly asking here – which if I understand right is something like “if you believe there is a better / right way of doing something, how do you convince other, or bring them with you?” It’s a post you probably saw on Duncan Green’s blog: Actually come to think of it I think you had a post like this a while ago about understanding where the other person is coming from. There’s a lot in that for the ‘evidence’ debate I think.


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