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Public Perception of Science: Are You Amping Up or Toning Down the Noise?

Nov 02, 2017

When was the last time you went to a Grand Rounds talk that started with a segment from John Oliver’s This Week Tonight?  The segment was the perfect entry point to the presentation Research Reproducibility and The Public Perception of Science, given by Julie Kiefer, Ph.D., manager, Science Communications at University of Utah Health.

Research reproducibility touches all genres of science from computer science to genetics. Limitations to the reproducibility of scientific research may be due to poor reporting, bad cell lines, small studies, or outright fraud to name just a few. All of these themes will be explored in more detail during future Research Reproducibility Grand Rounds lectures, but each plays an integral part of the publics’ perception of science, the focus of the discussion by Kiefer.

Science that cannot be reproduced can add noise to an already cluttered news cycle, which can degrade the public’s perception of science, how it happens, and what scientific results mean. With so much noise in the various media outlets ¾ print, news, social media ¾ people can cherry pick what they want to believe. Kiefer illustrated this point with a case study.

During the last 20 years, the anti-vaccination movement gained momentum as more people rallied around the claim that vaccinations are responsible for the perceived rise in autism rates. The movement owes its origins to the now retracted 1998 research paper. The paper is an example of poor science, with too few patients, no controls, fraudulent data, and conflict of interest. The limitations of the paper and subsequent retraction were lost on the general public, because it tapped into the public’s mistrust of the pharmaceutical industry and a general misunderstanding of vaccination and herd immunity. With the rise of this movement, measles, which was declared eradicated in 2000, is on the rise. In one telling example, health officials diagnosed 73 cases of measles in the Minnesotan Somali population in 2017. In October 2017, JAMA Pediatrics published an article, showing that failure to vaccinate is likely driving measles outbreaks in the United States.

So, who is responsible for the publics’ perception of science?

Everyone has a role to play.

Journals need to vet content more carefully prior to publication. Funding agencies need to fund multiple additional studies to confirm results can be reproduced. Academic institutions need to reassess the mantra publish or perish. If compelled, researchers could find engaging ways to communicate their research results directly to the public using resources to communicate science or coordinate with the university public affairs team for assistance. Journalists must be mindful of science and its limitations so people can find how to apply the findings to their lives. The public ¾ you and me ¾ need to ask questions and think critically.

Kiefer provides the following list of watchdog organizations and press that critically evaluate scientific research and science media.

  • Health News Review – the website critiques press releases used to promote science articles
  • Retraction Watch – catalogs studies that have been retracted or are under fire
  • Vox or Five-Thirty-Eight – data journalism website report on irreproducible science
  • Dialog – talk to your family, friends, and co-workers to share ideas in a respectful way

This presentation is part of the Research Reproducibility 2018: Grand Rounds series aimed to raise awareness about reproducibility in science, showcase Utah research, and present a forum to open a dialog around these issues. The lecture series is organized by Melissa Rethlefsen, MLS, AHIP, Deputy Director - Associate Librarian at University of Utah - Spencer S. Eccles Health Sciences Library. A list of speakers is available here. #MakeResearchTrue