Separating Fact from Fiction

By Joanna K. Sax
[Ed. Note: Cross-posted at HealthLawProfBlog]

Rhetoric that misconstrues scientific knowledge to garner support for political positions is troubling. For many years, my scholarship has focused on the debate surrounding embryonic stem cell research.   One of the things that I have experienced is an incomplete understanding about what embryonic stem cell research is, what the starting material is, and why it might be different than adult stem cells. One reason that the public may be confused is because some of the information fed to the public is incomplete or, even, incorrect.

To understand the type of information that the public receives regarding a controversial type of research, in this case, embryonic stem cell research, I conducted an empirical study.  By way of background, in 2001, an intense debate about the federal funding for stem cell research occurred. One of the arguments against federal funding for stem cell research was that there was no need for it because scientists could use adult stem cells (which didn’t have the same ethical concerns) instead of embryonic stem cells. The problem with this proposition, however, was that it had no scientific merit because the scientists had not yet conducted the studies to compare human adult and embryonic stem cells. The call for the need for these studies was loud and clear in the scientific community. But, it seemed that some in the non-scientific community already came to the conclusion that these cell types were interchangeable.

I compared the type of information that was being conveyed to the public in major newspapers to the statements made by scientists in the scientific literature. I confirmed that information in major newspapers was statistically more likely than the scientific literature to say that adult stem cells give the same or similar results as research with embryonic stem cells. A more detailed explanation of the study along with the results is available here

The results of my study were disturbing, although not really surprising. The main problem is that if we are going to debate the merits of scientific inquiry, it needs to be an honest discussion. And, a real understanding of the scientific process is needed. Another example of this is the debate about evolution, which is quite possibly the most accepted scientific theory ever. Opponents to evolution say that there isn’t unanimous support. They are confused that scientific consensus does not require unanimous support. So, maybe you can find a few scientists out there that don’t buy into evolution, but that doesn’t mean that the theory of evolution isn’t scientifically sound.

And, I can tie this back in to the public debates on GM crops, fluoridated drinking water, or vaccination programs – all of which have been attacked by stating falsehoods as “facts.”  These falsehoods are not supported by the science.

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