Show your workings.

North WalesIt was in a coffee shop in North Wales. Remote, beautiful, wild countryside, and an intelligent audience who were giving me a bit of a hard time. I had just given a talk on how medicines are evaluated as part of the effort to promote my book (I’m not going to plug it, you can look it up if you’re interested) and we’d moved onto the questions and answer session.

The hard time came from the point I made that there is little or no evidence for many complementary medicines. An intelligent, articulate audience member insisted that her particular favourite alternative therapy worked.

“OK”, I said, “how would you convince other people.”

“I’d show them it worked”, she replied.

“How?” I asked in return.

“I’d tell them how it had helped me and my friends. We all took it and are better now.”

“Fair enough, but would they have got better anyway?”

pillsAfter a short pause, and a bit of prompting from me, she replied, “How about I get two groups of people and give one lot one treatment and one lot nothing?”

“Good idea. But if they knew they were getting something the placebo effect would mean that they would probably improve anyway. How are you going to get around that?”

“Easy, I’d give one lot a dummy drug.”

And so it went on for a few minutes until she had worked out the basics of a clinical drugs trial.

This was a bit of a revelation. If I had taken the relatively common line of “No, you don’t know what you are talking about, there is no evidence, it doesn’t work” then I suspect we would have got nowhere. Instead we began to talk about what makes good evidence, and even how science itself works. I’m pretty sure I didn’t change her mind, but I hope she began to think about this in a way she hadn’t done before.

discussionShe’s also likely to have a very different view of that evening, both of us would be relying on unreliable human memory and relating anecdotes of the event. Which is one of the reasons science exists, to remove as much as possible the frailties of human recall, to probe deeper than anecdote to see what is really going on.

That evening was, to me, a major success. I did, perhaps, plant a seed of scientific thought.

I spend my life telling people about science in all sorts of different ways. I am confident that science is the best way we have to work out how pretty much everything works. Yet science is complicated, difficult, often counterintuitive and the results of research can provide major challenges to deeply held personal convictions. It’s not easy, for example, when research tells you that eating too much of your favourite food will kill you. Or that burning the coal and oil that fueled development, that brought us wealth and comfort is making our climate unstable with unpredictable but most likely dire consequences.

Science enriches our lives in many ways but using the knowledge it produces takes more than just knowing facts. It means understanding how science works, how results are picked over, argued about and dissected to give the best possible answer. It’s not enough to say “smoking gives you cancer”. It has to be clear how the researchers worked it out, and why the link between the two is so strong.

As a child in school I was always taught to show your workings. People like me who communicate science to a wider audience need to show the workings of science. In fact, I think this is the single most important thing about science, not the results it produces but the way those results were determined. No-one should be happy with “Science says so.” No scientist would treat other researchers results as reliable if they couldn’t see their workings. So why should you?

Toby Murcott trained as a biochemist, but later realised he enjoyed talking about science more than doing it. He worked as an Editor for Maxim magazine and for the digital satellite science channel Einstein TV. He has published in a variety of places from The Times to Nature; consulted for TV companies; written a book; chaired debates; taught scientists about working with the media and journalists about working with scientists. He currently makes programmes for BBC Radio 4, teaches Science Journalism at City University, and grows his own vegetables whenever he gets a chance.

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