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Timothy Caulfield

January 9, 2018 by Paul

2018: A Year To Crush Nonsense with Science

Professor Timothy Caulfield debunks myths and assumptions about innovation in the health sector—from research on stem cells to diets to alternative medicine—for the benefit of the public and decision-makers. He is a Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy, and a Professor in the Faculty of Law and the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta. He has been the Research Director of the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta since 1993.

Writing in The Globe and Mail, Caulfield implores us to put science ahead of nonsense in the new year—to put facts before Goop-y snake oil. Here are a couple of excerpts:

A few years ago, Gwyneth Paltrow infamously declared that water (yes, she meant H2O) has feelings (yes, she meant emotions). It was suggested that just saying nasty things to water causes its molecular structure to change in a measurable way. Even writing a negative word (apparently, water understands English) on a jar filled with water can have an impact at the molecular level.

Was this amazing phenomenon explained by reference to some supernatural or spiritual force? Nope. It’s science! Specifically, human negativity has this effect on non-living chemical structures because, well, quantum physics. Quantum!

Quantum physics is now used to explain and market a host of ridiculous ideas and products. This is done not because it actually explains anything related to the relevant ideas and products, but because it sounds so darn sciencey. Invoking quantum physics – which, in the world of real science, is used to describe the nature and interaction of energy and particles at the smallest scale – gives pseudoscience the feel of legitimate science. And since quantum physics is so complex, weird and difficult to understand, a quantum-infused explanation can be hard to refute.

I realize that Ms. Paltrow is a ridiculously easy target, one that I’ve used often. But Ms. Paltrow and her lifestyle brand, Goop, exemplify how science-y language can be used to sell, spin and confuse.

As science gets more complicated (how many people do you know who can easily explain genomics, stem-cell biology or quantum physics?), it gets increasingly difficult to discern the real science from sciencey hand-waving. To make matters worse, providers who push unproven products and treatments can use numerous strategies to make their science-infused jargon seem very much like the real thing.

There is a growing number of profit-oriented and questionable publishers that do not adhere to academic publication standards – a phenomenon known as predatory publishing. This makes it easy to pay to publish bogus “research” in a journal that, on the face of it, may appear to be a legitimate academic publication. By doing so, a sciencey claim about some unproven therapy is made to seem even more sciencey by referencing a study published in a predatory journal.

How can we protect ourselves against sciencey nonsense? Being scientifically literate can help. Critical-thinking skills are becoming increasingly important and should be taught early and flexed often. In addition, we need a strong regulatory response to the truly misleading sciencey noise. In 2017, there were some positive moves in this area, including a truth-in-advertising complaint again Ms. Paltrow’s Goop that identified more than 50 instances of deceptive advertising. In addition, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission recently struck a blow against predatory journals by halting the deceptive practices of several of this industry’s biggest journals.

This is a great start, be we shouldn’t forget that many of the relevant regulatory tools are complaint-driven. In other words, the more we complain (and please do) the more likely agencies will take action. (In Canada, a truth-in-advertising complaint can be filed with the federal Competition Bureau.)

Read Caulfield’s full call to action at The Globe.