Society is rejecting facts; medical researchers can help

October 20, 2019

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Society is rejecting facts; medical researchers can help

One study says coffee is good for you, while another study says that it's not. They're both right, within context. This dichotomy together with an environment of distrust spurred by anecdotes, fake news, and to a large extent, social media, has created a skeptical and misinformed public. As a result, researchers say society is rejecting the facts.

Now more than ever, medical researchers must help the public understand the rigorous process of science, which has been around for thousands of years. In return, the public has to pay attention, realize that one size doesn't fit all, and understand that the answers are not just black or white. Lives are depending on it.

In an article published in the American Journal of Medicine, the researchers highlight opportunities for academic institutions to achieve and maintain research integrity, which encompasses accountability for all scientific and financial issues.

What the researchers say: “The reason that the public has lost trust and confidence in science is multifaceted and complicated,” said the senior author. “One of the main reasons is anecdotal stories, which can be very powerful, and are being given too much weight. There's so much news coming out from so many sources including social media. That's why it's imperative for the public to discern an anecdote from scientific results in a peer-reviewed journal. This is how the premise that vaccinations cause autism evolved along with fabricated results that pushed the anti-vaccination movement.”

The researchers stress that research integrity starts with investigators who share the guiding principles of honesty, openness, and accountability and who provide scientific and ethical mentorship to their trainees. As researchers compete for increasingly limited resources and face growing challenges with evolving technologies, broad consensus is required across the research enterprise, including funding agencies, medical journals as well as all academic institutions, to address these increasingly major clinical, ethical and legal challenges.

“Our common goal should be to return public trust in our research enterprise, which has done so much good for so many,” they said. “The more we can do as scientists to promote our guiding principles of rigor, transparency, honesty and reproducibility and to provide the best evidence possible and get people to understand them, the greater the likelihood that they will listen to the message and follow it.”

Among the opportunities the authors provide for enhancing research integrity include identifying the best benchmarking practices, establishing a research compliance infrastructure and implementing a quality assurance plan. These priorities should include assessing the research climate, developing policies and responsibilities for ethics investigations, and providing a process for resolution of formal disputes.

“We should not allow research misconduct committed by a very small minority of researchers to detract from the growing focus on efforts to improve the overall quality of the research process carried out by the vast majority,” said the lead author. “I continue to believe that the overwhelming majority of researchers strive for and achieve scientific excellence and research integrity.”

In conclusion, the authors emphasize that research integrity requires synchronicity and collaboration between, as well as within, all academic institutions.

“If we fail to maintain research integrity, we will lose public trust and it will lead to avoidable consequences of substantial penalties, financial and otherwise, adverse publicity and reputational damage,” said the researchers. “Scientists must strive to self-regulate and earn public trust to advance health.”

So, what? As a scientist I am dismayed by the junk “cures”, “amazing wonder foods”, and “remedies” for everything offered on YouTube. Much of it is positively dangerous.

I am also angered by fellow scientists who have backing for their research from industry bodies that they don’t disclose and science writers who simply don’t know enough about the field they’re writing about to know when they’re being hoodwinked.

But I differ from the researchers behind this study. People are not going to be dissuaded from peddlers of junk science by just more facts, more disclosure, or more transparency. The human brain doesn’t work that way. We need to be as passionate and emotionally compelling as the YouTubers as well. We need more scientists like Carl Sagan, David Attenborough, or Desmond Morris. People who can get the public committed to us and our work on an emotional and relational level.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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