These questions apply to most areas of life. I originally wrote about them in the context of vaccine-related information, so I will use that as my example below.
It all really boils down to: why science? Aren’t there other just as important sources? What makes science so infallible? I’ve often heard the counter-argument that science doesn’t know everything. So why should we listen to it?
The answers are: science is not infallible. It doesn’t know everything. But it’s the only one in the game. There is no competing system of knowledge. Science is the common denominator for all those endeavours that openly admit that ‘we think that this might be the case but we will test real hard to see if it turns out really to be so’. If you are looking for knowledge about the world, science is the one gig in town that’s sitting down around the table and thinking hard on ‘how can we truly know something?’
Here is a great take summary of the scientific method
The Method of Science or Reflective Inquiry:
The other methods discussed are all inflexible, that is, none of them can admit that it will lead us into error. Hence none of them can make provision for correcting its own results. What is called scientific method differs radically from these by encouraging and developing the utmost possible doubt, so that what is left after such doubt is always supported by the best available evidence. As new evidence of new doubts arise it is the essence of scientific method to incorporate them – to make them an integral part of the body of knowledge so far attained. Its method, then, makes science progressive because it is never too certain about its results.
is a matter of science. It began as simple observations of the naturally occurring vaccination effect of dairymaids being protected from smallpox. This is where the science part began. Rather than simply recommending people to spend time with cows, lot of serious thinking followed, resulting in the fundamental suggestion for the mechanism of transmittable disease, the body’s recognition of that disease, and the acquired ability to fight it off the next time. The dairymaids had been exposed to a related, much more harmless disease called cowpox (the word vaccine comes from vacca which is Latin for cow). The observations gave rise to a hypothesis, then that hypothesis was rigorously tested and this is the basis of science. To quote Richard Feynman:
“Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”
Virtually everything we know about disease and immunology is the result of that process. Of observations, hypotheses, testing, re-testing to see that our ideas indeed align with reality, and finally formulating theories supported by the accumulating evidence.
This is why you should make sure that the arguments you read on any scientific topic, like that of vaccines, are firmly based in scientific results. That doesn’t make the job easy for worried parents who don’t know whom to trust.
Many things in life and science are complicated. People are driven to simplifications in order to avoid the exhausting amount of information. Reviewing research is more than a full-time job. I used to spend many hours of the day reading through insulin cell signalling research, and even that small area is vast. Reading through even a significant portion of the relevant research for immunology and infectious disease would require time and expertise that most people don’t have.
If you do get pointed to a scientific study that seems to indicate something contrary to the scientific consensus, I advice you to ask yourself if…
- you can read the whole study and are knowledgeable enough in the relevant field, its research methods and statistics to evaluate its claims.
- there are any other studies, independent of that research group/individual that can confirm or support their results.
- it is published in a legitimate medical journal. There are different kinds of dubious journals, so called “pay-to-play” science journals where peer-review is not a requirement. These may be easily recognised by academics but their status is not as obvious for laymen, but there are some good tips on how to spot them. Also good to note that fields such as Osteopathy or Chiropractry (practices scientifically shown to be effective for treatment of back pain only) are not involved in infectious medicine or the immune system, neither do they conduct actual research in those fields.
- if the paper is on research rather than an opinion-piece or commentary without references to basic research.
This is all an important part of that *not fooling yourself*. It is easy to fool yourself to believing something that fits with your worldview. It’s hard to stay objective. It’s exhausting and humbling – but it is also a kind of relief. I don’t have to try to prove that something is the case. I can be wrong. It’s okay. I give up. I accept that I don’t necessarily know how the world works, but I can let the best possible data guide me toward a better understanding. I like to understand. That means I can rejoice over the realisation that I have been mistaken, but being able to see that, I can change my mind.
If, understandably, you don’t have time to sit down for several days of reading research, you can do as I do. Trust the scientific body of peer-reviewed evidence. How? For medical topics, you can search PubMed (an extensive research database) for review articles. Reading repeated reviews and meta-analyses of research is a great start. If all reviews you can find are along the same lines, you can feel pretty confident in that direction. If there are 6 recent reviews in total, and 1 out of 5 disagrees with the general direction, there may be a reason to wait and see if that one will stand the test of time.
Another good indicator are official organisations and scientific institutions, like the World Health Organisation (WHO) or The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and national authorities, like health authorities, food and drug administrations, regulatory offices and so on.
They base their views and recommendations on just this kind of carefully reviewed evidence. Multiple professionally qualified experts in their fields have analysed and re-analysed information, and you should have a terribly strong evidence-based reason for disregarding that kind of information.
Anecdotes, loose quotes, un-grounded insinuations of conspiracy and the like should be weighed accordingly, that is, they are not evidence. They are simply words someone has uttered aloud, and as such are not a sound basis for rational decision-making. They may give you ideas, and that is good, but before you make up your mind, you should follow up on those ideas with something more substantial.
(Meme courtesy of Refutations to Anti-Vaccine Memes)
So what are my thoughts on routine childhood vaccination, based on science, though not myself an expert in immunology and infectious disease? It doesn’t have to be that hard. All it takes is some common sense on what tracks to follow.
Don’t put your eggs in one basket. Listen to the experts. As many of them as you can. Have many expert groups independently come to similar conclusions? They may be on to something.
We have independent groups of thousands of public scientist with decades of scrutinised, peer-reviewed, independently reproduced results and massive amounts of data, which is continually revised and re-checked. We have virtually all non-profit public health organisations and institutions (national and international), all governments, all seats of medical education, almost all medical doctors – everybody whose job it is with tax-payer money to try to figure out what is best for our health have unequivocally come to the conclusion that vaccine programs are crucial and safe. They are one of the biggest medical milestones of human history.
Vaccinations are the basis of the low numbers of child deaths and disabilities we have today.
As one pediatrician eloquently put it here:
“I often wonder why a parent who believes vaccines are harmful would want to bring their children to a medical doctor at all. After all, for immunizations to be as malign as their detractors claim, my colleagues and I would have to be staggeringly incompetent, negligent or malicious to keep administering them.
Giving kids vaccines is the absolute, unambiguous standard of care, as easy an answer as I will ever be able to offer.
If they don’t trust me about that, how can I hope they would if the questions ever got harder?”
Why science? Because the world is unimaginably interesting and complex, much too complex for us to assume that we know what it is about, and how it works. We can choose that we do not wish to understand any of that, of course. The alternative is always there – to go ahead and continue fooling ourselves.