[ASC-list] Speaking of social scientists ....

Rob Morrison rob.morrison at flinders.edu.au
Thu Mar 10 05:29:15 UTC 2016

Which all sounds good and, in the hands of someone like Alex and Vicki would be, but it worries me a bit, for these reasons.

Trying to get people actually to understand what science is and does is harder now than it was 30-40 years ago. That is largely an effect (I think) of the internet and, more recently, social media, but debates on scientific matters are now filled with statements about science  that, even from those onside, are often way off the mark. "Science proves....", "The Science is settled...", "It is a scientifically proven fact...." , "breakthrough" to describe every minor advance and much much more.  In this plethora of misinformation what is lost is crucial to our relatively recent profession of science communication - revealing how science actually sets about testing hypotheses and showing how it can, from a range of claims, determine what can be empirically supported by experimentation and similar tests and the extent to which such findings are reliable.

I am one of the founders and current VP of Friends of Science in Medicine, which we started a few years ago to take on some of the many purveyors of pseudoscience in the alternative  "health" practices that now infest our society and economy. These dodgy practitioners know exactly how to muddy the scientific waters to their own advantage - pervert the meanings of scientific terminology, describe as "research" a couple of anecdotes from friends and relations, invent some "sciencey" terminology for invented procedures, talk about the need for or lack of "proof" when there is no such thing- and on it goes.

As a result, the general public is hopelessly confused as to what science does, and the extent to which it can be trusted or suspected. Mechanisms such as peer review, publishing in gold standard journals, double-blind tests, Cochrane reviews and the whole collection of techniques that science uses are a mystery to the average punter.

While I am fully supportive of the social sciences that actually do deserve the title when they go about their business in ways consistent with science, there is a vast amount sitting under the social science banner that does not, and even deliberately eschews such practices, often citing some rubbishy postmodern doctrine that all belief systems are of equal value.  Have a look at the recent controversy regarding the PhD awarded by the University of Woollongong for a thesis that purported to deal with vaccination but produced an absurd anti-vaccination  'revelation' about the WHO being in a conspiracy with major drug companies to inflict vaccinations on an unsuspecting world. It completely failed to adhere to any valid scientific process in evaluating the literature, using the appropriate resources, consulting the appropriate authorities (or ignoring what they said when consulted), evaluating available information with appropriate scientific techniques and more. 

In response to severe national criticism, the defence of this thesis has not been one of defending the argument but bleating about persecution. It has provoked a national outcry for good reasons, but the defence has also been a slippery one that the work was not done in a medical or science faculty but in either Humanities or Social Science. Apparently that allows an "out" for someone who was quite happy to use the science banner until they were shown to be doing so inappropriately, but it certainly doesn't help scientists, science or a public understanding of either.

I would happily include in our fold the practitioners of social science who are genuinely trying to use scientific methods to justify giving their activities the "science" label, but many do not. Too many actually contest scientific methodology.

I think that we have enough trouble trying to get people to understand the benefits and limitations of real science (witness the current debates on climate change, vaccination, nuclear science, etc etc) without taking on board the extra burden of trying to explain why so much that calls itself science is not deserving of the name.

Even with orthodox science we have some ground to make up. Peer-review is great when it works, but we know that it gets fiddled. Quite a few recent reports have shown that many experiments reported in good journals cannot be replicated (this is a big problem for biotech companies when they try to replicate promising drug studies). Most studies never even receive an attempt at  replication because it is hard enough to get a grant for something original, let alone repeating someone else's study, and the occasional fraud brings huge discredit to our discipline when it manages to get through all the self-correcting mechanisms that we claim makes science trustworthy.

I would rather see us do a bit more to help the public understand what it is that makes properly done science such a powerful tool and how to evaluate scientific reports in the media and elsewhere than to dilute such effort by trying to shoehorn in other pursuits that want to gain the credibility  of science by adopting its name but don't reliably adopt its disciplines.

I know that there are many social scientists who are not to blame for any of the above, and I do not want to reflect on their work, but perhaps they, too, have a role to play in making sure that their discipline of social science deserves that label. With one third of Australian universities now offering pseudoscientific alternative "health" courses under the health science banner, those of us in science communication probably need to narrow the focus on what we are trying to explain and communicate, not broaden the view to the point where science becomes indistinguishable from other stuff in an increasingly smoggy landscape. 


Dr Rob Morrison
rob.morrison at flinders.edu.au
Phone: (08) 8339 3790

From: ASC-list <asc-list-bounces at lists.asc.asn.au> on behalf of Vicki Martin <Vicki.Martin at scu.edu.au>
Sent: Thursday, 10 March 2016 11:25 AM
To: asc-list at lists.asc.asn.au
Subject: Re: [ASC-list] Speaking of social scientists ....

A message from Alex Gaut, who was unable to post her reply. Alex has given permission for her response to be forwarded to the list. I hope to hear from non-social scientists, too, otherwise we are just talking amongst ourselves. If you have any thoughts, experience or other comments about the communication of social science in science communication practice, please let us know.
Reply from Alex Gaut:

I say emphatically, YES!!

And not just communicating it, but also more collaborative projects including both social and other scientists are very much needed!

I work in the environment sector and given that the world's environmental problems are due to humans, humans have to also be the solution, which means working with people, not against them. I am always (and I mean constantly) amazed at the lack of inclusion of social scientists in environmental projects, especially at the academic level.

I have a background in hard science and last year finally signed up to do a Masters in a social science for this exact reason! So now I'm doing a research project in environmental psychology, to which most people say 'Oh, that's a thing?' and I constantly bang on about how much is known about human relationships with a variety of environments, including natural ones.

-----Original Message-----
Date: Wed, 9 Mar 2016 11:57:58 +0000
From: Vicki Martin <Vicki.Martin at scu.edu.au>
To: "asc-list at lists.asc.asn.au" <asc-list at lists.asc.asn.au>
Subject: [ASC-list] Speaking of social scientists ....
        <SG2PR06MB05692443FBC53F451998AF79A2B30 at SG2PR06MB0569.apcprd06.prod.outlook.com>

Speaking of social scientists (in a previous thread) made me wonder...

How many of you immediately think of a social scientist when you think of:

* a nominee for an Excellence in Research award
* a collaborator
* a Scientist in Schools
* a scientist (?!)
* a grant recipient
* a science communicator
And so on?

Since so many of the world's problems are human induced, requiring human solutions, I am surprised that even within ASC we very rarely mention the social sciences. It is not uncommon to see other types of scientists trying to do social research (easy right, you just need to ask a few questions?!), resulting in poor research design and meaningless, misleading or useless results.

Social scientists can help us understand why there is a problem in the first place, and what sort of interventions are likely to improve the situation. Of course it is not easy, which is why we need to defer to people who have trained in this area. Yet, how often have you heard about new or improved social research methods, results etc. lately?

Is it just me, or do others think we should also be communicating social science more effectively, too?

I would love to know your thoughts.


Vicki Martin
PhD Candidate
School of Environment, Science and Engineering
Southern Cross University
PO Box 157
Lismore NSW 2480

Phone: +612 6626 9356
Mobile: 0434 940 575

Email: vicki.martin at scu.edu.au<mailto:vicki.martin at scu.edu.au>
ResearchGate: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Victoria_Martin12
Twitter: @MarineSciComm

Marine ExChanges Project: Public involvement in marine research
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