Does the Current Anti-science Crisis Emanate from our Imperious Scientific Journals?

In many domains of modern public discourse and opinion, there appears to have arisen willful ignorance of science, and perhaps even worse in many situations, outright hostility to scientific knowledge. This is most visible in government inaction towards a number of looming crises, most notably manmade global warming, but it’s also widely felt in the public health arena with vaccinations, drug addiction and over-utilization of antibiotics. Scientists and physicians remain frustrated and puzzled that obvious scientific arguments can be so baldly dismissed in the public arena, and in the face of such great collective peril. At the core of this modern tragic dilemma seems to lie a fundamental mistrust of science.

As a rule, mistrust in all domains of life tends to stem from miscommunication and lack of transparency. Is there some specific form of scientific miscommunication causing today’s anti-science sentiment? On matters of public import, citizens have historically relied on the news media industry (print, online, TV) to inform them. Although this same news media laments scientific illiteracy it also does its best to fan the flames of inane science controversies, maybe believing that this is their only means for drawing in readers. Meanwhile, the most heavily covered news stories among contemporary “news media” outlets tend to focus on political, financial, movie or sports celebrities, with an unquenchable thirst for stories involving sex. Unfortunately, bee pollination is about the sexiest of big scientific challenges being confronted by the world today. Lastly, there are few if any scientific personalities of note in the public conscientiousness, which may be both a cause and effect of today’s scientific illiteracy. Many American citizens, even well-educated citizens, are incapable of naming a single real medical scientist, as opposed to a physician TV personality (or Al Gore in the global warming domain). Without putting a real face on science, there is no one for an untrusting public to turn to for answers.

Yet I think there might be an even better explanation for today’s anti-science phenomenon. Our common well of scientific knowledge is supposed to reside in peer-reviewed journals, not the news media. Sadly, even in the age of universal internet access, these scientific commons are largely inaccessible to the public. Not only is medical knowledge hidden behind expensive journal paywalls, it is also obscured by scholarly practices that prize staid language and scientific formalisms over simpler and clearer forms of communication. Although so prized in scholarly circles, ever more dominant statistical arguments are often lost on the public at large. Moreover I am quite sure that many serious physician readers gloss over statistical sections knowing that small changes to the underlying assumptions can have a profound effect on the most vaunted statistical measures; to quote Mark Twain, “there are lies, damned lies, and statistics”. So it is in medicine. Far too many simple yet powerful observations are buried inside journals in an unnecessary veneer of statistics and other formalisms, and as a result, they are forever hidden from a skeptical public.

Is this sad situation inevitable? There was a time when scientific journal communication was much less stilted and the public widely embraced science, and some physician scientists were even (albeit rarely) seen as celebrities. It was once possible to write less coded and abbreviated text with much less dense statistical analyses, allowing journal articles to be much more widely read. Maybe it is time to make journals great again (MJGA) by broadening their reach to a much wider audience, above and beyond the tiny handful that read most journal articles. Emboldened by the status quo, skeptics will say such a thing is not possible. However, it is worth noting that an article published in Cureus just a few weeks ago has already had 80,000 reads. Experiences like this demonstrate that if one can come down from their scholarly pedestal and make a good faith effort to communicate to the public, it is possible that the public will listen. The “anti-science” community has done its best to communicate their version of truth. Is it time for medical journals to finally speak up? If so Cureus stands ready to serve.

4 thoughts on “Does the Current Anti-science Crisis Emanate from our Imperious Scientific Journals?

  1. The complexity of the problem is daunting. We are confronting belief systems based on lifelong emotional patterns. Knowledge and information will be discarded if it is not consistent with beliefs. This is as true for scientists as it is for science deniers. Beliefs are simple, reality is complex. Simple sells, complexity does not. Science has become too complex to support general acceptance.
    The financial pressure to sell science news leads to exaggeration of scientific advances. Publish or perish leads to exaggeration of research results. Corporations will lie about science to protect their profits. “Doubt is our product.” Large corporations use scientific advances and patents to crush small businesses.
    Let’s face it, this is the nature of science in a capitalist society. The public does not experience science as an academic search for truth, they experience science as a weapon that can be used for their benefit or can be used to poison them (chemical companies).
    The problem of paywalls and obscure science writing deserves to be addressed. Journalists who are under financial pressure to produce readership are doing a predictably poor job, but few people other than scientists want to listen to a scientist expound on the complexity and ambiguity of their results.

  2. Open access publication is a good idea, but I’m concerned with its being flooded by enormous amounts of nonsense or unimportant publications -for the sake of appearing to be “well published. In just the past 2 weeks I reviewed 3 case reports. All were poorly written and contained errors. I actually found one of them in the Cureus archives published in March of 2020. This was the same case report I had just reviewed. It looked like someone had changed it but none of my suggestions or critique were utilized. There is still a figure of an ECG erroneously labeled atrial fibrillation. I’m sure there are questionable articles out there but what’s the chances of reviewing three of them in a row in 1-2 weeks? This stuff gets “published” no matter what

    1. Despite having been peer reviewed by at least two knowledgeable specialists, published articles in Cureus contain mistakes. This is why our journal has such a liberal commenting process, making it effortless for readers like you to call out errors of fact or interpretation. We urge you and all other readers to take advantage of this unique feature by commenting directly on the article (as the corresponding author will be notified and prompted to respond).

      1. Either you have missed my point or you are a bot. It’s one thing to be able to “comment”. It’s another to discover how people either don’t know the English language or haven’t discovered Grammarly when handed an article to review. In any case, you should clean up your submissions before you send them to be reviewed. Most of what you have are just case studies. You also need to be a little more judicious in your selection of reviewers.

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