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.

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