This book review was initially published on the blog Science Book A Day, compiled by George Aranda, on Tuesday 20 May 2014.

Dear friend,

Thank you for sharing your argument against vaccination / article about the benefits of homeopathy / invitation to attend the next anti-fluoride rally on my Facebook wall. It shows that you care a lot about my health and welfare and that of our community.

Tribal Science by Mike McRae
Tribal Science

I recently read a book you might be interested in. Tribal Science, by Mike McRae, an Aussie science teacher and communicator. It is a book about how science developed, and how it works to minimise our biases and social ways of thinking so that we can make robust decisions about our lives and the lives of future generations. In Chapter 4, he speaks of a “philosopher’s toolbox” of critical thinking practices that can help us to move away from superstitions and bad ideas and base our beliefs on the best evidence available.

In chapter 5 of Tribal Science, Mike talks about the many different forms of evidence that we use to justify our beliefs. There is “what my friend said” and “that time I took a pill and my headache went away”, which is what we call a single piece of anecdotal evidence. One piece of anecdotal evidence is not valued very highly in science, because what your friend said is based on his/her beliefs alone, and that time you took a pill and your headache went away might simply describe two events that are unrelated, and it’s impossible to know if your experience is an anomaly or not. Science prizes evidence that describes what happens for large groups of people, particularly when two large groups can be compared: say, a group that took the same pill as you and a group that didn’t. The results of this research tells us more about what is likely to happen when you take the pill. It is more reliable, and more robust. When that research is conducted multiple times, we can have more and more confidence in the results.

The best practices of medicine and public health policies are informed by this kind of scientific research. Scientific research has demonstrated again and again that vaccination is the best way to protect both individuals and communities from quite nasty diseases. Further, the common arguments made against vaccines have been sufficiently refuted with credible and accurate scientific evidence over and over again. Similarly, homeopathy has been demonstrated to be no more effective than a placebo, and the explanation given for it to be against the laws of chemistry as we know and understand them. Fluoride, at the levels supplied in our water supply, has been demonstrated to be a safe and effective way to prevent painful dental caries in both children and adults. You would likely suffer the effects of too much water before you suffered the effects of too much fluoride were you to drink a lot of tap water. Caffeine, acetaminophen, the alcohol I saw you enjoyed at last week’s barbecue, and water have all been shown to be safe (and sometimes beneficial) in moderate amounts and harmful or even fatal in overdose.

Mike reminds us that science isn’t perfect, but it really is the most reliable way of knowing something to be “true” (for a given value of true), and something to be “true” for everyone, not just you or I or our best friend’s neighbour’s cat. To use a more recent quote from Mike himself:

Science is the most accurate way to predict the future given a set of observations. That makes it incredibly valuable to anybody who can afford the means to apply it, allying it closely with authority and power.

Most general practitioners, other medical officers, and public health policy makers work very hard to stay on top of the research, and will often change advice or practice or policy when new and more robust findings come to light. Mike gives some great examples of some early ideas that were overturned when studied scientifically. Ensure you are not eating a meal when you read the section in Chapter 6 about historic health treatments!

The best decisions that are made are informed decisions. Knowing as much as you can about a topic, and how that knowledge was derived and what it is that makes it valid and reliable is important to helping you make an informed decision. So does knowing about all the options available to you. An expert who keeps on top of this research everyday is best placed to work with you to help you make a decision where you lack the expertise. That’s the General Practitioner’s job, and the Medical Officer’s, and the public health officer’s. And if the GP, the MO, and the public health officer are good at their job, they will welcome your questions and help you find answers in a spirit of respectful discourse.

However, it is entirely your right to reject science as the best way of knowing, and use other sources of evidence to construct your understanding of the world. Scientists, funds-willing, will go on researching just the same, and keep bringing new evidence, ideas and technologies for us to examine and question and understand. If you’d like to know more about what makes science so reliable, how it works, and why some people choose it and others don’t, I recommend you read Tribal Science by Mike McRae.

With love,
Charlotte.

P.S. In the blurb for Tribal Scientist, author Mike McRae is described as “Australia’s next-gen Dr Karl”. This he is not.

Dr Karl “communicates” science by describing off-beat or quirky science to fans, answering science questions on morning radio shows and in <140 characters on Twitter. Pumping out books on various themes of such quirkiness, he happily promotes them in all available avenues, including lectures (for which he charges a hefty fee). In a recent talk given by Doctor Karl that I attended here at the university, he happily asserted that the way to coerce the public into talking about science was to sneak it in with discussions of bodily fluids, sex, and similar topics. Doctor Karl has spoken up for climate science and writes excellent articles for ABC Science, but I daresay that his brand of communication is completely different from that of Mike McRae.

This book review was initially published on the blog Science Book A Day, compiled by George Aranda, on Tuesday 20 May 2014.

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