The Great Connections Seminar

The Great Connections Seminar
Discussing ethics

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Science Scares

The American Council on Science and Health has published a study examining the National Resources Defense Council's claims of 13 disease cluster areas in 42 states around the U.S.

"a peer-reviewed analysis by ACSH, using well-established principles of scientific investigation, shows that only one of the 42 sites meets the scientific definition of a disease cluster...

  • "All but five of the purported clusters lack any supportive evidence at all;
  • "13 examples cited by NRDC as confirmed disease clusters are in fact places where investigations by public health officials are still ongoing;
  • "Several cases have already been ruled out by public health officials as disease clusters as no statistically significant elevations of any disease have been found;
  • "Only four of the NRDC-claimed sites are possible clusters, and just one of the 42 can actually be identified as a disease cluster based on the scientific definition."
What does this have to do with education? I see the rising number of specious claims about the links between disease and technology, medicine, and science as a result of poor science education and poor scientific thinking.

This kind of thinking can be difficult - it often doesn't follow intuitive human reasoning tendencies, especially conclusions based on statistically-based evidence. But good education in reasoning and especially reasoning about statistics would make a world of difference.

Someone who's been thinking a lot about how to improve students' "statistical literacy" is Professor Milo Schield at Augsburg College. Here he has a wealth of information and resources about this issue. I suspect the people at NRDC need a course from him - in the hope that they weren't bending the facts on purpose.


Anonymous said...

The American Council on Science and Health entire reason-for-being is to distort science in favor of its industrial benefactors. Using them as a resource does nothing to enhance objectivity in education.

Marsha Familaro Enright said...

What's your evidence for claiming this about the ACSH?

Donald Heath said...

I'm with Marsha Enright on this, Anonymous. What I have read from the American Council on Science and Health has made sense.
I think it would be very valuable to provide students with the statistical literacy with which to examine claims that are made to frighten us. There sure are a lot of them--there's usually one on each 11:00 p.m. newscast.

Fred Stitt said...

For what it's worth, I had some dealings with the American Council on Science and Health a couple years back related to some highly toxic building materials. Their chief medical officer at the time was a convicted felon. Their research and press releases were as sleazy as I've ever seen.
Sorry I don't have time to recapture my records, but there's plenty to learn about their operation on the Web. Fred Stitt, Architect.

Marsha Familaro Enright said...

Thanks Fred, I wasn't aware of this.

Here's an article from Mother Jones about Ross:

Marsha Familaro Enright said...

This is from the Wikipedia article on ACSH:

"In 2004, the now-defunct Tufts University Nutrition Navigator (a rating guide to nutrition websites) gave the ACSH site an overall rating of 20 out of 25 and an "Accuracy of Information" rating of 8 out of 10. However, it commented, "This site aims to arm consumers with the facts necessary to make wise decisions about health, but be aware that the information here is biased and represents a very conservative interpretation of current science. Consumers looking for a balanced debate on health issues will have to look elsewhere."[25]"

Perhaps ACSH leans on the positive side for industry, but we must be aware that organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Center for Science in the Public Interest leans against industry and technology for ideological reasons.

As far as I'm concerned, the only reasonable thing to do is study what BOTH sides claim and look at their evidence to make up your mind.

But that requires that you make yourself knowledgeable about evaluating statistical claims and scientific studies.