Say it’s March and you’re standing in front of the apple display at the supermarket. Should you buy the local apples, knowing that they’re been stored for over 6 months, or do you eat the ones imported from the other side of the world which have just been freshly harvested? How do you figure out which one has a lower environmental impact? Now what if you’re a parent wondering if a toy that claims to help your baby sleep better will actually work. We always want to know what is true and what will work. Scientific research enables us to make these kinds of assessments in an unbiased way (and FYI it’s more sustainable to eat the local apples).
Scientific research also informs policy decisions. Politicians say that a new law will create thousands of new jobs, but is their claim really true? What evidence are they using? Is it strong enough to make policy decisions off of? “We really want policy makers to base their decisions on such research rather than on personal opinions or on political campaigning,” explains Sofie Vanthournout, the Director of Sense about Science EU. Sense about Science promotes the scientific method and champions the use of evidence for better and more accountable policies. Their goal is to bridge the gap between science and the public, and represent the citizens’ interest in evidence and research. One of their signature campaigns called Ask for Evidence encourages people to ask for the evidence behind news, marketing claims, and policies. Their website teaches the public how to ask companies for evidence and helps them understand the answers they receive.
The Ask for Evidence website also offers a basic explanation of terms like peer review, randomized control trials, and systematic reviews to help someone who isn’t scientifically trained make the distinction between good and bad evidence. One of their most popular documents is a guide called “I Don’t Know What to Believe...” that explains peer review. This guide has been requested over half a million times, not just by researchers but also by libraries, teachers, and even celebrities who want some kind of guidance about what claims they can believe and what ones they can’t. “If something hasn’t been peer reviewed then you have no quality control what so ever,” says Sofie. “It’s a very good start to make a judgement on whether something is true or not.” And if you still can’t make a judgement yourself, Sense about Science has a huge database of scientists available to help you.
Postdoc researcher David Robert Grimes, is one of those scientists. He has been involved in Sense about Science’s Voice of Young Science network and assisted with the assisted with the Evidence Matters events in the UK Parliament and EU Parliament. “With scientific training you can go, ‘right I would like to try and make this easier for the general public to understand because I think that’s good for society,’” says David. “I think it’s a really good thing for young scientists to do, and old scientists, and middle scientists. Everyone can go in there and use their training to try and make that public discussion just a little bit easier to grasp.”
Joining the public discussion also benefits young scientists. Hephzi Tagoe, a PhD student at the Blizard Institute and Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, says that, “Outreach makes you a better scientist. On more than one occasion I’ve been asked questions that led me to investigate areas of my research I had not considered.” Hephzi got involved with Sense about Science after attending one of their Standing up for Science in the Media workshops. She has now been part of their Voice of Young Science network for a number of years.
Through their Ask for Evidence campaign Sofie says they’ve seen that asking for evidence makes people feel empowered and several companies have changed the text on their website as a result. “We’ve even seen companies change the training of their staff because they’ve been giving bad advice, so there really is a lot of power in that,” adds Sofie. “We have really diverse stories on our website and it really just comes down to asking for evidence. It’s as simple as that.”
Are you interested in in standing up for science, asking for evidence, attending a workshop, or getting involved in one of Sense about Science’s campaigns? Join their network!