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What is Science?

post #1 of 24
Thread Starter 

I was reminded by this interesting blog article on "What is Science" of a few thoughts I had jotted down about the scientific method and vaccination research. 

 

For starters, the blog which remindd me: http://scienceblogs.com/principles/2011/03/08/everybody-thinks-scientificall/

 

And my favourite bit of it

 

 

 

Quote:
Science, stripped down to its essentials, is just a method for figuring things out: you look at some situation, come up with a possible explanation, and try it to see if it works. If it does, great, if not, try something else. Repeat until you find an explanation that works.

 

And here's my musings on science and vaccination research which I wrote on a train a couple of weeks ago but never got around to posting. 

 

There's been a fair amount of discussion on here lately about the use of science in making decisions about vaccination. As is obvious from my user name and signature, I'm a fan of science. I work full time as a research scientist (although not in a medical field - my biological expertise doesn't go much beyond high school and popular science) and I like to think science and the scientific method inform (although do no rule) the choices I make in parenting. 

 
To be clear, I do not consider my "pro science" stance as an unshakable belief that "science" always gives the right answer. Science is not a thing or a person, it's a process. And it's a messy process which meanders towards the best answer given the available evidence. Sometimes that best answer has such a strong body of evidence that it becomes the right answer, and sometimes the evidence, or our perspective of the evidence shifts. 
 
OK, enough preamble. Here's my view of the process of science for what it's worth. 
 
1. You (the scientist) have an idea about something. For example, you think - hey, what if the rise in vaccination of children is to blame for X. Or you think "I wonder if the rise in chronic illness might be explained by a rise in consumption of sugary processed foods". 
 
2. Now you decide if the idea you have is physically plausible. Is there a mechanism which can link the two things or explain your idea in another way? This is also a point at which as a professional scientist I would check up on if anyone else has researched this link already. It's amazing how many ideas stop at this point when you discover they're either not physically possible, or that many other people have already proved/disproved them. 
 
3. Ok, so you have an idea which seems physically plausible. So now you have to come up with a way to test it. This could be developing your own experiment, collecting evidence by observing what's happening in the real world. Or it could be conducting an assessment of many other studies addressing the point. 
 
4. With the evidence in you now decide if (a) the evidence in your study backs your idea, (b) the evidence is against your idea, or (c) the study you have done is not yet good enough, and more work needs to be done. The sign of a good scientist is to be willing to have any of these results be true, and to continue to publish even null results. 
 
5. Now comes peer review. This is having other scientists (and yourself) critique your evidence and try their hardest to find flaws in it. It's nothing personal, it's the way we work to make really sure we believe you didn't accidently do something wrong. If you pass this point your work is published and enters the next level of scrutiny where hopefully lots of people read it. 
 
6. Now the crucial step for the process of science is that this is not the end. Even if your study backs your idea strongly, you cannot yet as a scientist say it's right (no matter how much the press release and media write up will say that). You must keep working and think of another idea of how to test the idea (or something related). You also wait for more independent studies or assessment of published works. Only once there is overwhelming evidence that something is true, will a scientist claim it is right. 
 
Anyway, how does this inform my assessments of some of the worrying ideas about vaccinations being harmful which we have all read online. Well I see a lot of these ideas falling down at step 2. Many do not appear to be physically plausible (because of infinitesimal doses etc). But I accept i could be wrong about that so I proceed. I see a lot of the studies which seem to demonstrate harm falling down at step 4  - the people conducting them seem unwilling to accept that sometimes they might not find proof vaccines are harmful - or at least they never publish those ones. Where I get concerned about conflicts of interest is where i see people only doing research on vaccines, and only publishing things which hint at harm. The real process of science is messier than that.  And then I see a lot of reliance on single (or small numbers) of studies suggesting harmful links, while the (typically much larger number) of studies which do not provide evidence of harm are dismissed as being "too small", "not testing it properly" or "biased because of who paid for them". So I do not feel step 6 is applied appropriately either. 
 
So without going into specific issues/claims about vaccination harm, this is why I decide that it's extremely unlikely (remember I'm a scientist so I like caveats) that vaccines cause more harm than good. 
 
And it absolutely doesn't mean I think they are 100% safe, or work 100% of the time. This is an assessment of risk benefit and the most likely outcome. 
 
And it doesn't mean either that I think the job is done. The process continues, the studies keep going and the safety checks are vital. But that's already happening in my opinion. 
post #2 of 24
I have no qualms with science, but it seems like nowadays it's for sale to industries with lots of $$.
post #3 of 24

Nice post, prosciencemum!

 

I am in basic agreement with you in the preamble and your steps, however I have some concerns with your assessment.

 

My biggest bone of contentions would be this statement:

 

"Where I get concerned about conflicts of interest is where i see people only doing research on vaccines, and only publishing things which hint at harm. The real process of science is messier than that.  And then I see a lot of reliance on single (or small numbers) of studies suggesting harmful links, while the (typically much larger number) of studies which do not provide evidence of harm are dismissed as being "too small", "not testing it properly" or "biased because of who paid for them". So I do not feel step 6 is applied appropriately either." Prosciencemum

 

I also worry about conflict of interest - but that is because the vast majority of studies are funded by pharmaceutical companies (who do have $$ to gain).  These companies have members that sit on advisory boards for the CDC.  I also worry slightly about both publication and citation bias.   A few links for newbies: 

 

http://www.bmj.com/content/315/7109/640

http://bmg.cochrane.org/addressing-reporting-biases

http://blogs.trusttheevidence.net/category/blog-keywords/publication-bias

 

The last link notes that publication bias is particularly an issue in pediatrics.

 

Other musings:

 

Mothering is primarily a parenting forum.  

 

Science and parenting (even wise parenting) do not always go together.  Science tends to look at the masses (as it should) while parenting is concerned with the individual.   Example:  Hep B for newborns.  You might be able to argue (through math, primarily) that vaccinating all newborns for Hep B. is better for the masses than not.  There is no way you are going to convince me that vaccinating my newborn for hep b is necessary or a good thing if I have NO risk factors ( or as close to No as one can get - through prenatal testing, lifestyle, demographics….).  There are other examples, but to me this one is the clearest.  

 

 

I quite dislike it when pro-vaxxers say "I am pro-science.  I vaccinate."  What exactly does this mean and imply?  I am pro-science (It saved my youngest's life (literally), it enables me to talk to people from around the world, etc, etc….there are so many good things about science!)  It feels sometimes like  pro-vaxxers are trying to co-opt the word "science" and change its meaning.

 

….and yet,  I actually find I am liking science a little less than when I started arguing the non-vax viewpoint on MDC.  90% of the time I hear or read the word "science" it is here - and here is not a very pleasant place.  Science as it is presented on this forum, and in my opinion only, is often rigid, dogmatic and a list of other not so pleasant things. I know I should not let a forum (good grief) affect a liking of science but there it is. Maybe sometime in the future I will not roll my eyeballs and expect a flame fest when I read the word science, but that is not today.  Skeptic sites are even worse, they might be interested in "defending science" but honestly all they come across as is haters.  One could argue that tone does not necessarily mean they are incorrect, but it goes beyond that - most skeptics sites hate so many things in alternative medicine that they do not seem credible to me.  Who is more credible - someone who can say this is good, but this is BS, or someone who just hates everything in alternative medicine? (hating everything gives the appearance that one cannot prioritise and is simply an irrational hater).

 

All of the studies leave me very confused. Personally I am not going to act on a health matter if I am confused unless there is a pressing need, but obviously not everyone sees things that way. I have a lot of respect for scientists and the scientific process - but not really for conclusions as they seem wishy-washy, constantly changing and sometimes (particularly in parent pamphlets) a little contrived and watered down.  

 

Ah well, good topic!  I hope it goes smoothly as I would love to read everyone else thoughts in a respectful way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Edited by kathymuggle - 12/10/12 at 6:03pm
post #4 of 24

publication bias would lead to LESS studies showing no harm from vaccines and MORE studies showing harm, I would think, or is publication bias not what I think it is?  I thought it was when studies with a positive result (shows harm) are more likely to be published than studies with a negative result (don't show harm).

post #5 of 24
Saw this today and it seemed relevant. It's about Andrew Wiel in particular,but I think it also exemplifies a common attitude among Americans.

http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/index.php/andrew-weil-flirts-with-evidence-based-medicine/#more-2354
My favorite quote: "Considering that the only evidence for the benefit of cranial therapy is an unpublished, self-selected, anecdotal series; when faced with the results of a negative randomized clinical trial, an objective, open minded person must at least concede the possibility that the study failed to document an effect because… it doesn’t work! Dr. Weil, however, is undaunted: “I’m sure there is an effect there.” He leaves no room for any other conclusion. He anecdotal experience outweighs the data from a randomized trial. The science must be wrong."

Also an interesting bit in the comments about foxes and hedgehogs.
post #6 of 24

Not quite.

 

Publication bias, as I understand it,  refers to the decreased likelihood of studies' results being published when they are near the null, not statistically significant, or "not as interesting."  I imagine it can go both ways.

post #7 of 24
Quote:
Originally Posted by Rrrrrachel View Post

Saw this today and it seemed relevant. It's about Andrew Wiel in particular,but I think it also exemplifies a common attitude among Americans.
http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/index.php/andrew-weil-flirts-with-evidence-based-medicine/#more-2354
My favorite quote: "Considering that the only evidence for the benefit of cranial therapy is an unpublished, self-selected, anecdotal series; when faced with the results of a negative randomized clinical trial, an objective, open minded person must at least concede the possibility that the study failed to document an effect because… it doesn’t work! Dr. Weil, however, is undaunted: “I’m sure there is an effect there.” He leaves no room for any other conclusion. He anecdotal experience outweighs the data from a randomized trial. The science must be wrong."
Also an interesting bit in the comments about foxes and hedgehogs.

 

 

Bolding mine.  That seems like a bit of a generalisation.  Could you please clarify…what is the attitude you see?
post #8 of 24
Did you read the article?

Kathy, studies that find no evidence of harm do so because they are near the null, that's what no evidence means.
post #9 of 24
Quote:
Originally Posted by Rrrrrachel View Post


Kathy, studies that find no evidence of harm do so because they are near the null, that's what no evidence means.

Hmmmm…..even if that is true (big if)….it is still problematic as a lot of evidence, which we do need to make an informed decision, does not make it to the light of day.  This is not a pro-vax/non vax thing; publication and citation bias are a big deal in terms of having the full picture on a topic.

 

Yes, I did read the article…blah ,blah, blah on Dr Weil and cranial therapy.

 

I would still like to know what you meant when you said the article exemplifies a common attitude among Americans.


Edited by kathymuggle - 12/9/12 at 6:39am
post #10 of 24
It is true Kathy, that's how statistics works. It either find evidence because the data at hand is far from the null, or it fails to find evidence because the data at hand is close to the null. Do a little reading about significance testing.

I meant the attitude described in the article. In particular that anecdotal evidence that we've experienced personally is often more persuasive than experimental data we've only read about. Or even if we helped run the experiment!
post #11 of 24
Quote:
Originally Posted by Rrrrrachel View Post

It is true Kathy, that's how statistics works. It either find evidence because the data at hand is far from the null, or it fails to find evidence because the data at hand is close to the null.
  I don't think we disagree on what publication bias is.  If we do, oh, well.   A study that shows vaxxed individuals are 10 times less likely to get pertussis than non-vaxxed individuals would probably be statistically significant, and more likely to be published than another study that showed little difference.   A study that shows a vaccine is unsafe in a statistically significant way is probably more likely (in theory) to be published than one that shows there is little difference in the rate of events between the vaccinated individual and the general public.
I posted several links above on what publication and citation bias are.  People can read them for themselves.  How this plays out in the vaccine world does not change the fact that publication and citation bias are an issue in trying to get the "big picture" on a topic - which is the goal for many parents.
 
In any event: I thought this TED talk on science was great: http://www.ted.com/talks/ben_goldacre_battling_bad_science.html.
A quick synopsis: "Ben Goldacre unpicks dodgy scientific claims made by scaremongering journalists, dubious government reports, pharmaceutical corporations, PR companies and quacks. "
It does talk quite a bit about publication bias from about 9 minutes onward, but the whole thing is worth a watch.  It is about 14 minutes.  
  I imagine both pro and non vaxxers can find arguments to support their points in it.  (and one for the non-vaxxers:  Industry funded studies are four times more likely to give flatterring result than non-industry funded studies).
 
 
 
 

 

Edited by kathymuggle - 12/9/12 at 8:02am
post #12 of 24
Oh I see your point. I was focusing on evidence of harm and you were thinking of evidence of effectiveness, as well. That makes sense. You're right it works against vaccines in one case and for them in the other.
post #13 of 24
Quote:
Originally Posted by Rrrrrachel View Post

Oh I see your point. I was focusing on evidence of harm and you were thinking of evidence of effectiveness, as well. That makes sense. You're right it works against vaccines in one case and for them in the other.

 Cool.

 

Do watch the TED talk - it is pretty good, and does not talk about vaccines at all - just problematic issues on the reporting of science.  

post #14 of 24
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by kathymuggle View Post

 Cool.

 

Do watch the TED talk - it is pretty good, and does not talk about vaccines at all - just problematic issues on the reporting of science.  

Thanks for sharing the link. I respect Ben Goldacre - he's pretty uncompromising about sticking to the science and evidence based medicine. Puts him in some uncomfortable places with big pharmaceutical companies I imagine (he's a medical doctor, or at least started out as one - not sure if he's still practicing). 

post #15 of 24

 Skeptic sites are even worse, they might be interested in "defending science" but honestly all they come across as is haters.  One could argue that tone doe snot necessarily mean they are incorrect, but it goes beyond that - most skeptics sites hate so many things in alternative medicine that thye do not seem credible to me.  Who is more credible - someone who can say this is good, but this is BS, or someone who just hates everything in alternative medicine (hating everything gives the appearance that one cannot prioritise and is simply an irrational hater).

All of the studies leave me very confused. Personally I am not going to act on a health matter if I am confused unless there is a pressing need, but obviously not everyone sees things that way. I have a lot of respect for scientists and the scientific process - but not really for conclusions as they seem wishy-washy, constantly changing and sometimes (particularly in parent pamphlets) a little contrived and watered down.

 

As an admittedly dogmatic sciency person, who hangs out with lots of other dogmatic sciency people, I have to say that I find this explanation, particularly the top quote, really interesting. I don't often get to hear why it is that science makes people frustrated.

 

I would argue, however, that skeptics are more open-minded than they seem -- science is willing to consider lots of different types of treatments (assuming they have *some* basis, as prosciencemum says, in the world of physical possibility). They are tested, and if they work, are brought into the mainstream. Modern medicine includes a lot of things that were once "alternative": plant-based medicines; massage/physical therapy; psychological care; light therapy, etc. The flip side, then, is that something classified as "alternative medicine", instead of regular old medicine, got classified that way because it was shown not to work. Skeptics are against all alternative medicine because all alternative medicine is non-science-based, simply by the way it is defined.

 

As for the second quote, being "watered down" is part of the scientific method and culture. Good science requires being humble about the limits of one's own knowledge and possibilty that one's conclusions are wrong. That translates into language that sounds less than 100% sure, even when, really, we're 100% sure. But, quite frankly, often we're not sure. Part of the reason for this is exactly what you pointed out: something that has X effect in a population does not necessarily have X effect on each individual. There are almost always exceptions. Partly it is because the experiments that would give us definitive answers are not often not physically or ethically possible. Partly it is because no matter how careful we are, there will always be imprecise measurement or chance errors or weird coincidences that can throw off the conclusion.

 

In other words, science can be wishy-washy and inconclusive because science reflects the state of our knowledge and we, as humans, simply can't know everything. But we can make progress, and science offers the best hope of getting there. Rejecting science puts us farther from, not closer to, to the truth.

post #16 of 24
Quote:
Originally Posted by auntbea View Post

 

As an admittedly dogmatic sciency person, who hangs out with lots of other dogmatic sciency people, I have to say that I find this explanation, particularly the top quote, really interesting. I don't often get to hear why it is that science makes people frustrated.

 

Glad I could help wink1.gif…..and welcome!

 

In other words, science can be wishy-washy and inconclusive because science reflects the state of our knowledge and we, as humans, simply can't know everything. But we can make progress, and science offers the best hope of getting there. Rejecting science puts us farther from, not closer to, to the truth.

I actually do appreciate that wishy-washyness can come from humbleness… It does not change my views on vaccination, but I appreciate people understanding that can't know everything.   

 

I have more trouble with watered down information, particularly on parental pamphlets.  

 

Here is one from Manitoba on MMR- it does not mention prevalence of the diseases, the risk of febrile seizures after vaxxing, and a whole host of other things.

http://www.gov.mb.ca/health/publichealth/cdc/fs/mmr.pdf

 

The tdap is no better:  http://www.gov.mb.ca/health/publichealth/cdc/docs/tdap.pdf.  It does not even mention that there is an upswing in pertussis.

 

This watering down of information can break trust - because once you find out that there is a risk of febrile seizure with MMR or that tdap is not as good as you would like - it is possible you might feel a little betrayed, that you were not given all the information you needed to make a decision.

 

So…I do not think it is always the science or scientist people are concerned with, per se…but the conflict of interest inherent in some studies (discussed elsewhere in this forum in great detail) as well as the lousy way risks and benefits are communicated to the public.  


Edited by kathymuggle - 12/10/12 at 7:59pm
post #17 of 24
Thread Starter 
I think this comes back to the age old discussion for science communicaton - whats the right balance between including all caveats and potentially being confusing versus full disclosure. Any statement about scientific consensus is likely to gloss over some contradictory results. The point though is that science will evolve and where those contradictions keep repeating the consensus shifts. But thats a complicated concept to get across, and not what people are looking for in medical advice.

In vaccine science I see good evidence of recommendations changing where real harm was discovered (live polio e.g.) - one of the reasons I'm confident there's no coverup of any serious harm caused by current vaccines.
post #18 of 24
And more recently than oral polio, the first rota virus and DTP. Both of which were pulled despite helping far more people than they harmed.
post #19 of 24
Thread Starter 
Thanks Rachel. I knew there were more than just polio, but could't remember them off the top of my head.

Less scientific (since evidence wasn't there but they did it anyway to calm parental fears) - could we not also count the removal of thimerosol from childhood vaccines as proof the industry listens both to science and parental worries. I'm not sure about that myself.
post #20 of 24

I thought this article on why people do not trust science was quite good.

 

I do not agree with all of it  - but give it a read, if you are so inclined.

 

http://theconversation.edu.au/why-do-people-reject-science-heres-why-4050

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