Sense about Science – Demanding Real Evidence from Shock Headlines

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Today I sat in a very interesting lecture by Chris Peters from the charity Sense About Science, during which he explained their Ask for Evidence campaign.

As fellow scientists or science-lovers, I’m sure you’ll have found yourself exasperated by sensational headlines claiming a certain chemical will destroy the world, or some vegetable will cure us all of cancer, knowing it to be nonsense. Unfortunately, members of the public don’t appreciate that many of these stories are based on very thin evidence or are blown massively out of proportion. Consequently, many people find themselves following bad advice or, even worse, accidentally ignoring good advice, because they can’t distinguish fact from fiction.

That’s where Sense About Science come in. They aim to debunk the myths that we’re bombarded with day in and day out through the media, and help all of us know the truth about big headline science such as GM crops, health and nutrition, chemicals and radiation. These are all topics which journalists know can make big headlines, and so they’re often keen to put a misleading, sensational headline on a story which doesn’t in fact claim as much as what the title suggests. You can find more information about the charity here.

As for the Ask for Evidence campaign, this is designed to encourage scientists and members of the public alike to demand real evidence for the claims made not only in the media, but by companies, politicians and official bodies. Too many of these organisations are quick to claim all manner of things from health benefits to trends and statistics but, when pressed, they don’t have any real evidence to back it up. The campaign encourages us to spot these claims and ask for the evidence to prove them. Lots of people have taken part already, some with great success – getting claims removed or items taken off shelves – some were left without answers. You can see examples here. Either way, the organisations being questioned are learning they can’t pull the wool over everyone’s eyes, and at the same time we are able to learn what claims are true, and what are being used as marketing ploys.

The current examples make for very interesting reading, and it’s great to see some big names taking this matter seriously, and thinking twice about the claims they’re making. There is a whole range of topics included, from health to education, so everyone can get involved, and really push these people to realise they can’t try to influence the opinions and actions of the public without real evidence.

I’m personally very interested in this campaign since, as a chemist, I’m constantly confronted with the demonisation of chemicals in the media, and it’s incredibly frustrating. The word ‘chemical’ seems to be considered a naughty word, and companies are constantly claiming their products contain ‘less chemicals’ – which, of course, is nonsense. I’m pleased that organisations such as Sense About Science are trying to educate both the public and the people making these claims, so that information can be both more transparent and actually useful for everyone.

If you’re interested in the way science is portrayed to the public, I strongly suggest that you try and get involved with this campaign. I really think it’s important that people are given real facts so that they can follow good advice, which will benefit them, and which isn’t stirred up to sell newspapers or products.

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