Science Outreach: Two Ends of the Spectrum

CokeMost readers are familiar with the term greenwashing in which certain companies use the jargon from the environmental movement on their label to boost sales. But meanwhile, with regards to packaging and/or manufacturing, they do not implement the ecological practices required to significantly cut waste and pollution.

The worst form of science outreach is actually science-washing. Science-washers make it seem like their sole objective is to enlighten people about the science surrounding an issue. But in reality they are more concerned with self-interest and/or some economic or political objective.  The world of science media is filled with little fires, issues that seem potentially threatening.  In some cases, science can tell immediately if they are staged. But science cannot always tell which of the real fires will die out by themselves and which ones will grow to be devastating. But the science-washer will act 100% certain when some inner belief or vested interest is threatened.

I have notes regarding a 7-year old Montreal Gazette newspaper article about the endocrine disruptor, bisphenol A (BPA). It started with the line, “Relax – food chemicals can’t hurt you.” That was one heck of a general assertion! Did the author, who is a well-known educator and media personality to this day,  forget things like the botulinum toxin, a chemical that can show up in food that hasn’t been preserved properly. Of course incidences of botulism are rare, but the compounds glucose, sucrose, sodium chloride and sodium nitrite are common additives and are far from being innocuous.

There are enough people out there who hate nuances. They will tolerate details as long as there is a clear-cut answer at the end of a short article. The author of The Gazette article did not disappoint. He totally dismissed the concerns about the particular endocrine disruptor. Unfortunately, he failed to mention that there were other compounds in its class, some far more powerful, and that even at that, he failed to look at the problem ecologically where, for example,  extremely low doses had effects on fish.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website currently(2020) states:

Human health effects from BPA at low environmental exposures are unknown. BPA has been shown to affect the reproductive systems of laboratory animals. More research is needed to understand the human health effects of exposure to BPA.

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Ed Elmos and the real Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver 

My criticism of his article was online. How he quickly found out about it was a mystery to me at the time, but the important thing is what he whined about. He said that the details I provided, although accurate, would have confused the public. Here was an educator forgetting the famous line from  Stand and Deliver based on a real-life outstanding teacher, Jaime Escalante who said, “Students will rise to the level of your expectations.”

I wish that article was an isolated incident. There are many people with academic credentials online who blur the line between science outreach and just straight-out public relations. For example, defenders of the health and ecological safety of glyphosate or Enlist Duo’s (glyphosate + 2,4-D and other additives), never get into the nuances. Try arguing with them. When they realize that you are not a communist, anti-vax, anti-science or even an activist, they will try persuade you with bizarre conspiracy theories that smear reputable journalists and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

So what does excellent science outreach look like? It looks like the Youtube series Sixty Symbols from the University of Nottingham.  These guys are the real McCoy. Why?  They are not trying to sell you nuclear power or a bigger particle accelerator or the misconception that science is the only way of acquiring knowledge. They are genuinely teaching you one way of looking at the world, and it’s obvious that they have put a lot of effort to step away from their research or other activities to make their knowledge more accessible. In one video by Phil Moriarty, I saw a completely original way of teaching the uncertainty principle.

Uncertainty
An extended musical note versus a short one. The frequency range of the latter is wider. This is related to the uncertainty principle.

It is counter-intuitive but true that a short musical note (like the one created when you chug an electric guitar string to stop it from vibrating) has a wide frequency range. In contrast, if you whistle the same note for an extended period of time, there is just one frequency. Frequency and time are inversely proportional. The momentum of an atomic sized particle, which has significant wave properties, is a kind of spatial frequency. If the wavelength is short, like that of the abrupt musical note, there are a number of possibilities for momentum. If the wavelength is longer, the momentum is known with more certainty, but the particle’s exact location becomes much harder to pin down. It’s stretched like the extended whistle.

When the Nottingham physicists are asked about how well-prepared students are for university physics, they don’t get into a whining session. Given that they are genuinely committed to student-learning, they give constructive criticism. They point out that the topics covered by A-Levels physics teachers (in England) are adequate, but that the math courses are a bit broad in scope and exam-centered with not enough rigorous calculus. It is an important point that, if addressed, will help students as much as it will help professors. In contrast, those who do poor outreach rarely give useful tips. One particular individual, who went on to work for the front group ACSH, once criticized an article revealing that lots of science Nobelists are alumni of public high schools. Why? He worried about the bad impression it would make on private schools.

Authentic and quality outreachers are not afraid to show the human face of science. In Falsifiability and Messy Science, another Sixty Symbol video, ( maybe go for a coffee during the Master Class advertisement by Neil Tyson!) Phil Moriarty argues that there is no clear-cut definition of science. Different teams have different approaches. They don’t necessarily seek what’s falsifiable (a la Karl Popper), and are not always looking to verify hypotheses. They are often poking around, trying to find something.  And yet they still produce science that’s valuable and reproducible. Later, when he mentions that science, like all human behaviour, is not only determined by rational thought but by social context, the interviewer takes exception, “Aren’t you stoking the fires of people like climate change deniers?” Moriarty countered that although he looked at some of the evidence for man-caused climate change and found it strong, he is ultimately convinced of the phenomenon by having faith in specialists’ opinions.

Although Moriarty doesn’t delve into the issue, what’s relevant is that it’s also perfectly reasonable and necessary to consider conflicts of interest. What makes man-caused climate change increasingly convincing to the majority, is that it has far less hidden and/ or dubious motives than those of the skeptics. It is for the same reason that I take the President’s Cancer Panel seriously when they concluded in 2010:

“the true burden of environmentally induced cancers has been grossly underestimated” and strongly urged action to reduce people’s widespread exposure to carcinogens.

 

Tone Can Spoil A Good Science News Article

A Montreal Gazette article about toxins in food by Joe Schwarcz, McGill ‘s Director of the Office for Science and Society, reminds me of a line in the movie Hitch,

Sixty percent of all human communication is nonverbal body language; thirty percent is your tone, so that means ninety percent of what you’re saying isn’t coming out of your mouth.

Fabricated percentages aside, what applies to verbal communication also applies to text. There is no body language in writing, but the diction and arguments used set an important tone. Especially when writing in a daily newspaper, an author can hit the wrong chord with a single line or inappropriate title and fuel the same emotions he may be trying to abate.
Let’s begin with the title of Schwarcz’s piece(which could be his editor’s, for all we know).

Relax – food chemicals can’t hurt you


Health risks are proportional to the concentration of toxins in food, air and water. A responsible society is vigilant and sets limits on substances which research has revealed to be threatening from a medical and ecological perspective. But while it’s possible to overdo it, impose needless bans and spend a great deal of energy worrying about minimal risks, such a “don’t worry; be happy” title will get many people’s backs up.

A conclusion’s tone can also sting some readers and compromise good arguments from the body of the essay.

…And those numbers tell me that whatever “toxins” may be present are there at levels that are way below what regulatory agencies find acceptable. I know how the scientists at Health Canada, FDA and EPA determine these levels. I know their qualifications and level of expertise. I also know the same for their critics. I know whom to trust.

Although it’s not intended, readers could accuse him of polarizing the issue by leading them to believe such issues are strictly about an unscientific, panic-stricken mob versus cool-headed experts.  He refers to a 2010 study on endocrine disruptors sponsored by The Silent Spring Institute. They conclude that urine levels of bisphenol A (BPA) and bis(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) metabolites decreased significantly during a fresh foods intervention in 20 individuals from four different age groups. Schwarcz pokes holes in the conclusion by arguing that the large drop occurs for toxin and metabolite levels that were already originally insignificantly small, and the changes occurred because BPA is metabolized quickly in humans. But the group leader of the study Susan E. Fenton is certainly not unqualified. She was the principal investigator at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Reproductive Toxicology Division from 1998 to 2009. Prior to that she had completed a doctorate in endocrinology, followed by post-doc work in cancer biology.

Aside from rewriting the conclusion, I would have added the following: in light of the fact that there are many other endocrine disruptors that are far more powerful, BPA has probably received a disproportionate amount of attention.   For instance BPA is about 10,000 times less potent than estradiol. We are also lucky that primates, in a matter of hours, metabolize BPA to a gluconate derivative, which is not a disruptor. But concerns about BPA should not be totally brushed off due to ecological aspects. Fish seem to be the most BPA-sensitive organisms. Depending on whose guidelines one examines, the predicted no-effect concentrations in freshwater range from 0.175 to 1.7 nanograms per milliliter or parts per billion(ppb). The levels in human urine are close to or above that threshold based on the much wider study in Canada, which found concentrations  in the 1-2 ppb range. Pre-intervention levels averaging 3.7 ppb were measured in Fenton’s subjects.

There is a chemical cacophony in our bodies and environment. For a rational assessment we need a more educated public so that agencies and researchers are neither pressured into barking up the wrong tree nor lulled into being too passive. By using the wrong tone in our attempts to educate others and ourselves, we just add smoke to the fog.

Sources:

  •   Critical evaluation of key evidence on the human health hazards of exposure to bisphenol A



    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3135059/

  •  Food Packaging and Bisphenol A and Bis(2-Ethyhexyl) Phthalate Exposure: Findings from a Dietary Intervention

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3223004/pdf/ehp.1003170.pdf

  •   Lead and bisphenol A concentrations in the Canadian population

http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/82-003-x/2010003/article/11324-eng.pdf

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