Battling Misinformation And 'Bad Advice' About Science And Your Health

Jun 18, 2018

With Jane Clayson

Science is under attack from quack experts and self-appointed activists, warns a top doctor who has been caught in the crossfires. He makes the case.


Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Author of “Bad Advice: Or Why Celebrities, Politicians, and Activists Aren’t Your Best Source of Health Information.” (2018) (@DrPaulOffit)

Bob Cook-Deegan, professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, and with the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University. (@cookdeegan)

Ed Yong, staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers science. (@edyong209)

From The Reading List:

Excerpt from “Bad Advice”: 

Excerpted from Bad Advice: Or Why Celebrities, Politicians, and Activists Aren’t Your Best Source of Health Information by Paul A. Offit, M.D. Copyright (c) 2018 Paul A. Offit. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

The New Atlantis: “Saving Science” (From 2016) — “Science, pride of modernity, our one source of objective knowledge, is in deep trouble. Stoked by fifty years of growing public investments, scientists are more productive than ever, pouring out millions of articles in thousands of journals covering an ever-expanding array of fields and phenomena. But much of this supposed knowledge is turning out to be contestable, unreliable, unusable, or flat-out wrong. From metastatic cancer to climate change to growth economics to dietary standards, science that is supposed to yield clarity and solutions is in many instances leading instead to contradiction, controversy, and confusion. Along the way it is also undermining the four-hundred-year-old idea that wise human action can be built on a foundation of independently verifiable truths. Science is trapped in a self-destructive vortex; to escape, it will have to abdicate its protected political status and embrace both its limits and its accountability to the rest of society.”

The Atlantic: “The Next Plague Is Coming. Is America Ready?” — “Humanity is now in the midst of its fastest-ever period of change. There were almost 2 billion people alive in 1918; there are now 7.6 billion, and they have migrated rapidly into cities, which since 2008 have been home to more than half of all human beings. In these dense throngs, pathogens can more easily spread and more quickly evolve resistance to drugs. Not coincidentally, the total number of outbreaks per decade has more than tripled since the 1980s.

Globalization compounds the risk: Airplanes now carry almost 10 times as many passengers around the world as they did four decades ago. In the ’80s, HIV showed how potent new diseases can be, by launching a slow-moving pandemic that has since claimed about 35 million lives. In 2003, another newly discovered virus, sars, spread decidedly more quickly. A Chinese seafood seller hospitalized in Guangzhou passed it to dozens of doctors and nurses, one of whom traveled to Hong Kong for a wedding. In a single night, he infected at least 16 others, who then carried the virus to Canada, Singapore, and Vietnam. Within six months, sars had reached 29 countries and infected more than 8,000 people. This is a new epoch of disease, when geographic barriers disappear and threats that once would have been local go global.”

For everything from weight loss to mental illness, it’s not hard to find self-purported experts peddling snake oil cures. Sometimes, these products are a waste of money. But sometimes, they can have serious consequences for your health and the health of your family and friends. Science should be the antidote to superstition, but the scientific community often has trouble communicating with the general public.

This hour, On Point: The assault on science and how you can cut through the quackery and get the facts.

– Jane Clayson

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