What Do We Do About Medical Debates That Won’t Be Put To Bed?

Sometimes headlines tout conclusiveness when that’s not exactly how science works. Can we foster a public perception more open to the fact that medical guidelines evolve as information changes?

You probably remember a few weeks ago when many news sources announced triumphantly:

“Now you can let your baby cry herself to sleep and she’ll be just fine!”

The week that this captivating headline came out, it sparked quite a bit of controversy. The claim certainly calmed a few sleep-deprived parents, but it also ran contrary to the beliefs and actions of many others. Parents used the headline to bolster their position on social media, but, as with almost all scientific studies, the results require deeper investigation.

The study itself, which examined the cortisol levels of 43 infants between 6 and 16 months and the self-reported stress levels of mothers, deserves a closer examination than the headline allows. It included, for example, a small study sample and only tested mothers (not fathers or other caretakers) based on their own reporting.

Brandy Utter, MD, Vital board member, reminds readers that whatever decision they reach in consolation with their own pediatrician, letting a child cry herself to sleep is something you want to attempt only with children older than six months, and never with foster children or young adoptees.

The potential limits of this study, though, are not the focus of this post. This post is instead about how the media reported the study, how we reacted, and what it means for our public understanding of science.

In our busy lives, we easily come across striking headlines by scrolling through news feeds. It is, in part, the nature of life with the Internet. When journalists whittle one scientific study down into a short statement and act as if it’s absolute fact, they are not only trying to increase clicks,  but also playing to our desire for final, unchanging answers.

The topic of this study, in particular, was primed to produce a reaction. As a mother wrote just yesterday on the wall of one of the many, many Facebook parenting groups I follow, “When will I ever NOT be exhausted?” No parent, I dare argue, is good at debating a topic related to the potential welfare of their child without intense emotional investment. And, when you add the factor of physical exhaustion to a debate, it’s rare that calmness prevails.

Understandably, we want answers and it feels good to think we have them and that no further inquiry is required. However, “Kumbaya,” while a nice lullaby, is the wrong anthem for scientific debates. As Ben Utter incisively pointed out, slapping “according to science” on a headline to bolster readers’ confidence promotes a misunderstanding of how things work:

Public deification of some infallible abstraction called ‘science’ does a disservice to real science. What’s needed is not only more and better scientific studies, but also a renewed understanding of how knowledge is built.

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So what do we do about not just this study, but the many medical debates that will not be put to bed?

Let’s foster a public perception that accepts knowledge as a fundamentally cumulative process. Let’s think twice before re-posting headlines that tout conclusiveness when, in fact, merely a new page has been added to the story of a long investigation. And let’s not call it a “crisis” when scientific results differ or are not reproduced. As the host of the popular podcast Hidden Brain, Shankar Vedantam, explains: “if you want answers that never change […], odds are, you don’t want to ask a scientist.”

This thirst for knowledge and acceptance of change are, in fact, things that unite scholars and researchers in any number of fields. A problem of perception, then, results not only from inaccurate media portrayals, but also from the ranking we give “science” at the top of the heap of disciplines.

James Blachowicz, a professor of philosophy at Loyola University Chicago, recently cautioned that “[q]uantified precision,” which is characteristic of scientific inquiry, “is not to be confused with a superior method of thinking.” When we consider science “superior,” we are more likely to believe that its inconsistences and its failures to live up to facile media portrayals are indeed indicative of a “crisis.”

You might have read recently about a “crisis” in the social sciences, for example. The story made headlines when social psychologists were unable to replicate the findings of half of 100 experiments that they set out to reproduce. Authorities in numerous disciplines have responded to refute the idea that this study was really indicative of a crisis, and the impulse to describe the difficulty of replication as a problem is in fact influenced by a flawed perception of scientific research and thought.

The “crisis” in science may be in part a crisis of faith in science—and that’s a good thing, inasmuch as it helps to shine a light on the fact that the confidence many place in the methods and assumptions of something broadly referred to as “science” is pretty thoroughly unexamined.

Questioning this belief in a certain perception of science could help us counter the way that media portrayals contribute to a false public understanding of science’s conclusiveness. (A practice that John Oliver hilariously parodied in his piece on “TODD” talks). It could also help restore faith in medicine at a time of declining confidence in medical guidelines that, as they should, change with more and better scientific studies.

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