On opening the door to science

I’ve been talking once again on the excellent Pod Delusion podcast, which is an audio show about all things interesting from a rational point of view. This time it was about the slightly esoteric issue of scientific publishing, that is the forum in which researchers make their findings available to the community. The issue I was discussing was whether research articles, the very channels that contain all the data and results from scientific experiments, should be freely available to whoever wants to read them (“open access”) or whether they should be allowed to be protected behind paywalls.

Some argue that if research is supported by public funds, such as that funded by the taxes all of us (or most of us!) pay, then there’s an ethical imperative that the public has a right to access the results of that research. The same goes for charity research that is funded through money raised by public donations. If one needs a subscription to read the results of the research supported by public or donated money, then that person is effectively paying twice for it.

Now bear with me. This may seem like a discussion that only those in a particular industry should care about, but it speaks of some wider concerns. These have been discussed at some length elsewhere, such as in George Monbiot’s and Stephen Curry’s excellent articles in The Guardian.

But what has all this got to do with evidence-based parenting? Well, as I mentioned briefly on the podcast, if parents really want to make evidence-based choices about everything from pregnancy to childbirth to child development, then having access to actual primary research can be invaluable. I’m not proposing that parents carry out full literature reviews to reach a conclusion on a particular issue – we rely on health professionals with appropriate expertise to provide scientifically informed advice – but there are many myths and claims into which parents may want to look a little deeper.

Myths about the validity of some alternative medicine remedies, for instance, can be quickly deflated when one looks to the proper scientific literature rather than pseudoscientific websites. Sensational claims in newspapers, which can genuinely cause undue alarm for parents, can also be tempered by actually looking at what the researchers report in a respected scientific journal. See my previous posts for examples.

The use of resources such as the Cochrane Library that hosts independent reviews of evidence for healthcare decision making, such as whether homeopathy is effective to induce labour (it’s not), is a great place to look for an overarching picture of the current state of scientific thinking. In fact, access to the Cochrane Library is opening up on a country-by-country basis, as more governments – including the UK and Ireland – negotiate ‘national provisions’ for their residents. The Cochrane Library even includes lay summaries for their articles, highlighting the desire to widen accessibility to research findings. 

I would also like to think that opening access to scientific research unveils some of the mysteries surrounding scientists and what they do. At a time when the public confidence of scientists and their work has been knocked by scandals in climate change research and human embryonic stem cells, it is incredibly important to show the inner workings of the research community. A greater access to scientific discoveries would also help to improve scientific literacy amongst the public by showcasing the scientific method. To promote the value of this work and the exciting breakthroughs it can bring should also help to maintain public support for scientific endeavour through taxes and charitable donations.

If you get the chance to talk or write to your MP, I would encourage you to ask them about open access and whether they would support a government policy to mandate this for publicly funded research. It would really help put scientifically valid evidence in the public and at the heart of decision making.

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3 thoughts on “On opening the door to science

  1. Pingback: “It must be his teeth”: teething symptom myths | The Skeptical Dad

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