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The Social Responsibility of Scientists: The Scientific Impact Statement

By Charles Walter and Edward P. Richards, 17 IEEE Engineering In Medicine And Biology Magazine #6, 94-95 (1998).

Introduction

Carl Sagan's last book, The Demon-Haunted World : Science As a Candle in the Dark, deals with how scientific illiteracy and the lack of critical thinking about scientific issues drives the growing problem of pseudoscience.  In previous articles we have discussed the problem of pseudoscience in the courtroom.[1]  The legal world is just a reflection of the larger society.  Pseudoscience is a problem in the courtroom because pseudoscience is a problem in society.  Individuals and cultures strive to understand the world around them. Primitive cultures developed sun myths to explain the seasons and various demonologies to explain illness.  Modern American culture develops myths to understand the frightening aspect of our culture, such as birth defects and cancer striking down children.  If the general public does not understand basic notions of statistics and epidemiology, electricity and chemistry, it is not surprising that these myths are contrary to scientific knowledge.  This article discusses the responsibility of scientists to educate the public about science and how this might be done through the addition of a scientific impact statement to published scientific articles.

Science and the Media

The First Amendment Center recently released the report of a year long study on the problem of scientific illiteracy, with particular emphasis on the coverage of science by the media.[2]  The premise of the coverage of science in the media has a major role in shaping the public's perception of science.  While other factors, such as elementary and secondary schooling in science also play major roles, media reports on science have a secondary effect on these as well, helping shape the priority that school districts and legislatures assign to science education.

The report surveyed more than 1400 scientists and journalists, including in-depth interviews with many prominent individuals from each field.  Not surprisingly, the report found that neither scientists nor journalists believed that science was effectively reported.  More interestingly, there was significant agreement that scientists contributed significantly to this problem in several ways.  First, while scientists have always used words in very precise ways that make their work less accessible to outsiders, many scientists admitted that fracturing of scientific disciplines into more and more narrow niches has resulted in even scientists not being able read much of published scientific record.  Second, most scientists are reluctant to talk to the media.  They fear both being taken out of context and of being seen by fellow scientists as not sufficiently serious about science.  Third, scientists seldom specifically address the larger context of their work and its relationship to other scientific work.  This exacerbates the problem of the media making sensationalist claims about the importance of some work and ignoring other work that may be much more important. 

While not discussed in this report, the most troubling problem may be scientists' growing fear to raise valid scientific questions because of their concern that these will be distorted by the popular press.  This was an issue in the report on the effects of ELF (extremely low frequency electromagnetic fields) that we discussed in a previous article.[3] While the overwhelming evidence is that there is no effect of ELF on human health, it is epidemiologic data and thus cannot not rule out an effect, it can only indicate that if there is an effect, it is too small to be seen in the specific sample that has been studied.  In some exposure circumstances, the data is inadequate to come to rigorous conclusions.  Scientifically, this calls for more study.  Politically, such a call for more study will be transformed into media representations that ELF must pose a risk to human health because scientists are asking for more studies.  More generally, all scientists who publish preliminary findings indicating that any substances poses a possible risk to health face the problem of their work being taken as definitive proof of harm, and knowing that subsequent data disproving the risk will be ignored or buried in a back page story.

The report suggests several things scientists can do to address the misuse of their work by the media:

The Scientific Impact Statement

Suggestion 3, from the list above, is what we call the "Societal Research Impact Statement" (SRIS), analogous to the environmental impact statement that developers must file explaining how their project will affect the local environment. The Center's report provides little guidance for implementing this suggestion, or what should be in the summary.

Patent applications provide some precedent for the SRIS. A patent application must give a complete revelation of the subject matter disclosed. This is in keeping with the scientific tradition that a publication reporting scientific results should enable another scientist competent in the field to reproduce what has been reported by others and thereby confirm or bring into question the previous results.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has determined that a full revelation of a discovery should contain certain elements. These include (1) background material, (2) a detailed disclosure with a brief abstract thereof, (3) a brief summary of the invention, and (4) at least one claim.

1) Background and Context of Work

The background material in a patent application includes a statement identifying the technical field of the invention and a description of the related art. Likewise, a research paper should contain a statement identifying the technical area of research and a description in plain language of how the work reported compliments or contrasts with the existing work in the field.

2) Abstract of Results

The abstract in a patent application is a brief narrative of the disclosure as a whole in a single paragraph of 250 words or less. A research paper should also contain a short abstract in plain language describing the nature of the scientific results of the study.

3) Summary of Issues, Impact and Generalizability

The summary in a patent application is directed toward the invention itself. It may point out advantages of the invention and/or how it solves problems previously existent in the prior art. It should also set forth the nature and gist of an invention. A research paper likewise should contain a summary identifying the significance of the work reported, how it relates to societal issues affected by the results, how these results impact these issues, and the extent to which the work can be generalized.

4) Claims and Limitations

Patent claims identify the precise metes and bounds of an invention. A research paper should also contain a precise statement identifying the limitations on the conclusions drawn from the results, the practical significance of these limitations in terms related to the societal issues in the Summary, recommendations for future research, and any caveats limiting the application of the results, including applications to other studies.

We propose that these elements be included in original scientific research papers prior to peer review. This SRIS should be short (usually 500 words or less), in plain language, and key-word indexed. If desired by the author, the initial draft could be developed with the assistance of appropriate university resources. Final drafts should be developed along with the rest of the research paper by the author in cooperation with the journal editors and the individuals providing peer review.

In some cases there are issues that should be addressed in accessing the potential impact of the study that are not properly part of the scientific article. For example, a study on the effects of silicone on the immune system would be relevant to the question of whether silicone breast implants cause disease. An assessment of whether and the study affects the conclusion that silicone in breast implants does not cause systemic disease would be important.

Generally, for research papers touching on issues important to expert testimony in recent litigation, we suggest that journals publish expanded impact statements addressing the question, "What is the 'Daubert value' of the study?"[4]. This is an important question whenever a study deals with issues that are subject to litigation, such as silicone breast implants, ELF, toxicity of pharmaceuticals, or other situations where there is a large class of persons that may claim injury by the substance in question.

These expanded statements, which might be called "Daubert Impact Statements" (DIS), should include (1) a brief summary of important litigation issues which might be affected by the results, (2) the impact of the research on these issues, and (3) recommendations for whether the information in the research paper should be used by the courts, and, if so, how. The DIS should be written by individuals expert in the litigation area who are also conversant with the underlying science. Some journals already do this to a limited extent, but it is usually in the form of an editorial separate from the article.

Information of the type described above for the SRIS is required for a patent application. The content of scientific articles is governed by custom and the peer-review policies of the scientific journals. The SRIS should become a journal requirement, in the same way that most biomedical journals now require the filing of a conflict of interest statement. The DIS should be included for all research papers touching on issues important to expert testimony in recent litigation. Unlike the conflict of interest statement, the SRIS should be considered part of the article and should be subjected to the same peer review process as the scientific content of the article. The DIS should also be subject to review by competent authorities.

These peer reviews should determine whether the impact statements address the respective issues described above. The peer reviews should assure that these items are addressed both correctly and in plain language suitable for non-scientists.

As described above, the SRIS and DIS should be published with the article in the body of the journal, and the authors of the scientific article should themselves contribute to the statements. This would link them more clearly to the primary study, with the objective of being a formal supplement to the article that could be used to provide background if the article is used as evidence in court. This could reduce the ability of lawyers to take the findings of studies out of context and use them to support arguments that are either not addressed by the articles or are refuted by the articles.

Conclusions

The growing gulf between scientists and the general public is a threat to the support for science. In a larger sense, it is a threat to rational discussion of scientific issues in public debate and policy making. Scientists ultimately bear the responsibility for helping the public to understand scientific issues. This can be done in many ways, but all require that scientists communicate their findings in clear, understandable ways, including working with journalists to educate them so that they can appreciate the significance of the scientific enterprise.

Endnotes

1. Richards, EP, "Phantom Risk - Phantom Justice?" A review of Phantom Risk, edited by Kenneth R. Foster, David E. Bernstein, and Peter W. Huber (MIT Press, 1993), 13 IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Magazine #3 p427 (1994).

2. Hartz, J. and Chappell, R., Worlds Apart: How the Distance between Science and Journalism Threatens America's Future.  First Amendment Center (1998).  Available at: http://www.freedomforum.org/newsstand/reports/wapart/printwa.ASP

3. Richards EP, Litigating fear: electrical and magnetic fields (EMF) and the law. IEEE Eng Med Biol Mag 1997;16(5):176-8.

4. Richards EP, Walter C. Science in the Supreme Court: round two. IEEE Eng Med Biol Mag 1998;17(2):124-5.

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