Snake Oil Revisited: Why We All Need to Think Like Scientists

We are revamping the science curriculum at my son’s school, and I am probably overzealous in my passion to help our kids learn about the scientific process and get them excited about thinking scientifically/critically. Working in both medical and patient education in oncology, I am acutely aware of how challenging it is for patients to navigate the science that has been thrust upon them by their disease. Always creeping into those discussions I have with friends and family is the role of alternative/complementary medicine. Harkening back to my days teaching nutrition at Marymount Manhattan College, I tell the listener how we evaluate approaches scientifically, what evidence is needed to convince me that an effect is real, etc. I also relay, with a sigh, that we often don’t have that kind of high-quality evidence for many of the approaches they ask me about. So, not being a physician, I tell them to ask their healthcare provider—and get their advice. Oftentimes, in the absence of those high-quality studies, I know that the healthcare provider will assess the likelihood of harm from the approach, and barring a deleterious effect because of drug-drug interactions, etc, they often encourage the patient to take charge of their own health and do things that make sense at face value in terms of general health promotion.

With that said, I realize that there is a whole pseudoscience industry out there that is marketing an anti-traditional medicine approach, throwing around terms that sound scientific to convince the consumer that they should fork over some money for a product that is essentially snake oil—or worse. It’s cringe-worthy for sure. The whole alkaline water hoax has fascinated me:

This hoax could have been avoided if people understood the basics of stomach function/gastric pH.  Barring that, a basic understanding of how science works in terms of study design etc might also save someone from forking over huge sums of money for bad science.

To me, this is a call to action to help kids learn how to think critically in general but more specifically about scientific claims. There will always be hucksters, but now they are in our faces on the internet. For those of us in healthcare education, I would love to hear your thoughts on how you successfully navigate these discussions.  And for my friends in science education, any best practices to arm our kiddos with the ammo they need to fight the scientific hucksters they will surely face as consumers?

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