Facing Ugly Truths: A Sense About Science Lecture

Tracey Browne
Tracey Browne
Tracey Browne last week delivered ‘The Ugly Truth’ – an examination of “the need to encourage accountability and support scrutiny over research” to an audience of academics, researchers, policymakers and learned societies at the British Library. The truth she delivered was ‘ugly’ in large part because she explained to her audience, a group expected to be sympathetic to the goals, that they were part of the problem.

Browne, the director of the UK-based Sense About science (itself a Social Science Space partner) was giving the 10th annual Sense About Science lecture, and as she told The Guardian the morning of her address, “The ugly truth is that all of us – however informed, however good our intentions – end up letting things slide once in a while. We overlook, overstate or understate the evidence behind research, claims, or policies, for a number of reasons.”

Comparing and contrasting her ‘ugly truth’ with An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s documentary about the reality of climate change, Browne in her speech said she was talking about the opposite of that: “I’m talking about how we communicate the truest, richest picture of our world, and what is known about it, with all its warts and wrinkles, not ironed out and simplified.” And for truth, she explained as the philosophers toes curled into the carpet, “I’m talking about critical scrutiny, questioning old and new wisdom, challenging misrepresentations or oversimplifications, not going along with a partial picture.”

In buttressing her thesis, Browne starts with some easy targets. Such was a golf ball finder dubbed ‘The Gopher’ from the 1990s that was later repurposed – only in marketing, not design — as both a bomb detector and a drug detector. It proved most useful as an excellent absorber of public funds which, and after repeated debunkings resurfaced in 2013 as a hepatitis C detector, at which point Sense About Science was summoned to investigate. She likened The Gopher’s underground saga to decades-long cancer-cure scams, which pull at the heartstrings even as they confound the intellect.

But then Browne turns to some higher-hanging fruit, telling the audience that “here it gets trickier” as she describes the well-intentioned campaigns to fluoridate public drinking water. The last 30 years of data fails to correlate strongly with better dental health. “Many things,” Browne says, “have acquired the status of being unquestioned. You may be surprised that a whole public health campaign conducted over decades relies on fairly slim evidence, but it’s not so rare—we’ve seen cholesterol and heart disease as a model dismantled.”

Browne’s full 40-minute talk is worth hearing. It is available at The Guardian here.

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