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Vice Chancellor Barney Glover says universities must stand up for facts and the truth – ‘if we don’t, who will?’

The Conversation

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Intellectual inquiry and expertise are under sustained attack, says Barney Glover.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Barney Glover, Western Sydney University

This is an edited extract from a speech made by Vice Chancellor Barney Glover at the National Press Club on 1 March, 2017. The Conversation


We live in challenging times. Ours is an era in which evidence, intellectual inquiry and expertise are under sustained attack.

The phrases “post truth” and “alternative facts” have slipped into common use. Agendas have displaced analysis in much of our public debate. And we are all the poorer for it.

I want to deliver a passionate defence of the value of expertise and evidence. I will mount a case for facts as they are grounded in evidence, not as fluid points of convenience employed to cover or distort a proposition.

My plea to you all is this: let’s not deride experts, nor the value of expertise. Because in an era where extremists and polemicists seek to claim more and more of the public square, our need for unbiased, well-researched information has seldom been greater.

We must remind ourselves of how human progress has ever been forged. In this, academics and journalists have common cause. For how are we to fulfill our respective roles in a democracy if we don’t defend the indispensible role of evidence in decision-making?

Hostility towards evidence and expertise

In Australia and around the world, we’ve seen the emergence of a creeping cynicism – even outright hostility – towards evidence and expertise.

We saw this sentiment in the post-Brexit declaration by British Conservative MP, Michael Gove that “the people of this country have had enough of experts.”

And yet – as we strive to cure cancer; save lives from preventable disease; navigate disruption; lift living standards; overcome prejudice, and prevent catastrophic climate change – expertise has never been more important.

The turn that public debate has taken is a challenge to universities. As institutions for the public good, we exist to push the frontiers of knowledge. We enhance human understanding through methodical, collaborative, sustained and robust inquiry.

That doesn’t discount the wisdom of the layperson. And it doesn’t mean universities have all the answers. Far from it. But we are unequivocally the best places to posit the questions.

We are places structurally, intellectually, ethically and intrinsically premised on confronting society’s most complex and confounding problems. We are at the vanguard of specialist knowledge. And we are relentless in its pursuit. We have to be. Because – like the challenges we as institutions immerse ourselves in – the pace of change is unrelenting.

In universities, questioning is continuous, and answers are always provisional. The intensive specialisation, in-depth inquiry and measured analysis universities undertake is not carried-out in service of some ulterior motive or finite agenda.

In the conduct of research the finish-line is very rarely, if ever reached. There’s always more to learn, more to discover. The core objectives universities pursue can never be about any other agenda than the truth. There is no other, nor greater reward. So let’s not disparage expertise, or the critically important role of evidence and intellectual inquiry.

Instead, let’s try to understand its value to our country and its people. And, indeed, to the world.

Universities perform an essential role in society. We must stand up for evidence. Stand up for facts. Stand up for the truth. Because if we don’t, who will?

Universities’ role in the economy

Disruption is drastically refashioning the economy. It is reshaping the way we work, and reimagining the way we engage with each other in our local communities and globally.

In this constantly transforming environment – where major structural shifts in the economy can profoundly dislocate large segments of society – our universities perform a pivotal role.

Universities help us make the very best of disruption, ensuring we are able to “ride the wave”. And they are the institutions best equipped to buffer us against the fallout. This is particularly important in regions that have relied for decades on large-scale blue-collar industries.

Think Geelong in regional Victoria and Mackay in central Queensland. Look to Elizabeth in the northern suburbs of Adelaide. Wollongong and Newcastle in New South Wales. And Launceston in Tasmania. Onetime manufacturing strongholds in carmaking, steel, timber and sugar.

These communities have been wrenched economically, socially and at the personal level by automation, offshoring and rationalisation. For places like these, universities can be a lifeline.

Internationally, the evidence is in. Former financier, Antoine van Agtmael and journalist, Fred Bakker look at this very scenario in their recent book, “The Smartest Places on Earth”.

They uncover a transformative pattern in more than 45 formerly struggling regional US and European economies; places they describe as “rustbelts” turned “brainbelts”.

Akron, Ohio is one of the most remarkable examples they cite. This midwestern city had four tyre companies disappear practically overnight. The then president of the University of Akron, Luis Proenza, reached out to those affected, rallying them to collaborate and encouraging them to transform.

Van Agtmael tells the story of what happened next. “What stayed in Akron”, he observes, “was the world class polymer research that has given us things like contact lenses that change colour if you have diabetes, tyres that can drive under all kinds of road conditions and hundreds more inventions.”

Akron, he continues, “now [has] 1,000 little polymer companies that have more people working for them than the four old tyre companies.”

This kind of transformation, at Akron and beyond, Van Agtmael remarks, is “university centric.”

“Each of these rustbelts becoming brain belts”, he concludes, “always have universities.” In places like those he describes, and many others around the world, universities and their graduates are leading vital processes of renewal within economies experiencing upheaval.

You may be surprised by the extent that this is happening in Australia, too.

Four-in-five startup founders are uni graduates

University graduates key to boosting startup economy. From http://www.shutterstock.com

Over the past decade, the startup economy has become part of Australia’s strategy for economic diversification and growth. Yet what has not been widely understood is the extent to which universities and their graduates are responsible for that growth.

Now, for the first time, Universities Australia and the survey group Startup Muster have taken a closer look at the data.

“Startup Smarts: universities and the startup economy”, confirms that universities and their graduates are the driving force in Australia’s startup economy.

It tells us that four-in-five startup founders in this country are university graduates. Many startups, too, have been nurtured into existence by a university incubator, accelerator, mentoring scheme or entrepreneurship course.

There are more than one-hundred of these programs dispersed widely across the country, with many on regional campuses.

They provide support, physical space and direct access to the latest research. They help to grow great Australian ideas into great Australian businesses.

This report confirms just how important the constant evolution, renewal and refining of course offerings at universities is.

We need to ensure that our programs equip our students and graduates for an uncertain future.

By the time today’s kindergarten students finish high school and are considering university study, startups will have created over half-a-million new jobs across the country. And this new sector of the economy – a sector indivisible from our universities – raised $568 million in 2016; 73% more than the previous year.

By the very nature of the reach of our universities, the benefits are not confined to our cities. We play a vital role to help regional Australians and farmers stake their claim in the startup economy too. The idea of the “silicon paddock”’ – using technology to take farm-based businesses to the markets of the world – is no longer a concept. It’s a reality.

Technology enables our regional entrepreneurs to stay in our regions; building and running businesses, investing locally without the need for long commutes or city relocations. And this, too, is very important; making sure nobody is left behind.

Extending knowledge beyond uni gates

Comprehending and overcoming the complex problems the world confronts, in my view, requires we defend the role of expertise and intellectual inquiry. That doesn’t mean universities are the last word on knowledge. To a large extent, it means rethinking the way knowledge is conveyed beyond university gates.

If universities don’t turn their minds to this issue, others will. And their motivations may not always be altruistic.

Take research, for instance. When the facts of a particular field of inquiry are under attack, the natural reaction among researchers might be to tighten-up their retort and hone the theoretical armory.

It is right to be rigorous and methodical in research. But in the broader communication of our research – in the public dialogue beyond “the lab” – I think universities have to guard against retreating to overly technical language that, perhaps inadvertently, sidelines all but a limited group of specialists

I don’t suggest that research can’t benefit or even be improved via a researcher’s consciousness of a particular, often very specific audience. Yet researchers who allow this consciousness to dominate the development of their work risk undermining their ability to tread new ground and challenge existing frontiers of knowledge.

Only by crossing borders can we come to something new. How many researchers’ discoveries have arisen from a subversion of discipline, practice or establishment? Virtually all, I would suggest.

Breaking down structural boundaries

Crossing borders also means we push other structural boundaries. Within universities, distinct discipline paradigms exist for good reason. They bring focus and in-depth intellectual lineage to a particular field.

But, increasingly, the complex problems we set out to solve don’t abide by the same boundaries. These questions demand expertise from many disciplines, working together and approaching the subject matter from different angles.

That is why universities are constantly refining their research and teaching programs and, increasingly, diffusing the borders that kept many of them separate. This is good for universities. It is good for the country. And it is good for our students, many of whom find their way into public service or politics.

These graduates bring a greater understanding of all facets of the complex questions they confront throughout their working lives.

Interdisciplinarity is, I think, a powerful antidote against ideological intransigence and prejudice. Australian universities – particularly in their research – have a growing track-record in this regard.

Many of our very best research institutes are characterised by a fusion of disciplines where, for example, sociologists, political scientists, spatial geographers, and economists collaborate on a common research objective.

The work that emerges from this research is almost always compelling because it is multi-faceted. It extends itself beyond its constituent research community.

Cross-disciplinarity has also expanded at the teaching level of our universities over the past few decades. But a constrained funding environment can provoke a reduction in options.

We must, however, keep our viewfinder broad, because reductionism doesn’t match the expansionist, multi-strand trends emerging in the broader economy. It’s a disconnect.

As universities, as a society, we must be mindful of how important it is to ask questions, to follow our curiosity, to challenge boundaries and to never rest with the answers.

• Read the full speech here.

Barney Glover, Vice-Chancellor, Western Sydney University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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If you’re going to ridicule research, do your homework

The Conversation

Rob Brooks, UNSW Australia

Sydney’s Daily Telegraph is suffering one of their frequent relapses into frothy-mouthed panic about government wastage on research grants. Poking at layabout academics for ‘wasting’ tax dollars on seemingly frivolous projects reminds me of nothing more than the schoolyard bully who secretly knows he peaked in year 9. Today, the Tele flattered me by holding up one of my own projects for ridicule, ironically illustrating their point that rusted-on ideology, and patronage provide the most direct route possible to mediocrity.

In an ‘Exclusive’ Natasha Bita goes beyond the tried-and-true formula of simply spouting big school words culled from the titles and summaries of grant proposals, and giggling “what does that even mean?”. She pits a handful of phrases from grant summaries against more urgent priorities, quoting Michael Potter of the Centre for Independent Studies:

Would it not be a better investment to fund research into cures for disease, major social problems, and ways to boost the Australian economy?

Quite. Presumably we can leave it to the Tele and the CIS to decide on which research is most beneficial? Without the need for all that grant writing and peer review?

Trying to isolate researchers by painting some research as valuable and the rest as claptrap is a clever strategy. But devoutly as we all may wish for an end to cancer, even cancer researchers, hell even some cancer patients think there are other priorities too.

Sexual conflict and the taxpayer

The Australian Research Council no longer publishes the titles of grants in its funding announcements. I’m not sure what the official line is, but the impression among my colleagues is they seek to present a small target to exactly this kind of pillory, which becomes annual sport when the likes of Andrew Bolt tire of their regular targets of faux-outrage.

Now the ARC publish only summaries of the projects or their likely benefits. Never mind, those can be cherry-picked too. That’s how I found my project mentioned in today’s paper. A NewsCorp blogger named Tim Blair picked up on a project of mine, in which I collaborate with economists Pauline Grosjean and Paul Seabright, that was funded in last year’s round.

Surely a government that genuinely believes we have serious debt and deficit issues wouldn’t give more than $500,000 to the University of NSW for a project that “intends to address how the evolutionary phenomena of intra-sexual competition and intersexual conflict interact with economic circumstances to shape gendered behaviour and attitudes”.

And here’s the bit that convinces me “Tim Blair” isn’t just a poorly programmed bot:

It’s difficult to tell what’s meant by “intersexual conflict interacting with economic circumstances” but it’s probably something to do with taxpayers getting screwed.

See what he did there? If it doesn’t snare the Walkley, it’ll definitely have the boys down the pub chuckling into their schooners.

The bit that Mr Blair quoted selectively was from the description of our project On the origins and persistence of gender: Combining evolutionary and economic approaches to study sex differences and cultural variation. You won’t find that title on the ARC website, but you will find the full project description.

This project intends to address how the evolutionary phenomena of intra-sexual competition and inter-sexual conflict interact with economic circumstances to shape gendered behaviour and attitudes. These phenomena are important in evolution, economics, psychology and sociology, with implications for the economy and for the welfare of women and men. The project predicts that gender-related culture arises, partially, out of mating market dynamics. The research crosses traditional boundaries between biology and economics to investigate the forces giving rise to gendered behaviour and resulting patterns of marriages, violence, political preferences and occupational choices. The project may provide new insights into the links between gender and violence, within-family conflicts, and gender roles in the home and workplace.

In 18 years of applying for research support, I have never yet proposed a project with more pressing or important consequences. It contains so many of the things that conservatives fulminate over: declining marriage rates, rising violent and non-violent crime, and changing gender roles. If our project can provide new insights into intimate partner violence, or why young men take risks with their lives, or the reasons behind declining marriage rates, I would expect the likes of Bita, Potter and Blair to show at least the minimum humane curiosity.

Curiosity, it seems, is a limited commodity at Telegraph HQ. As is the capacity to do even the most cursory research. Shonkily researched assertions are okay if you enjoy the safe patronage of a major news organisation. You would never get away with such abject laziness, or such contempt for professional disinterest, in a grant proposal to a federal funding body.

“#PubTest”

Ray Hadley picked up the Telegraph’s baton in an interview with the Treasurer, Scott Morrison, demanding that the ARC justify its funding decision in the front bar of a Western Sydney or North Brisbane pub.

Yes, after the forlorn cries for better funding of research rang through Science Week last week, and as the ARC sits in Canberra to decide the outcomes of this year’s biggest schemes, the pro-ignorance side of the culture wars has decided to play their favourite game. Their attempts to paint researchers as out-of-touch layabouts draining the public purse are, if you read the comments on Blair’s blog, playing well with the patrons of those very pubs.

Our ideas are already well pub-tested, Mr Treasurer. Many a research project is hatched in a bar-room conversation. Many of us still have the scrawled-on beer coasters to prove it (#putoutyourcoasters?), and receipts to show we spent our own money to buy the booze. And there seems no end of “Research in the Pubevenings in which academics explain their research and discuss ideas with members of the curious – drinking – public.

And the fewer than 20 percent of projects that succeed in gaining funding have passed a trial by fire more intense than any front-bar witch hunt Messers Hadley or Morrison could confect. Indeed the real scandal here is how much of Australia’s top-notch intellectual effort is wasted by only funding a small proportion of the many deserving projects. If the treasurer is as worried about waste as he professes, then perhaps he should find the money to fund universities and research in line with the kinds of country Australia should hope one day to become.

Research shows that it would be an economically sound investment.

This is what the peer-review process on my latest grant looked like.

The ConversationRob Brooks, Scientia Professor of Evolutionary Ecology; Director, Evolution & Ecology Research Centre, UNSW Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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The Rejection of Expertise

by Tim Harding

(An edited version of this essay was published in The Skeptic magazine,
September 2015, Vol 36 No 3 p.36,  titled ‘Who needs to Know?’ It has since been republished in the Australian Doctor magazine 30 October 2015. 
The essay is based on a talk presented to the Victorian Skeptics in May 2015 ).

Anti-vaccination campaigner, Meryl Dorey is on record as saying that we should ‘do our own research’ instead of accepting what the doctors and other qualified experts tell us.  Seasoned skeptics will be aware that ‘Do your own research!’ is a common retort by cranks and conspiracy theorists to those who dare to doubt their claims.  It is a convenient escape hatch they use when trying to win a debate without the bothersome burden of providing their own evidence.

Of course, what they mean by this exhortation is not to do any actual scientific or medical research.  It takes a bit of tertiary education in the relevant field to be able to do that.  For them, ‘research’ means nothing more than googling for an hour or so on the Internet. They naively equate such googling with the years of study and experience it takes to become a qualified expert.  Their message is that anybody with internet access can become an instant but unqualified expert on anything.  Or worse still, that expertise doesn’t even count – all opinions are equal.

The reality is that googling is a notoriously unreliable source of information – there are sound reasons why Wikipedia is not allowed to be cited as a source in university assignments.  The problem is that without expertise in the field in question, few googlers are capable of knowing which sources are reliable and which aren’t.  Anything found on the internet becomes ‘knowledge’.  Mere opinions become ‘facts’.

Another problem is that googlers are often unaware of the wider knowledge context of the specific pieces of information they have found on the internet. In contrast, experts are as much aware of what they don’t know as what they do know.  As Professor Stephan Lewandowsky of the University of Bristol puts it:

‘Here is the catch: to know how much more there is to know requires knowledge to begin with.  If you start without knowledge, you also do not know what you are missing out on.’

This paradox gives rise to a famous result in experimental psychology known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Named after Justin Kruger and David Dunning, it refers to a study they published in 1999. This study found that people who lack the knowledge or wisdom to perform well are often unaware of this fact. This is almost more dangerous than complete ignorance, because unlike Donald Rumsfeld, they don’t even know what they don’t know.

Professor Tom Nichols, a US national security expert wrote last year about the ‘death of expertise’; a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of divisions between professionals and amateurs, teachers and students, knowers and wonderers – between those with any expertise in an area and those with none at all.  He sees this situation as not only a rejection of knowledge, but also the processes of knowledge acquisition – a rejection of science and other pursuits of rationality.

Nichols is particularly critical of otherwise intelligent people who are ‘doing their own research’ on the internet and second-guessing their doctors by refusing to vaccinate their children, leading to an entirely avoidable resurgence of dangerous infectious diseases such as whooping cough and measles.

So how did it all come to this sorry state of affairs?  I think that there are basically four contributing factors: the blurring of facts and opinions; a misunderstanding of democracy; a misunderstanding of the Argument from Authority; and the dissipation of media accountability.  I will now discuss each of these factors in turn and then outline some benefits of listening to experts.

Blurring facts and opinions

According to the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, a fact is a state of affairs that is the case.  The usual test for a statement of fact is verifiability; that is, whether it can be demonstrated to correspond to experience.  Scientific facts are verified by repeatable careful observation or experiment.  In other words, a fact is that which makes a true statement true.  For instance, the statement ‘It is raining’ describes the fact that it actually is raining.  The rain that falls can be objectively measured in a rain gauge – it is not just a matter of opinion.

On the other hand, an opinion is a judgment, viewpoint, or statement about matters commonly considered to be subjective, such as ‘It is raining too much’.  As Plato said: ‘opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance’.

The last few decades have seen the growth of a postmodernist notion that truth is culturally relative and that all opinions are equal.  What’s worse is a gradual blurring of the important distinction between facts and opinions.  A disturbing feature of the public debate about climate change is the confusion between science and policy.  Because they conflict with some political policies, there is a tendency for the findings of climate scientists to be treated as ‘just another opinion’.  This is a marked change from a few decades ago, when the findings of epidemiologists about the links between smoking and cancer were widely accepted as facts rather than opinions.

Misunderstanding democracy

Reducing the influence of experts is sometimes mistakenly described as ‘the democratisation of ideas’.  Democracy is a system of government – it is not an equality of opinions.  Whilst the right of free speech prevents governments from suppressing opinions, it does not require citizens to treat all opinions equally or even take them into account.  Equal rights do not result in equal knowledge and skills.  As Professor Brian Cox has said:

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Deakin University philosopher Dr. Patrick Stokes has argued the problem with ‘I’m entitled to my opinion’ is that it has become shorthand for ‘I can say or think whatever I like’ without justification; and that disagreement is somehow disrespectful.  Stokes suggests that this attitude feeds into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse.

Professor Michael Clark of LaTrobe University gives an example of a public meeting recently, when a participant asked a question that referred to some research, a senior public servant replied: ‘Oh, everyone has a scientific study to justify their position, there is no end to the studies you could cite, I am sure, to support your point of view.’  Clark describes this is a cynical statement, where there are no absolute truths and everyone’s opinion must be treated as equally valid.  In this intellectual framework, the findings of science can be easily dismissed as one of many conflicting views of reality.

Misunderstanding the Argument from Authority

A common response from cranks and conspiracy theorists (and even some skeptics) to citations of expertise is ‘that’s just the argument from authority fallacy’.  Such a response ignores the obvious fact that all scientific papers and other forms of academic writing are chock full of citations of experts.  The notion that the written outputs of the world’s universities and scientific institutions are all based on a logical fallacy is preposterous.  Anybody who thinks that has clearly not thought through the implications of what they are saying.

The Argument from Authority is often misunderstood to be a fallacy in all cases, when this is not necessarily so.  The argument becomes a fallacy only when used deductively, or where there is insufficient inductive strength to support the conclusion of the argument.

The most general form of the deductive fallacy is:

Premise 1: Source A says that statement p is true.

Premise 2: Source A is authoritative.

Conclusion: Therefore, statement p is true.

Even when the source is authoritative, this argument is still deductively invalid because the premises can be true, and the conclusion false (i.e. an authoritative claim can turn out to be false). This fallacy is known as ‘Appeal to Authority’.

The fallacy is compounded when the source is not an authority on the relevant subject matter. This is known as Argument from false or misleading authority.

Although reliable authorities are correct in judgments related to their area of expertise more often than laypersons, they can occasionally come to the wrong judgments through error, bias or dishonesty. Thus, the argument from authority is at best a probabilistic inductive argument rather than a deductive argument for establishing facts with certainty. Nevertheless, the probability sometimes can be very high – enough to qualify as a convincing cogent argument. For example, astrophysicists tell us that black holes exist. The rest of us are in no position to either verify or refute this claim. It is rational to accept the claim as being true, unless and until the claim is shown to be false by future astrophysicists (the first of whom would probably win a Nobel Prize for doing so). An alternative explanation that astrophysicists are engaged in a worldwide conspiracy to deceive us all would be implausible and irrational.

An artist’s depiction of a black hole

As the prominent British environmental activist Mark Lynas has said ‘…if an overwhelming majority of experts say something is true, then any sensible non-expert should assume that they are probably right.’

Thus there is no fallacy entailed in arguing that the advice of an expert in his or her field should be accepted as true, at least for the time being, unless and until it is effectively refuted. A fallacy only arises when it is claimed or implied that the expert is infallible and that therefore his or her advice must be true as a deductive argument, rather than as a matter of probability.  Criticisms of cogent arguments from authority can actually be a rejection of expertise, which is a fallacy of its own.

The Argument from Authority is sometimes mistakenly confused with the citation of references, when done to provide published evidence in support of the point the advocate is trying to make. In these cases, the advocate is not just appealing to the authority of the author, but providing the source of evidence so that readers can check the evidence themselves if they wish. Such citations of evidence are not only acceptable reasoning, but are necessary to avoid plagiarism.

Expert opinion can also constitute evidence and is often accepted as such by the courts.  For example, if you describe your symptoms to your doctor and he or she provides an opinion that you have a certain illness, that opinion is evidence that you have that illness. It is not necessary for your doctor to cite references when giving you his or her expert opinion, let alone convince you with a cogent argument. In some cases, expert opinion can carry sufficient inductive strength on its own.

Dissipation of media accountability

I have no doubt that the benefits of the internet generally outweigh the costs.  However, there are some downsides that need be considered rather than just glossed over.  An obvious negative is the decline of newspapers and competent professional journalism.  Specialist science or medical journalists are a rarity these days.  Generalist journalists often get their science stories wrong, or engage in misleading false balance – the equating of professional expertise with amateur ignorance.

Another problem is the blurring of the distinction between journalism and blogging – and I say this as a blogger myself.  Unlike bloggers, journalists are subject to professional standards and editorial control. Some bloggers are anonymous, which removes their accountability to even their own readers for the accuracy of what they write.

There is a risk that when non-experts google, they are inclined to give equal weight to information from both professional journalists and amateur bloggers, regardless of its reliability and accuracy.

Benefits of expertise

Whilst experts are human and can mistakes, they have a pretty good batting average compared to laypersons.  The advice that experts provide is far more likely to be true than advice from non-experts in the field in question.  This has obvious benefits for society as a whole, for example in terms of public health and safety, environmental protection and managing the economy.  There are good reasons why we don’t let amateurs design aircraft, bridges and tall buildings.  But there are also some major benefits for the individual in listening to advice from experts as opposed to non-experts.

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For instance, if you trust your doctor, you’re actually more likely to do better when you’re sick, according to a study recently published by General Hospital Psychiatry.  This study, of 119 people with either breast, cervical, intestinal or prostate cancer, found that from three months following diagnosis, those patients who did not trust their doctors were not only more distressed but also more physically disabled.  They were less likely, for example, to be able to go for long walks or take care of themselves.  Patients who felt anxious about being rejected and abandoned suffered the most from not trusting their doctors.

Trusting your doctor has clear health benefits. You’ll be more likely to try new drugs, follow your treatment plan (jointly agreed with your trustworthy doctor), share important medical information, take preventative measures (e.g. screening) and have better-controlled diabetes and blood pressure.

Up to half of the failures in treatment reported by patients are due to not following the regime suggested by doctors.  This increases the risk of hospitalisation and extended ill health.  Another study at the University of California has found a small but statistically significant association between how much patients trusted their doctors and how much their symptoms improved within two weeks (allowing for different factors that could have influenced the outcome).

As Professor Michael Clark has said, people who use Dr. Google to diagnose their symptoms before visiting an actual doctor, sometimes ask to be tested for diseases they do not have, or waste time seeking a second opinion because they are convinced that their ‘research’ has led them to a correct diagnosis. If it were really that easy, would doctors have to spend all those years in medical school? Prof. Clark has also said that:

“Using Google to find the answer to Trivial Pursuit questions is not the same as researching a complex question. Experts do have skills and one of those is the ability to use high quality sources, up to date theoretical frameworks, and critical thinking based on their experience in a particular field. This is why an expert’s answers are going to be more accurate and more nuanced than a novice.”

References

Clark, M., and Lawler, S., ‘Why we need to listen to the real experts in science’.  The Conversation. January 1, 2015.

Harding, T., ‘Argument from authority’. The Logical Place. June 23, 2013.

Hinnen et al. ‘Lower levels of trust in one’s physician is associated with more distress over time in more anxiously attached individuals with cancer’. Gen Hosp Psychiatry. 2014 Jul-Aug;36(4):382-7.

Lewandowsky, S., and Pancost, R., ‘Are you a poor logician?‘ Logically, you might never know’. The Conversation. November 6, 2014.

Nichols, T., ‘The Death Of Expertise’. The Federalist, January 17, 2014.

Stokes, P., ‘No, you’re not entitled to your opinion’. The Conversation. October 5, 2012.

Thom, D.H., et al. ‘Measuring Patients’ Trust In Physicians When Assessing Quality Of Care’.  Health Aff (Millwood), University of California. 2004 Jul-Aug;23(4):124-32.

Further reading

Nichols, T., ‘The Death Of Expertise’. Oxford University Press, 2017.

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Governments shouldn’t be able to censor research results they don’t like

The Conversation

Kypros Kypri, University of Newcastle

Government departments and agencies routinely commission research to help them understand and respond to health, social and other problems. We expect such research to be impartial and unbiased. But governments impose legal conditions on such research that can subvert science and the public interest.

Gagging clauses in contracts permit purchasers of research to modify, substantially delay, or prohibit the reporting of findings.

A 2006 survey of health scientists in Australia shows such clauses have been invoked by our federal and state governments to sanitise the reporting of “failings in health services … the health status of a vulnerable group … or … harm in the environment …”. And in a paper published today in the Medical Journal of Australia, I describe my experience of a contract negotiation with a government department where gagging clauses became an issue.

A rude shock

My colleagues and I were pretty happy when we were notified that our application for funding to study a new treatment for risky drinking had been successful. But then we received a draft contract with clauses that could potentially be used to sanitise the study findings, prohibit publication, or even terminate the project without notice or explanation via a “Termination for Convenience” clause.

That experience led us to initiate a formal study of the kinds of contracts governments use to purchase public good research in Australia. Draft contracts obtained through the Commonwealth’s AusTender website and its state equivalents show these documents often contain gagging clauses. And informal enquiries with universities suggest that Termination for Convenience clauses are common and accepted within the sector as a “cost of doing business” with government.

It’s important to note that these concerns don’t pertain to specialist funders of science such as the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council. What I am talking about here are government agencies that commission research to guide their activities and policy advice to government.

And while my area of expertise is health science, a brief examination of tenders for research in other domains suggests that gagging clauses are not unique to health.

Universities as the conscience of society

Private companies that provide research services to governments are motivated by profit, rather than public good, and may have no problem with accepting gagging clauses as long as they’re paid. But universities have ethical and legal obligations to serve the public interest.

A noteworthy aspect of my contract negotiation was that the university involved would probably have signed the restrictive contract offered. The experience of other health scientists and the government department’s comment in my case that the contract was standard (essentially asking what were we complaining about) suggest such arrangements are the norm.

But the idea that academics should be frank and fearless in their reporting and commentary is codified in the acts of parliament used to establish our universities, as well as in the Commonwealth’s Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Act 2011:

The higher education provider protects academic integrity in higher education through effective policies and measures to: … ensure the integrity of research and research activity; [and] ensure that academic staff are free to make public comment on issues that lie within their area of expertise…

Universities have an obligation to the public and should be careful when faced with gagging clauses. Juli/Flickr, CC BY

Some reasons why

So how has this culture of suppression come about? I hypothesise four processes underpinning this phenomenon:

1) Governments are increasingly image-conscious and active in managing the information environment. Research seems to have become more a means of providing support for a policy position than for generating knowledge to guide policy.

2) Lawyers with experience in the corporate environment are more often being employed in government, drafting contracts that are adversarial in character where they used to be cooperative. A similar proclivity to employ lawyers from the corporate world in university research offices may have contributed to loss of institutional memory about universities’ conscience of society role.

3) The squeeze on research funding from dedicated sources, such as the ARC and the NHMRC, has encouraged universities to compete more for government contracts.

4) Casualisation of the research workforce means people undertaking research are less able to be choosy about the kinds of projects they undertake.

Embracing partnership

In his seminal paper The Experimenting Society, Donald Campbell lamented the tendency of mid-20th-century American governments to commit to certain policy positions in the absence of evidence, rather than trying to generate the knowledge necessary to underpin better policy.

Similarly, Australian governments undertake policy experiments of one sort or another, perhaps every week, yet little is learned from them. These need to be recognised as opportunities to extend knowledge of how to generate wealth and well-being, and address society’s problems.

But that will require a change in the orientation of governments to recognising the need for evidence-based policy and, where evidence is inadequate, to contribute to generating relevant evidence through ethical funding of public good research. Effective partnership with scientists in the planning of evaluation is needed to accomplish that.

In turn, universities must revisit their founding principles, which include obligations to undertake research that benefits the public they are funded to serve, and to protect and encourage the role of public advocacy.

To be effective, there needs to be a sector-wide effort to modify the way governments purchase research. Situations in which secrecy about findings would be warranted would surely be rare and require strong justification.

The ConversationKypros Kypri is Professor, Public Health, Epidemiology & Prevention of Alcohol-related Injury and Disease at University of Newcastle.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Seven myths about scientists debunked

The Conversation

By Jeffrey Craig, Murdoch Childrens Research Institute and Marguerite Evans-Galea, Murdoch Childrens Research Institute

As scientific researchers, we are often surprised by some of the assumptions made about us by those outside our profession. So we put together a list of common myths we and our colleagues have heard anecdotally regarding scientific researchers.

Myth 1: Researchers are paid by their research institutes

A research-focused academic will be provided with excellent colleagues, space, core technical support and often some money for lab maintenance. But not always a salary. Tenure is rare and is more likely to occur in universities but usually with teaching commitments.

The requirement for most researchers is to attract their own salary and research funding from outside their institute. This is typically in the form of competitive government grants, philanthropy and/or industry collaborations.

Scientific researchers are finding it harder to fund themselves due to reduced competitive grant funding. Luckily, some research organisations have a “safety net”, offering subsidies for limited amounts of time to top-performing researchers who have not funded their own salaries.

Myth 2: Researchers are paid to publish in journals

Surprisingly, unlike contributors to off-the-shelf journals and magazines, researchers have to pay the journals to publish their papers after they have been accepted for publication.

This is because, unlike mainstream publications, scientific journals generally do not receive money from advertisers. Costs can range up to A$2,000 per article, and up to US$5,700 (A$7,359) for “open access” journals, which do not charge a subscription fee. With most researchers publishing between five and ten papers a year, this can quickly add up.

Myth 3: Researchers are paid for working long hours

Scientific researchers are typically paid for between 37 and 39 hours per week.

However, due to a combination of healthy obsession, the increasing cost of experiments and the pressure to compete for an ever-shrinking pool of funds, many put in up to twice these hours, often working evenings and weekends.

In contrast to those in the legal and accounting professions, for example, no overtime is paid to scientific researchers.

Myth 4: Worthy research always gets funded

In 1937, the success rate for medical research grants was 49%, with a total of 63 applications made.

Through to 2000, success rates hovered around 30%, meaning one in three grants were funded. This sustained research careers and allowed growth in the research workforce. Today, around 7,000 PhD students graduate each year, with more than half in science, technology, engineering and maths.

In 2014, however, the success rate for most Australian government funded research grants hit a 30-year low of 15%, with another drop predicted for 2015. With 4,800 grant applications every year, there is a lot of excellent research – and researchers – missing out.

This issue was highlighted recently by four Australian Nobel Laureates. Unfunded research is often terminated, leading to a loss of valuable resources, such as specialised disease models and highly skilled research staff.

Myth 5: Researchers can claim costs of journal subscriptions and society memberships

Subscribing to leading journals is essential for staying up to date with discoveries in one’s research area research as soon as they are published. A typical subscription will be a few hundred dollars each year.

Although many journals are available free via university libraries, many make their articles available only to personal subscribers in the first year after they’re published.

It is also important that researchers keep in contact with colleagues via societies, and a researcher will often hold two to five different memberships. Generally, grant funding bodies do not allow budgets to include such items, and most research institutes will not provide funding either.

The best a typical researcher can do is to claim part of these expenses back as a tax deduction.

Myth 6: Researchers are trained to write and to manage budgets

In general, there are no compulsory courses in science communication, grant writing or budget management. These are usually picked up from mentors and from trial and error.

Progressive research institutes and university departments may offer some training in these areas, but again, this is not systematic.

Myth 7: Researchers have a career for life

Gone are the days of “once a researcher, always a researcher”. This is partly due to the “casualisation” of Australia’s research workforce and higher education sector, but also the high turnover of research personnel.

Most researchers sign a 12 month contract – sometimes less. Senior investigators with Fellowships may receive a contract for the duration of their fellowship, but few, if any, are considered “permanent employees”.

This is not unique to scientific research, but this short-term, high-risk career path has serious consequences for all researchers, particularly women in science.

Young investigators are being encouraged to consider careers beyond research and some of our best and brightest are choosing to stay abroad.

The truth

It’s also a myth that all scientists wear white coats and work in labs. Source: woodleywonderworks/Flickr, CC BY

Scientists are passionate about their research and readily do overtime and work pro bono (minus the executive assistant and company car), all while seeking funds for their salary, and for those in their team.

This is after more than a decade of higher education enabling the researcher to become an international specialist in their field. A huge investment for the individual, the government and society. Few researchers complain though because of the joys of research, the thrill of discovery and the desire to help others.

We hope this has helped shed some light on the life of a scientific researcher, and dispelled a few myths that are floating around about how and why we do what we do.

Scientists want you to “get” what we do. After all, our science impacts you too, and much of it is funded through your tax dollars. Increased investment in Australian science, together with diversified training of the research workforce, will secure the future of Australian research and researchers – and every Australian.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.


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