Why “Science-Based” Matters

Why the White House’s request of the CDC is so troubling

Posted Dec 16, 2017

geralt / pixabay
Source: geralt / pixabay

While psychology is an extremely broad endeavor, underlying the entirety of the field is a focus on the use of scientific methods to understand what it means to be human. While psychologists famously disagree with one another on all kinds of issues, we generally are in agreement on the basics of the scientific and statistical methods that underlie the work in our field.

So you might not be surprised that I was not exactly thrilled to hear that the White House has, reportedly, requested (demanded?) that the Center for Disease Control (AKA the CDC) not use seven terms of phrases in their communications. According to a recent report from Newsweek, these terms and phrases include the following:

  • Science-based

And

  • Evidence-based

As a scholar who engages in the scientific process on a daily basis - and as the author of a textbook on statistics, you might guess that this situation gets my goat! While I am a vocal advocate of a plurality of perspectives and ideologies in a free society, I am not an advocate, in any way shape or form, of government getting in the way of the scientific process. And I think we should be particularly concerned about government taking steps to impede the scientific progress of the CDC, the arm of our national operations charged with the important task of reducing disease and advancing the health of the citizens of our nation. When government starts taking proactive steps to stifle the work of the scientists of the CDC, we have a problem on our hands.

What does “science-based” mean?

In the field of the behavioral sciences, where I live, we use the term science-based regularly. It essentially means that some decision that is made is done in a way that takes scientific methods and/or results into account. If you are going to implement some policy on some issue, you should make sure that scientific research on that issues strongly indicates that your decision is the best one.

As an example, suppose that you are managing a school cafeteria. Now suppose that a recent report has come out suggesting that there has been a recent set of large-scale scientific studies showing that the artificial sweetener that is used in some of the products you are serving to the kids in the district has been documented to have long-term carcinogenic effects - i.e., it’s cancerous. You have experts from your district examine the reports and you see that they have been conducted by PhD scientists at multiple universities and that the reports have been published in peer-reviewed scholarly journals related to health.

This is easy, right? The best decision on behalf of the kids of the district would be to ban foods that use that particular sweetener. If you made such a decision based on the information presented here, that decision would, thus, be based on the scientific work at hand. Or, in a phrase, the decision would be science-based.

What does “evidence-based” mean?

As I see it, evidence-based is very close in meaning to science-based. If a decision is based on evidence, that means that evidence related to the issues at hand were taken into account in making the decision.

Just to add to the illustration of these points, imagine that you are the director of a psychological counseling center on campus. Now imagine that your campus does not have a 24-hour crisis hotline for students who find themselves in crisis for one reason or another. Now picture this: Your supervisor, the dean for student affairs, sends you a report on best practices in dealing with mental health issues on a college campus. This report cites multiple studies demonstrating that universities that have crisis hotlines show greater success in facilitating positive mental health outcomes among students (based on markers of mental health outcomes that are standard in this area of inquiry). The studies that were cited were conducted by PhDs at multiple universities and were published in multiple peer-reviewed scholarly journals.

If you were the director of the counseling center, you would probably be wise to start looking into what all would be needed to launch a crisis hotline on your campus. Such a decision would be based on the evidence provided by the scientists who conducted the research that you are basing your decision on. In other words, the decision to consider starting a crisis hotline on your campus would be evidence-based.

Do we want decisions made on policies at our institutions of education, health, and government across the nation to be evidence-based? Of course we do. This is self-evident.

What Terms Should the Scientists of the CDC Use Instead?

Given the specific meanings of the terms science-based and evidence-based, it seems difficult for me to imagine how the scientists in the CDC should actually go about communicating regarding their work and dance around these terms. According the Newsweek article, and the parent Washington Post article that it connects with, the staff of the CDC were told that:

“The “CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes.”

To my mind, this is a fully unacceptable option. Terms used by scientists are used for specific reasons. They have specific meanings in the field and have been developed and established over decades of work by experts in the field.

Banning words that can be used by experts in a public agency is, as I see it, nothing short of totalitarianism. When thousands of us marched around the US, standing for science in the March for Science, this is exactly what we were afraid of.

Science is, of course, not an issue of the left or the right. Science is what it is. As I see it, science is the set of best practices of inquiry, shaped by millions of thinkers over hundreds of human generations, to help us understand any and all phenomena in the universe. Silencing scientists is simply not in the interests of the people. And it is not a way to move forward.

Bottom Line

The interface of science, policy, and government can be a bit ambiguous at times. And sure, there are always all kinds of issues that need to be balanced and taken into account. This said, based on the definitional features of the phrases science-based and evidence-based, there are no optimal semantic substitutes.

If you’re interested in advancing the human condition, then you’d better realize that empowering the scientists in our world is foundational. The second that the government starts telling us scientists what terms we are allowed to use, I say that it’s time to exercise our first amendment rights. Here is to the future of science in the USA.