A couple of weeks ago I had a cholesterol test. (That involves taking a blood sample, and I was relieved that this time I didn’t faint.) I collected my results from the doctor’s surgery earlier this week. The nurse handed me a piece of paper, with lots of numbers on, and provided me the reassuring comment "yeah, those look fine."
Anything more specific? No. What exactly does X mmol/L of triglyceride actually mean? I assume it means I had X millimoles of triglyceride compounds per litre of sampled blood, but what is normal for someone my age? What is considered acceptable? Does this mean there are issues with my diet? So it was left for me to sift through hundreds of trashy ask-the-doctor websites till I found some reasonable stuff on what cholesterol tests tested for, how variable the results were, and what that actually meant in terms of health, diet choices, etc. And, yes, after suitable education, I came to the same conclusion as the nurse: "yeah, those look fine."
Without some kind of informed comment, scientific data can be pretty meaningless to the average guy on the street (Just as my cholesterol numbers were initially meaningless to me.) Whose job is it to provide that comment? Last night, we had a great Cafe Scientifique discussion with Aimee Whitcroft (Science Media Centre – sciblogs followers will know her I’m sure), about how science journalism works in New Zealand. Often journalists (particularly in NZ where there are not enough of them to specialise deeply) would love to be able to put that informed comment into their writing, but are prevented from doing so by lack of understanding themselves. That is where they have to talk to scientists who know the area. And scientists should be prepared to make such comments. Not every member of the public has the skill, the patience, or the scientific discernment to trawl through the literature and find these things out for themselves. Remember, data doesn’t equal information.