Should those with Scientific Backgrounds be More Assertive?

By Michael Edmonds 08/10/2013 8

A colleague of mine was at a social gathering when he was told by a naturopath that our skin is like a 3rd kidney. This caught him off guard and for the sake of not arguing he let it slide. And I can understand why – sometimes when you challenge pseudoscientific ideas you can get a very negative response, often based around the whole “everyone’s beliefs are equally valid”.

But I think we do need to be more assertive when confronted with strange ideas for several reasons.

First, people may be entitled to their own beliefs (although I would argue some beliefs also need to be challenged) but they are not entitled to their own facts.

Second, if such beliefs aren’t queried and corrected where necessary, then they tend to propagate.

If I were to meet a mechanic at a social event and tell him (or her) that a steering wheel is like a tyre, I doubt I would get away with it without being corrected or asked what the hell I was on about. Yet, we seem to have this sensitivity as scientists/scientifically trained people, about being seen as arrogant or aloof if we correct people.

Perhaps some of the solution is in how we counter such strange ideas. I’ve usually found asking questions such as “what makes you say that?” or “where did you hear that?” can be useful to tease out where this idea has come from. Then perhaps an injection of some correct scientific information to hopefully make the person reconsider what they have said.

Even if they don’t change what they believe immediately, they at least have heard something different – and those around them who might have otherwise accepted and propagated the belief have now heard an alternative, and hopefully more convincing view.

Some examples of strange beliefs I have heard being promoted over the years include:

“we only use 10% of our brain”

“If lettuce wilts it becomes toxic”

“microwaves mutate food”

8 Responses to “Should those with Scientific Backgrounds be More Assertive?”

  • My understanding was that “third kidney” referred to the ability to remove unwanted wastes/toxins from the body. The description was apparently from old style Chinese medicine.

    Doesn’t seem so ignorant to me, but it’s not my field. If you want to get more assertive about such things, don’t be surprised if your audience quickly and quietly move elsewhere.

  • Seriously, I study the kidneys (specifically Acute Kidney Injury). The “third kidney” comment is hype – the skin does excrete some toxins (eg urea), as do the lungs etc. However, they do so in v small amounts compared to the kidneys. The kidney’s are perform a number of other functions not performed by the skin – they regulate blood pressure, salt-water balance, pH, and excrete a hormone to produce red blood cells.

    Back to trying to win that Nobel now…

  • While the skin is a great organ, as John writes it doesn’t perform the great regulatory functions of the kidney. As for the use of analogies, though, they’re an important part of communication. Wetlands are like kidneys of the water cycle, regulating and purifying water. It’s not at all that simple, or exactly true, but it’s a useful model.