Today at a coffee shop I spied a bit on the greeting and conversation of two men who appeared to be close friends who hadn’t seen each other in a while. As one of them went up to get his coffee, he asked the other if he would like one. The man said yes – even though he had already had a lot today. It wasn’t a problem, he said, as he had just heard of a new study which found that men who drink a lot of coffee have lower rates of prostate cancer.
The study he is referring to was recently widely reported in media (CBC, Science Daily, MSNBC, CBS News, etc.). It purports that men who drink 6 or more cups of coffee a day are less likely to get an aggressive form of prostate cancer (original research here).
The men had a little chuckle (and a little more coffee) and went about their reunion, while I started thinking about the encounter as reflective of the relationships between science and publics. In the CBC news article, one of the researchers is quoted:
It is premature to recommend that men increase coffee intake to reduce advanced prostate cancer risk based on this single study. In addition, the effects of coffee consumption on other aspects of health must be considered in making consumption recommendations.
So, as readers we can’t take away much more from the study than “that’s interesting. They should keep working on that.” As a supporter of and advocate for science, this notion resonates with me. But I wonder if that is enough for others.
While cautious statements like these mean much in the context of science which places so much emphasis on qualification and admitting limitations, they provide very little guidance on how publics should act on the knowledge produced. I can’t know whether the study actually informed the decision-making of the man at the coffee shop; however, I think the conversation illustrates a typical disjoint in the translation of the ‘official recommendation’ that comes from science to the everyday lives of people who are plunking along making decisions towards their short and long term health, happiness, and satisfaction. They make these decisions in a context where there is too little known and where too much of what is known is contradictory. And they make these decisions using knowledge that comes from diverse realms of life – not just science.
Since the study cannot offer any actionable advice, how are publics to “digest” the knowledge shared? Certainly if it is the case that the man decided to drink more coffee because of the study, this means that the disclaimer provided by the researchers may not be what “sticks” in the minds of readers about the research. The coffee shop encounter, then, raises ethical questions for researchers who are sharing their work. What if it is later found that the harms of drinking coffee outweigh the benefits? Or that there is some other explanation for the results of the study that are unrelated to compounds in coffee? I could go on – but the point is that uncertainty colours the knowledge produced by this study in many different ways. If it is the case that the man drank more coffee because of the study, their disclaimer does not absolve them of facing the ethical challenge posed by uncertainty in scientific knowledge. Still, if only “absolutely certain” results were shared with the public, well, we’d never hear from science again.
So my questions are: At what point in the production of scientific knowledge is it most advantageous to inform publics of what scientists are doing and finding? How should the knowledge be presented?