Created by CK-12/Adapted by Christine Miller
As you read in the beginning of this chapter, new parents Samantha and Aki left their pediatrician’s office still unsure whether or not to vaccinate baby James. Dr. Rodriguez gave them a list of reputable sources where they could look up information about the safety of vaccines, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Samantha and Aki read that the consensus within the scientific community is that there is no link between vaccines and autism. They find a long list of studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals that disprove any link. Additionally, some of the studies are “meta-analyses” that analyzed the findings from many individual studies. The new parents are reassured by the fact that many different researchers, using a large number of subjects in numerous well-controlled and well-reviewed studies, all came to the same conclusion.
Samantha also went back to the web page that originally scared her about the safety of vaccines. She found that the author was not a medical doctor or scientific researcher, but rather a self-proclaimed “child wellness expert.” He sold books and advertising on his site, some of which were related to claims of vaccine injury. She realized that he was both an unqualified and potentially biased source of information.
Samantha also realized that some of his arguments were based on correlations between autism and vaccines, but, as the saying goes, “correlation does not imply causation.” For instance, the recent rise in autism rates may have occurred during the same time period as an increase in the number of vaccines given in childhood, but Samantha could think of many other environmental and social factors that have also changed during this time period. There are just too many variables to come to the conclusion that vaccines, or anything else, are the cause of the rise in autism rates based on that type of argument alone. Also, she learned that the age of onset of autism symptoms happens to typically be around the time that the MMR vaccine is first given, so the apparent association in the timing may just be a coincidence.
Finally, Samantha came across news about a measles outbreak in Vancouver, British Columbia in the winter of 2019. Measles wasn’t just a disease of the past! She learned that measles and whooping cough, which had previously been rare thanks to widespread vaccinations, are now on the rise, and that people choosing not to vaccinate their children seems to be one of the contributing factors. She realized that it is important to vaccinate her baby against these diseases, not only to protect him from their potentially deadly effects, but also to protect others in the population.
In their reading, Samantha and Aki learn that scientists do not yet know the causes of autism, but they feels reassured by the abundance of data that disproves any link with vaccines. Both parents think that the potential benefits of protecting their baby’s health against deadly diseases outweighs any unsubstantiated claims about vaccines. They will be making an appointment to get baby James his shots soon.
In this chapter, you learned about some of the same concepts that helped Samantha and Aki make an informed decision. Specifically:
- Science is a distinctive way of gaining knowledge about the natural world that is based on the use of evidence to logically test ideas. As such, science is a process, as well as a body of knowledge.
- A scientific theory, such as the germ theory of disease, is the highest level of explanation in science. A theory is a broad explanation for many phenomena that is widely accepted because it is supported by a great deal of evidence.
- The scientific investigation is the cornerstone of science as a process. A scientific investigation is a systematic approach to answering questions about the physical and natural world. An investigation may be observational or experimental.
- A scientific experiment is a type of scientific investigation in which the researcher manipulates variables under controlled conditions to test expected outcomes. Experiments are the gold standard for scientific investigations and can establish causation between variables.
- Nonexperimental scientific investigations such as observational studies and modeling may be undertaken when experiments are impractical, unethical, or impossible. Observational studies generally can establish correlation — but not causation — between variables.
- A pseudoscience, such as astrology, is a field that is presented as scientific but that does not adhere to scientific standards and methods. Other misuses of science include deliberate hoaxes, frauds, and fallacies made by researchers.
- Strict guidelines must be followed when using human subjects in scientific research. Among the most important protections is the requirement for informed consent.
Now that you know about the nature and process of science, you can apply these concepts in the next chapter to the study of human biology.
- Why does a good hypothesis have to be falsifiable?
- Name one scientific law.
- Name one scientific theory.
- Give an example of a scientific idea that was later discredited.
- A statistical measurement called a P-value is often used in science to determine whether or not a difference between two groups is actually significant or simply due to chance. A P-value of 0.03 means that there is a 3% chance that the difference is due to chance alone. Do you think a P-value of 0.03 would indicate that the difference is likely to be significant? Why or why not?
- Why is it important that scientists communicate their findings to others? How do they usually do this?
- What is a “control group” in science?
- In a scientific experiment, why is it important to only change one variable at a time?
- Which is the dependent variable – the variable that is manipulated or the variable that is being affected by the change?
- You see an ad for a “miracle supplement” called NQP3 that claims the supplement will reduce belly fat. They say it works by reducing the hormone cortisol and by providing your body with missing unspecified “nutrients”, but they do not cite any peer-reviewed clinical studies. They show photographs of three people who appear slimmer after taking the product. A board-certified plastic surgeon endorses the product on television. Answer the following questions about this product.
a. Do you think that because a doctor endorsed the product, it really works? Explain your answer.
b. What are two signs that these claims could actually be pseudoscience instead of true science?
c. Do you think the photographs are good evidence that the product works? Why or why not?
d. If you wanted to do a strong scientific study of whether this supplement does what it claims, what would you do? Be specific about the subjects, data collected, how you would control variables, and how you would analyze the data.
e. What are some ways that you would ensure that the subjects in your experiment in part d are treated ethically and according to human subjects protections regulations?
[Photo of person sitting in front of personal computer] by Avel Chuklanov on Unsplash is used under the Unsplash License (https://unsplash.com/license).