A few weeks ago, our medical director, Chuck Dinerstein, sat down to discuss ACSH with Great.com on their podcast “Great Talks With.” Great.com is a Swedish company funded by online gambling and dedicated to talking “with organizations and experts dedicated to doing good in the world.” Dr. Dinerstein discusses our role in separating science fact from science fiction in a media environment where trustworthy commentary is difficult to find.
The following conversation with Great.com has been gently edited so that it reads well.
Spirit Rosenberg: Every day, you and I get bombarded with negative news. Just like the body becomes what we eat, the mind becomes what we're putting in. It is important to listen to stories that not only give you hope but also inspire you and uplift you. In this podcast, we're interviewing experts who will break down the solutions to the world's most pressing problems. And I promise you, if you listen to this podcast, you'll not only stay informed, but you'll also feel more energy. Welcome to great.com talks.
In a society with so much information, how can I actually trust to get reliable information? Today we're going to talk about information and science with the American Council on Science and Health, a nonprofit organization that advocates for reliable information. And our guest is their medical director, Charles Dinerstein, MD.
So I guess the tricky part here is to tell what is the truth there? I guess that is what science is at least trying to help us to understand better. So help me see what different forces are there, who is trying to influence what the truth is on the spectrum?
Charles Dinerstein: Well, there is no "truth" to science. I like to think about science in two ways. Science is a verb as in the scientific method, as in being curious, as in exploring things. And I don't think that any of us would have a problem with that. I believe that science has gone a long way towards improving our lives. But science, the noun, is where there's a lot of yelling and screaming. Science in terms of the facts makes a difference because science is predicated on the idea that the facts may change over time. I mean, you can take a classic example. It used to be that the sun revolved around the earth. That was a fact up until Galileo and Copernicus came along and said, well, maybe it's not such a fact anymore and proved that the situation was different. The same holds for a lot of the beliefs we have today, let's talk for a second about air pollution, and let me be real clear. We all want clean air.
Our science has been able to measure the pollutants in our outside environment, we can do that well, and all the regulations pertaining to air pollution have to do with things we can measure. So, 2.5 and 10 particulate matter are the things we can measure, they're the things we can regulate. Over time, we've seen two things. One is that we've discovered that our definitions we're lacking. As those definitions became more and more refined over time, somethings that we've regulated in the past are no longer necessarily a problem. More importantly, we spend nearly 90 percent of our time indoors now, and the outdoor air has a smaller effect on our lives than it may have in the past.
Because we live in buildings that are air-conditioned with windows that can't be opened, with heating system, and so a lot of the indoor pollution, the things that we might associate with making us ill, come from things that we bring in the house, cooking, all the fragrances and cleaning products we use. Those are things that we could easily say we don't want to have that would change the level of quote "pollutants" in the air. When you look globally, the biggest source of indoor air pollution is the use of wood for cooking. Because India and China have such a large population, that skews the numbers regarding the "facts" of science. Science, the noun is, where a lot of the controversy takes place. You see it today with all the back and forth over COVID-19
Spirit Rosenberg: So, what would you say would be the message that you share?
Charles Dinerstein: I think that our message. Is that the facts that we have about science are all subject to change over time. There are best beliefs at the moment, and we should take them as the best belief, but we don't. They're not immutable laws passed down from the creator or from the God of science. They're all subject to constant review.
And so, given that framework, it's very tough to deal with people that are very dogmatic about it has to be this one particular way. The nature of what science is really about a way of explaining. It's not a dogma. When it works, it works very well.
The American Council on Science and Health offers another voice. I think one of the big differences for us is that our writing staff are all scientists. I include myself as a physician. I'm an applied scientist. We're not attorneys. We're not looking for a regulatory agenda to push. We're just trying to report what we're seeing in the sciences that we look at. I have a longstanding interest in health. I have a big interest in frailty and how diseases impact our lives, and how these diseases come and go. I find articles and what I think is cutting edge of science, and I bring them to our readership. I explain new concepts that weren't there for me in medical school, let alone for somebody that just had a biology class in college.
We explain those kinds of things, and we share with them articles from the mainstream scientific health literature, share what other scientists are writing about. None of it is conclusive. But it does kind of fill in the gaps of what's missing. Again, let me give you another example. This last week, Pew Research came out with a study on American opinions about Covid-19 vaccines. In the headline that was picked up by the mainstream media, they showed that 60 percent of Americans are now willing to consider taking a Covid-19 vaccine, up from 40 percent from a few months ago. That was the big headline. But if you spend a few minutes actually reading their entire report, which very few people are going to do. There were a lot of other very interesting things in it. In fact, probably the most interesting, from my point of view, was that the black American community is the most vaccine-hesitant of all the groups that they looked at. They're the group that's probably the greatest at-risk, and that's going to become a problem in the next few months as we try to roll out vaccination. How will we reach into that community, which has very legitimate reasons for being hesitant about some offering from the medical community, and get them appropriately vaccinated? That's the kind of difference you get when you look at our writing. We get a little bit farther behind the headlines and share with you some of the science and the understanding behind it that you won't get from looking on the Internet and Dr. Google.
Spirit Rosenberg: Dr. Google., That example really helps to understand what it is that you're doing. Do you have a lot of scientists who are doing this as full time work?
Charles Dinerstein: Well, I wish there were a lot of people. We have three full-time writers that are producing direct content on a daily basis. We have two to three hundred member board of scientific advisors who also contribute articles. There's probably 10 or 12 writers who provide this kind of content over the course of a week. We probably produce five hundred original pieces over the course of a year. We are looking at various aspects of science or regulatory policy. We try to cover a large range of topics that we think are important to the general public.
Spirit Rosenberg: Give me some examples of what would be controversial standpoints, where people might disagree with what you have actually found from science.
Charles Dinerstein: OK. There is no evidence that organic food is more nutritious. I pick my words carefully, more nutritious. Will some people feel that it's safer? Yes. Am I going to fight with them about it? No, that's their choice. I understand that. I don't think that there's a great deal of evidence to show that it's far safer. But I recognize that this is a difference of opinion and it's their comfort level. That's fine. But there's no science to show that it's a more nutritious version of a tomato than one that's grown in a different setting. Maybe more tasty, but not necessarily more nutritious; you have to ask, do you want to pay the premium to have an identical food? That would be one of the things that we could wrangle about,
Or GMOs. There is this statistic that I like to repeat. The same group of people that feel that science backs up the claim that the climate is changing, which it does. It's the same group that says science says GMOs are bad. But when you look at the scientific organizations, 98% of scientists feel that climate change is related to our behavior, 99% of scientists believe GMOs are OK. So, they're picking and choosing what science they want to believe. You're picking and choosing the science of nouns, not the science of verbs.
I can understand the argument about why specific GMOs would bother them, especially the ones that were created when you use bacterial and animal vectors to get the DNA into a crop, I can understand why they would have some concerns about that, but I don't think that those concerns have been borne out. I think that the newer techniques using CRISPR will get around those points. It's worth looking at whether GMOs have a legitimate place in our society today, especially if you believe all the science that reports on how warming weather will change our produce's content. Then GMOs may be a way to mitigate some of those changes. Again, you don't have to fully agree with me, but I'd like you to listen, hear the argument, and understand the science so that we can have a conversation so that we don't talk past one another. That's the important part of having that relationship. I'm not talking past you; you're not talking past me; we're talking about what's important to both of us. We're looking for the commonality and seeing whether we can go forward.
Spirit Rosenberg: So, to summarize, the functions of society are based on policymakers' decisions, and policymakers' decisions are based on the information they have. So, you help to provide a bigger picture of the information.
Charles Dinerstein: That could be how we try to influence policy, to get information to the policymakers. More importantly, we try to get this information to the public so that they understand how and why these policies are being developed, because all policy tradeoffs. And we tried to be a little bit less agenda-driven in terms of what we think the policy should be.
Spirit Rosenberg: What would you like for people to do when they hear this interview?
OK, we have two very simple asks. First, come over to the website and read some of the things that we're writing about. Come sample what we're talking about. If you like what we have to say or if you find it irritating but at least thought-provoking, then the second ask is to help us out in terms of donation. Like all the other nonprofits this year, COVID-19 has been a real hit to everybody's revenue stream. We are a small organization. The preponderance of our finances come from small donors. If you like what we have to say, consider a donation. I probably write 20 single-spaced pages a month, so I figure I'm worth a cup of Starbucks coffee or whatever that costs. Those are the asks, but I think people would find what we write engaging, at times useful, and always educational.
Spirit Rosenberg: How can I tell if I read something, if it's reliable or not.
Charles Dinerstein: That's an interesting problem that's been with us for a long time. Scale has made that difficult. It used to be when you lived in a small village, everybody knew the village idiot, and you ignored them because they are nice guys or nice people, but you could ignore them. But in today's world, that becomes a much more difficult thing to do.
I take my approach from one of my favorite webcasts, 99% invisible, which talks about design, and they say, always read the plaque. If you're looking at a building, always read the plaque that's affixed to the building, meaning go to your primary source. And that's our approach. Every one of my articles is sourced from an article in the literature. You don't have to take my word for it. You can go and look that up. And I think that that's what makes for a trustworthy institution.
The other way to inoculate yourself is to read or look more widely. It's important to look at the contrary. View and see whether there's something in there that that's worthwhile that has a kernel of truth to it. You know, I rarely come across work where there wasn't something in there that was interesting or new or different. Curiosity may be the antidote for lack of trust.