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Professor Donald Cairns on the rise of antiscience

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Donald Cairns
Professor Donald Cairns

WE are witnessing a rise in anti-scientific thinking. US President Elect, Donald Trump, has appointed an advisor who denies climate change is caused by human activity and a health advisor who believes vaccines cause conditions such as autism.

Here in the UK, leading Conservative politician, Michael Gove, was quoted last year as saying he had “had enough of experts”, simply because the advice he received did not fit with his political views.

Meanwhile, large sections of the media regularly publish articles promoting ‘natural’ non-evidence based therapies, such as homeopathy, acupuncture and massage therapy.

What has this to do with pharmacists? Well, unless they have another type of scientist as a friend or in the family, the only scientifically literate person the public encounter on a daily basis is their local pharmacist. If you disagree, remember it wasn’t that long ago that the Royal Pharmaceutical Society ran an advertising campaign describing the pharmacist as the “Scientist in the High St”.

This places a responsibility on pharmacists to provide not only excellent pharmaceutical care, but to be the voice of reason and to speak with authority on matters of scientific interest.

It is important in these digital days of instant knowledge retrieval that pharmacists know a little bit more about a topic than the person with Google on their smartphone.

As students, every pharmacist studied physical and biological sciences as the foundations for their practice. This knowledge should not be forgotten after qualification and should provide the evidence base for all clinical practice.

But science is more than a list of facts to be learned for exams. It is a way of thinking about issues and problems, by applying a set of principles requiring every hypothesis to be confirmed by rigorous experimentation and review, before it is accepted as genuine. Pharmacists have all been trained in this discipline while undergraduates and were required to demonstrate their proficiency by examination, viva or OSCE.

Some aspects of science are difficult to grasp. I, for one, still can’t get my head round immunology, for example. However, only by promoting a scientifically rigorous view of the world are we going to provide the best care for our patients.

Professor Donald Cairns is Head of School for Pharmacy and Life Sciences

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