Don't leave it to the scientists

A nurse puts discussion board miscreants on notice about their lousy attitude toward non-scientists discussing science.
Written by Denise Amrich, Contributor

I am disturbed by the bizarre attitude that I have seen, a number of times, in the comments section of this blog about leaving medical research interpretation to "the scientists".

It's as if science is some kind of sacrosanct thing that no one who isn't a card-carrying member of some secret scientific priesthood should be allowed to even bring up in a discussion. However, we're all introduced to science as a hands-on thing in grammar school, with hopes that it'll engender a love of the discipline and a comfort level with the topic.

Maybe science education will inspire a kid enough to grow up and become a scientist, or be involved in a science-based profession. It seems like we really need that here in the US, since we are lagging dreadfully behind other nations in terms of math and science education. The snarky "hands-off" attitude is partly to blame.

The truth is, science is a system for understanding and interacting with our world, and it is our birthright. Some of us are better at it, and more trained in it, than others. Not all of us get to wear the label of "scientist," and that's for good reason. But all of us have a right to discuss scientific topics, for Pete's sake.

It's just weird to assert that with all the science we learn in grade school, high school, college, and some of us in nursing school or other professional training, now we're supposed to shut down our brains and zip our lips and not even talk about it. Really? Not even to increase our understanding?

The fact is that with the huge, much-needed trend toward evidence-based practice of nursing and other medical disciplines, it is absolutely necessary, and an important part of the nursing profession, to read and interpret studies. This helps us question, understand the reasons for, and potentially modify what we're doing in our day-to-day practice accordingly.

I can absolutely substantiate that this is true, if only because there are whole chapters in many Fundamentals of Nursing books about the nurse's role in research and studies. It is a concept introduced early and encouraged often for nursing students and for new nurses. In fact, research is an entire field of the nursing profession.

It is a critical part of the role of the nurse to read and understand scientific studies so we can interpret and explain their implications in an understandable way to clients and patients, as well as the loved ones accompanying them on their journey toward better health.

Critical thinking and the practice of the scientific-method-based nursing process is part of why our employers are willing to pay us our nursing salaries instead of hiring yet more assistive personnel. This is not to knock our assistive personnel either. They play an important role on the medical team.

Next: Sexism masquerading as criticism »

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And another thing...

This brings me to another topic. I dislike the attitude (also disturbingly displayed on the discussion board of this blog) that doctors are somehow better than nurses. Frankly, it has roots in misogyny since nursing has traditionally been a woman's profession, although that tradition doesn't fully match reality anymore. It also has the side effect of being very challenging for the nurses I know who are men. We stopped saying "female doctor" a long time ago. Isn't it time to lose the term "male nurse"?

The star quarterback doctor can't win the game alone. The operating room nurses maintaining surgical sterile technique are helping to save patient's lives, as are the nurses doing post-surgical assessment and medication administration, as are the assistive personnel who help sore and sick patients onto their bedpans after a difficult surgery. Everyone has an important role on the medical team. Every bit of it is performed by the appropriate player in sacred service to the sick, and should be honored and never dissed.

An article in the Journal of Advanced Nursing (paywall) addresses the subject of barriers nurses face to using research in evidence-based practice. One of the barriers named was a lack of organizational support. That lack of support might well be informed by the whole outdated, sexist, "Get-in-your-place, shut-up-and-do-what-you're-told, and go-change-a-bedpan," attitude that some ignorant members of the general populace have about nurses.

Maybe it's our nursing associations' fault for not educating the public about what nurses actually do. After all, we teach people how to treat us, and nurses are nothing if not teachers, so we have to take some responsibility for the sad fact that many people don't know that one of the main aspects of our role is, at its pure essence, to teach.

Next: Stop discouraging thinking »

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Quit discouraging people from thinking!

Therefore, I'm taking it upon myself to school the disrespectful parties. I hereby place you on notice. I don't want to hear, "Leave it to the scientists," again. Grow up. This kind of irresponsible attitude ensures that there will someday be no scientists. If we're told it's not okay to talk or think about science, no one will perceive it as an approachable domain or desire to picture themselves in it.

It puts me in mind of academically lazy "too-cool-for-school" teenagers who complain about having to learn algebra and science because it's not going to be used in their anticipated daily grind and spend their days torturing their more studious peers. If we are not exposed to these things and taught how to get our minds around them, no one can ever possibly be inspired to take up those torches and run with them.

Anyone capable of critical thinking should be encouraged to take a stab at reading and interpreting scientific studies. And everyone should be carefully trained to be capable of critical thinking. And a good dialogue about these things is vital to our understanding. And anyone who is attempting to police what we choose to learn about or constructively discuss to facilitate our understanding, whether here on these boards or elsewhere, is behaving like a bully. That would simply be pathetic if it weren't so damaging.

Critical thinking itself is our birthright. The idea of critical thinking is often given lip service, but not truly encouraged, because it involves questioning authority. Tact and respect are necessary when broaching difficult subjects, and it is important to keep in mind that it is easier to criticize than to create. But critical examination and discussion of science is what creates a system of checks and balances that helps scientists reach new heights for the betterment of the world we all share.

Even the most respected and admired of our scientists are capable of wrong thinking, logical fallacies, or being too close to their work. I would imagine that sometimes scientists really wish they had more people to have a decent conversation with and bounce ideas off. I'm sure they're tired of the dismissive, "Go be a nerd somewhere else," kind of crap they constantly get from people who keep themselves busy going to any expedient to avoid the true labor of thinking (to paraphrase Edison).

The fair warning that it's important to know your limitations when wading into the waters of deep scientific study is good advice. But telling someone not to even dare to test the waters by trying to think is not only unconstructive, it's actually unconscionable.

The engraving illustrating this article was by artist Henry Fuseli, and was the frontispiece from Charles Darwin's grandfather Erasmus' book, "The Temple of Nature." It symbolizes science as the earnest attempt by the goddess of poetry to reveal the mysterious goddess of nature by removing her veil.

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