It's a new year. Already. And applications for positions in the NSF REU program I run are beginning to arrive. Already.
Of late I've been thinking, once again, about the value of providing research experiences to undergraduates. Or anyone for that matter. My recent thoughts were catalyzed by a conversation I recently had with a non-scientist. This person had just read a newspaper article reporting on a recent study that found some kind of link between carbohydrate intake and breast cancer. I haven't read the study, or even the newspaper article. Indeed, the details of the study are unimportant as fas as this post is concerned. What is important is the statement the non-scientist made concerning the article. They said they don't believe any of these kinds of studies because there are far too many things going on and it would be impossible to pinpoint one factor that might be involved in a particular human condition. Or words to that effect.
It certainly is true that scientific research can be very, very complex. At times mind-bogglingly so. But research scientists are trained to deal with exactly that. And someone who has had some research experience, even if just a few weeks over a summer, will know that. Even if they don't know exactly how a study into possible links between carbohydrates and breast cancer would be done.* Should one believe every newspaper report on a scientific study? Of course not. Neither should one believe everything published in the primary literature. But one should not dismiss something out of hand simply because you don't know how it's done.
A research experience is scientific literacy.
* I don't. It's rather far removed from what I do.