On the status of science in society

As the daughter of two scientists, it never occurred to me growing up that science as a profession or a method of inquiry could be controversial. How else were we to discover life-saving treatments, develop better technologies, or advance our understanding of the natural world? I took for granted the fact that science is the foundation of modern civilization and makes improved standards of living for more people possible.

My recent forays into blogging, however, have shown me that nearly everything is debated, even things that should not even seem debatable. Evolution is one of them, and, apparently, so is vaccination. My open letter to Oprah sparked an unexpected flurry of responses from many scientists, parents, and concerned citizens, giving me a taste of the kind of “discussions” people have on issues near and dear to them. I realized that people on both sides genuinely care about improving health, but also that productive conversation is elusive when the assumptions and objects of trust are different.

Needless to say, I trust those who use the scientific method to probe and learn about the world. Science is an iterative cycle in which we observe phenomena, make testable hypotheses concerning the phenomena, devise experiments to test these hypotheses, evaluate and draw conclusions from the results using rigorous statistical analysis, and form new hypotheses based on our improved understanding. The experiments, including controls, should be devised to help ensure that 1) the procedures we’re using to gather data are doing what they’re supposed to be doing, and 2) other hypotheses or explanations aren’t responsible for the outcome we observe.

There is inherent uncertainty built into this process – for one thing, we can’t definitively rule out all other possibilities because there are, in theory, infinitely many possibilities (but only a few that are reasonable). Then there is the fact that science can never disprove anything, it can only collect evidence supporting a hypothesis or not. If twenty independent and methodologically sound studies all produce the same finding and no other studies show the opposite, we are confident that the finding is accurate. But all it would take is a few studies (again, independent and sound) showing the opposite to make us modify our confidence. As more studies accumulate, the weight of the evidence usually tilts definitively towards one side or the other, and this – the accumulation of evidence – is what should form the basis for technology development, policy, and future science.

It was clear from the comments under my letter to Oprah post that some people distrust the government and “big pharma” – conspiracy theories are a dime a dozen in this regard. But a more disconcerting undercurrent in the anti-vaccination movement is the replacement of science with celebrity and of evidence with anecdote. Sometimes flagrant falsehoods are peddled in an attempt to shock parents into reacting, while scientific studies are ignored or discounted (Val Jones over at Science-based Medicine responds to many of the claims made in McCarthy’s recent video). At some point, people decide that they prefer the famous, charismatic figure with the compelling story over dispassionate experts wielding cold scientific evidence.

Clearly, many people are inclined to believe celebrity voices over trained professionals whose jobs are to improve public health, provide medical care, or study biological or clinical phenomena. An article published just yesterday in PLoS Biology sums things up far better than I can:

… simply relating the facts of science isn’t enough. No matter that the overwhelming weight of evidence shows that climate change is real, or that vaccines don’t cause autism. When scientists find themselves just one more voice in a sea of “opinions” about a complex scientific issue, misinformation takes on a life of its own.

Instead of vaccines, which have hundreds of years of development and as many studies supporting their safety and efficacy, anti-vaccine proponents like Jenny McCarthy recommend alternative therapies like chelation, yeast elimination treatments, and health supplements – by and large treatments that have either been shown to have no effect (at least on autism), harmful effects, or have not  been studied in a rigorous manner because they are not required to be evaluated by the FDA. Why would people trust someone like McCarthy over the collective voice of hundreds of medical experts for medical advice?

McCarthy emerged as a hero for some parents by telling her story. Personal stories resonate most with those who see trust in experts as a risk in itself—a possibility whenever people must grapple with science-based decisions that affect them, whether they’re asked to make sacrifices to help curb global warming or vaccinate their kids for public health.

The truth is that, by and large, humans are emotional creatures. We tend to attribute motive, agency, or cause and effect even when it is unwarranted, especially if it reaffirms a view we hold. We desire explanations for events and the uncertainty built into the scientific process offers little comfort. As mentioned previously, it is impossible to disprove something, but when many independent studies find the same, then it makes sense to act as if it were so, supported by the weight of increasing evidence. To do otherwise would be illogical and impractical.

So how are we to handle anti-science sentiment, and respond to its application in areas of high public significance? Do we debate those spreading misinformation directly? Paul Offit, inventor of a rotavirus vaccine and advocate for vaccination cautions against it.

“Every story has a hero, victim, and villain,” he explains. “McCarthy is the hero, her child is the victim—and that leaves one role for you.”

If not direct confrontation, then what? Better education, for starters, will go a long way. A more science-literate public will be better-equipped to evaluate pseudo-scientific claims and make rational decisions with regards to health. But science must also learn to communicate, to reach those with minimal scientific training especially. We need to talk to people, not at them. Spin narratives, not data. The data will still be there, but we need to provide an enticing gateway through what can otherwise feel like a wall.

Because science is fundamentally a human endeavor, aimed at improving our understanding or enhancing our lives. The more we as a society appreciate and invest in it, the more we will all benefit.


11 Responses to On the status of science in society

  1. sciphu says:

    Shirley. As scientists we have communicated badly for years, you are a shining exception. To your writing and communication skills, I bow in respect and awe. It is my sincerest hope that your voice in this matter is heard loud and clear by all.

  2. Deepak says:

    Yep, I heartily concur. When you get tired of that 23andme stuff, you MUST write a book. Pick any topic. We’ll all be the better for it

  3. Scott Y. says:

    Another great piece! I subscribed to your feed after reading about you from BadAstronomy.

    I was just thinking about the issue of science in the society few days ago! I enjoy science and read about science, not to mention I do science for a living. Often times, I shared these new exciting findings with friends. This week, I sent a link to a non-scientific article to my friend. He replied by saying, “oh interesting, at least this is not another science article.” At that point, I started to ask him what is wrong with science articles and why is it not interesting? In short, he said that science is boring. Boring?! I can’t understand how learning about new things can be boring. That sentiment is shared with many of my friends, science is a boring subject.

    I sincerely hope that science and math can be more popular, in a sense that general public is not put off by it. Without good understanding of science and the scientific method, the mass is easily manipulated with conspiracy theories and sensational headlines that often hold no truth.

  4. Pingback: On the status of science in society « Skepfeeds-The Best Skeptical blogs of the day

  5. Zen Faulkes says:

    I like this post a lot. But let me play devil’s advocate for just a second.

    “If not direct confrontation, then what? Better education, for starters, will go a long way.”

    It goes a long way… but it takes a long time.

    Even if the basic education systems were completely rebuilt from the ground up today, the payoff may take decades. And frankly, on issues like public health and vaccination or climate change, we don’t have a couple of decades to wait. I long for ways of reaching people NOW.

    “But science must also learn to communicate, to reach those with minimal scientific training especially.”

    I don’t think it’s lack of ability that’s the problem, which a lot of people suggest. I think it’s (a) the sheer grinding relentlessness of time crunch, and (b) that communicating with the public isn’t valued in professional evaluation. Scientists get points for technical publications and external grants. Everything else is minor.

    • shwu says:

      I certainly agree – education is a long term solution. We do need to invest in it otherwise we’ll always be playing catch up, but yes, strategies that have immediate results are also needed.

      I think many scientists are great communicators, too (though many are not), and your point (b) is probably a big reason why there’s this divide. Many people don’t understand what scientists do, what science means, why science is relevant, etc; outreach and communication is appreciated but not as directly rewarded as grants and papers.

      Some have said that it shouldn’t have to be the individual scientists running the PR campaign but the august organizations that take our membership money. Others disagree. If there’s going to be a concerted effort, though, I think it probably needs to come from higher up than grassroots…

  6. Iddo says:

    Hundreds of years of vaccinations? Try thousands…

    “Historically, cutaneous leishmaniasis has been the focus of vaccination attempts, probably because it has been known since antiquity that individuals who had healed their skin lesions were protected from further infections. Bedouin or some Kurdistani tribal societies traditionally expose their babies’ bottoms to sandfly bites in order to protect them from facial lesions. Another ancient technique practised in the Middle East has been the use of a thorn to transfer infectious material from lesions to uninfected individuals.”

    Clin Microbiol Rev. 2001 April; 14(2): 229–243.
    doi: 10.1128/CMR.14.2.229-243.2001.

    Here is a narrative to work with. The backlash against science stems, among other things you pointed out from people feeling alienated from science (“too brainy”) and physicians (“too aloof”). That is why people seek “alternative” and “traditional” medicines. “Healers” — whether knowing charlatans, or well intentioned (but wrong) — do listen to their patients’ complaints, unlike your overworked HMO doctor. Their models for illness and disease are simpler and hold more emotional appeal. Like I agree that understanding and working to communicate within these psychological and cultural parameters, without compromising scientific integrity, would be a good thing.

  7. Joe says:

    “If not direct confrontation, then what? Better education, for starters, will go a long way. A more science-literate public will be better-equipped to evaluate pseudo-scientific claims and make rational decisions with regards to health. But science must also learn to communicate, to reach those with minimal scientific training especially. We need to talk to people, not at them. Spin narratives, not data. The data will still be there, but we need to provide an enticing gateway through what can otherwise feel like a wall.”

    You have found your niche, Shwu, there is no doubt about it. Wonder when Oprah will call/email. And the quote I’ve pasted above is the heart of the solution to the problem. After two semesters teaching my undergrad course, I was voted recipient of the “Senior Class Award for Teaching Excellence in Biology and Dedication to Undergraduates” — not tooting a horn, here, but with that I had to make a speech for the graduating class. I told the students (from what I recall, since most of it was improvised): “Fear and sensationalism. For some reason our world feasts on these, and the news agencies thrive by propagating misinformation and spreading unfounded panic. As young biologists, whether your noble cause is serving as a medical practitioner, or parent, you all must be teachers. You must teach the public, your family, your friends, to think, to question, to not panic with undue cause — and with neither passion nor prejudice — find the facts, and uncover the truth. Ignorance feeds on fear, and only through your teaching, can we evolve as a society”.
    This of course, playing off the widespread insanity called “H1N1”.

    Anyway, you should definitely consider writing a book in your off-time from 23andme. You excel reaching the audience that needs to be reached.

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  9. Grey says:

    Kudos for an excellent article. The lack of understanding regarding the scientific process (and its objective observations that mount into supporting evidence for a theory) is rather vast, it seems. Your point about our predisposition towards being emotional creatures rings true – I think there’s a current of anti-intellectualism in this country that is rooted in fear and mistrust….and that fear and mistrust is sensationalized by the media because it attracts attention and therefore, money.

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