On the status of science in society
May 29, 2009 11 Comments
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.