A favorite ploy of science deniers is to remind us that since scientists are human, they can’t be trusted. They are, after all, subject to the same influences as other humans — temptation, success, malice — which means that science may contain more fiction than we realize. Even when this point is made subtly, as it was in this December 2012 Seattle Times editorial, the broadside to science has the same impact.
There is a veneer of truth to these allegations, of course. Journal article retractions have been rising, and a few recent high profile cases of scientific misconduct have justifiably raised concerns.
The underlying truth, however, isn’t that science itself is the problem. Science is filled with constant dissent and discussion about different ideas, and eventually, the facts win out. The problem — or at least part of the problem — is that science generally doesn’t speak directly to the public, or even directly to itself. It speaks in an arcane language through expensive and copyright-protected journals, these journals are skimmed by the media, and the media decides what to report and how to say it. This communication dynamic that has evolved over the years is the fault of science, our academic institutions, the tenure system, and more — there’s plenty of blame to go around. But because science doesn’t put enough stock into clear and effective communication, how is the general public supposed to know the truth?
Take the Wakefield study. In 1998, British researcher Andrew Wakefield wrote a research paper laying out his concerns about the relationship between the MMR vaccine and autism (he didn’t claim that the vaccine causes autism). The international media picked up on this report, which was published in The Lancet, and parents who read the media accounts latched onto Wakefield’s explanation. It had a certain appeal — parents who observed that their children developed autism after being vaccinated, pitted (with equal authority) on the morning news shows against researchers who said (in science jargon) that the data didn’t support this causal relationship. Who wouldn’t want to believe the suffering parents and Dr. Wakefield?
The outcome of this confusion is that vaccine rates plummeted as a result of this media scare, and that the deadly scourge of measles, whooping cough, and other childhood diseases all once but eradicated in this country started making a comeback — rates that are only now beginning to level off again.
Should Dr. Wakefield’s paper have been published in the first place? Yes. Mistakes and even outright fraud will unfortunately be an occasional part of science, and the checks and balances in science aren’t infallible. And the fact is that in this case, very few scientists believed Dr. Wakefield’s research when it came out. Indeed, robust debate and research into the true causes of autism has continued, and even today, this research continues to produce exciting news and potential breakthroughs.
So what should we do? For starters, we need more and better communication inside science. In our day and age, with all the issues that need input from science, we need to help our scientists speak more effectively with each other and with the public. We need to help reduce the pressures of publish or perish so scientists can focus more on their research. We need to improve their institutional capacity to help lead on issues of public policy instead of reacting to these issues.
The last thing we need is more doubt, and more seeds of doubt. Public faith in science has held relatively steady over the last generation — which isn’t entirely reassuring given the ever-increasing importance of science and technology in our world — but it has also been declining sharply among conservatives.
Why? The politicization of science hasn’t helped. We all have a natural tendency to believe things that reinforce our perceptions, so the more politicized our society gets, the more politicized our science becomes. Unless we believe in the power of science to discover the truth.
Science isn’t perfect, but it’s our best hope. It needs and deserves our support.