Posted by: The Amoeba | October 24, 2009

The Science of Our Discontent

Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba was engaged in world-saving pursuits (reading the sports scores online) when he happened upon this headline:

Doctors May ‘Fire’ Parents Who Don’t Vaccinate Children

Seems there’s a profit-making newsworthy standoff between patients who are convinced that vaccinations cause autism in children and physicians who:

(a) are convinced that they don’t;

(b) don’t want to get blamed (read sued) for outbreaks of the deadly diseases that currently are controlled by universal vaccination programs.

Vaccinations have been taking shots ever since they were invented in the mid-19th century, but especially since the first Gulf War, when an anthrax vaccine was blamed (wrongly) for causing the puzzling array of illnesses labeled “Gulf War Syndrome”.

But what drove me to the keyboard was a line in a Discover magazine article that I looked up to track those developments in the vaccine controversy that were important to the press.

A line that asked, in effect, how it could be that “science and so many citizens fell out of touch” on the vaccination issue.

Indeed, how is that large numbers of people will choose to believe the opinions of a Playboy bunny over a physician’s recommendation based on reams of heavily scrutinized data? Or those of a political vaudevillian over the long catalogs of facts supporting evolution and anthropogenic global warming?

Lots of people have expressed opinions on this phenomenon, and how to fix it. My views are perhaps more curmudgeonly than some.

1. Science is hard. Yes it is. There’s no point in sugarcoating this, as some folk try to do. Success in science requires both a vivid imagination and the disciplined reasoning skills to turn that imagination into useful work. The earlier that someone begins learning and exercising these skills, the greater the chances for success.

We don’t seem to have any difficulties applying this principle to kindergarten students who show promise in football.

But if that kid shows promise in science?

We slap a white coat on him and call him ‘mad’.

And the science teachers compete with the music, art, and history teachers for space at the bake sale tables, in the dwindling hope that the schools for which they work (for now) might teach something other than football.

2. Science does not pay. Science as a profession is almost entirely a creation of the 20th century. The “great men” of the 19th century upon whom most modern science is based (e.g. Banks, Darwin, Freud, Lyell, Maxwell, etc.) hardly ever got a government grant, never ran a bake sale. They paid for their researches out of their own pockets, either from independent wealth or from “real job” income, such as from medicine or the law. This history, I think, is one of the reasons why pay rates for most scientists are so low. Hell, We the People haven’t had to pay for science before, why should we now?

And why should a young person with talent in science go through all the trouble to learn the hard discipline that science requires, and suffer all the ‘mad scientist’ jibes, only to make less than most of his peers who have taken easier and less costly paths in life?

3. Science has lost its reputation for impartiality.

Perhaps the most important of the hard-learned (and hard to learn) principles of science is that the work of a scientist is to be openly published and just as openly critiqued. The scientist is trained, not to argue that a piece of work is correct, but to argue, with the coldest and most rigorous logic at her command, that a piece of work is not demonstrably wrong. With everyone in the room, including herself, trying to show just that.

And if the work is shown to be wrong, the scientist is expected to admit it.

It is this willingness to put the work, not the worker, foremost that has historically given science its reputation for impartiality. What, indeed, is a ‘mad scientist’ but one who has put himself first, and therefore can no longer see the flaws in his research because ‘he can do no wrong’?

Impartiality is easy to maintain when you’re a wealthy Victorian gentleman whose daily bread does not depend on the results of a particular experiment.

Today? When your company’s future, your laboratory’s, indeed your own, may depend on the results of a particular experiment – or what a particular client community perceives is the result of a particular experiment?

Corporate research findings are no longer openly discussed, and if they are published, they are presented, not by the scientists involved but by the company’s publicists – if the scientist does the presenting, she’s almost certainly been trained to be a publicist and is acting in that role. And an increasing number of research findings are corporate, as non-corporate funds have almost completely dried up (these days, the National Science Foundation struggles to fund 20% of the proposals submitted to it) and scientists try desperately to find a career path that has a small chance of repaying the costs of their special education – which may commence at age 22 and lead to a first real job at age 40. (With those job prospects, it really does amount to “special” ed.)

Corporate research puts (or is perceived to put) the corporation first, not the research. Much of the public is convinced that, therefore, the corporation is incapable of seeing the flaws in its work. And that makes all the corporation’s scientists ‘mad’.

Moreover. The introspective self-critique which has, for more than a century, been a centerpiece of scientific training is 180 degrees removed from what YFNA thinks is the main driver of present-day American political and social discourse: the emotive impulse. Just do it! Buy now! screams the ad campaign. Marketing 101: If the customer is allowed to think, you’ve lost the sale. Therefore, Jenny, don’t let the customer think. Carry him along in the waves of your emotion. Bury any logic in the torrent of your pronouncements, and he will be yours, Adolf.

So, how is it that science and citizens are out of touch?

Because science is so hard, that to most citizens it is indistinguishable from magic. Sir Arthur C. Clarke, ever the optimist, neglected, when he formulated his Third Law, to consider Amoeba’s Corollary:

Sooner or later, all magic is black.

Because the low pay of a science career discourages people with any sense of economic rationality from taking it up (or even from defending it – the money is with the opposition), and encourages everyone else in their perception of science as a black magical guild.

Because the loss of science’s reputation for impartiality further alienates it from a skeptical, nay fearful, public.

That scientific inquiry, properly conducted, is society’s best hope for improving the human condition doesn’t seem to matter.

It doesn’t make good media bites.

Or sell creationist rhetoric.

Or create false illusions that we can actually keep our Hummers.

Or market quack cures for autism.

  – O Ceallaigh
Copyright © 2009 Felloffatruck Publications. All wrongs deplored.
All opinions are mine as a private citizen.

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Responses

  1. Great post, Amoeba. One particular new thought (in my brain, anyway) that there’s a bias against science when the rest of us expect smart people to be rhetorical but don’t allow scientists to be rhetorical.

    • Doug, the sad part of that thought is that a lot of folk who are trained as scientists, and have had respectable scientific careers, have become rhetorical because the science path has no hope of getting things done. Scientific research itself has shown the truth of the old saw, “an ounce of image is worth a pound of performance”. Consider the case of Mr. Schicklgruber, who had done little in his life but talk, yet rose to lead a great nation out of calamity and into disaster, Mr. Limbaugh. Jesus of Nazareth has been mostly misquoted, but in this thing more egregiously than in others: it’s the glib who will inherit the earth.

  2. The western world has its priorities so ass-backwards it’s disgusting. If I gave my thoughts on every aspect of your post I’d be typing for a week, but it suffices to say I’m on your side, especially when it comes to our preference of sports over science. How disastrously short-sighted.

    But you know I can’t help jumping on the autism thing.

    When our son was nine months old, I already saw signs of autism; by one year old it was obvious. The doctors said it was too young to diagnose (i.e., pay disability or provide thereapists) until 5 years old. Insane. MMR came at 18 months. When I finally gave up and paid privately for an assessment at 2years, he was diagnosed with autism. EVERYONE told me it was the MMR vaccine that did it and when I pointed out that I’d seen autism in this child before he was a year old AND that many peer-reviewed double-blind large studies ALL indicated no connection between MMR vaccines and autism, they looked at me with pity. I’d gone from a neglectful misinformed mother, to a madwoman.

    Years later, the youngest child was showing signs at about a year old, so when the MMR postcard arrived, I phoned the doctor and said, “not until she’s assessed for autism”. He said that couldn’t be done until 5. We had a real fight on our hands, but I knew what I was up against and both got done.

    The health service saves money in the short term without admitting that by investing in those early developmental years, they could prevent a lot of paid care and therapy in later years. The quality of life for these kids is never an issue for them at all.

    AND, I’d wish people would stop getting their ‘news’ from celebrity mags and spam e-mails.

    Even if it were eventually proven that MMR vaccines DID present a small risk of autism, you know what? I’d still take my kids in. I’d rather have a happy healthy autistic kid at home than bury her because of measles.

    Awesome post.

    • Bread and circuses, Susan. We have all been here before. Ask Mr. Gibbon. Not that it’s helped much. Doomed to repeat, and all that.

      I was thinking of you throughout the writing of this post. I figured you as not being one who was a sucker for the vaccine demagogues. Sad that one has to add “popular prejudice” to the other trials of living with autism. But, I suppose, when the alternative is having to deal with the fact that the truth may be beyond one’s ability to decipher, it’s easy to accept Mencken’s dictum that “complex problems have simple, easy-to-understand answers” and force that dictum on reality – to the great joy and profit of those who will take advantage.

  3. Amoeba, I’m not a scientist, but a lawyer. I hope that I have been trained in critical thinking, but I confess at times I am lazy as well. And, there are so MANY science ‘issues’ these days it is very difficult to trace back to origins and what’s REAL vs. something that went viral (no pun intended) on the internet.

    My son has had all his ‘standard’ vaccinations. He had quite a few food sensitivities when he was an infant, but outgrew all of them. Just after he turned 3 he ingested mixed nuts at a T-giving party. Although he had been eating peanut butter for at least a year prior to that, his body went into anaphylaxis and we had to take him to the ER. Each year since then his physicians have taken blood tests to determine the amount of whatever it is in his blood that would determine that his allergy is lessening. He’ll be 13 next week and his numbers for peanuts and most tree nuts are still very high. So no ‘outgrowing’ it for him.

    His allergy doc said there’s a body of thought in their community that vaccinations may be interferring with our immune systems, i.e. having the illness ‘turned on’ or ‘turned off’ some kind of critical immune response that our bodies over eons had developed.

    It seems as good an argument as many I hear. Bottom line for us though, is like Susan, we just live with what we have and hope that some responsible scientists are vigorously trying to crack the code.

    So as a non-scientist parent, who do I trust? NIH? CDC? I’ve seen such ignorance within the medical community I don’t automatically trust their answers either!

    • Mom, your comment presents the crux of the matter for many.

      I wrote that science is hard. One of the hardest things about it is that it now has a history extending back more than 200 years. Anyone working in a particular scientific field needs to grasp that history. A group known as the Institute for Scientific Information once wrote (I paraphrase, I don’t have the quote in front of me) that the amount of information published in any major scientific field in any given year is 10 times the total amount of information available to the “Renaissance Man” – who would then have known “everything”, already in 1500 CE acknowledged as an impossible task.

      It follows that most of the “easy” stuff in science has already been done, and reported. To make a breakthrough, or even much progress, in the modern scientific context, one needs large and increasing resources in personnel, equipment, and informatics. Otherwise the wheel keeps getting reinvented.

      Here’s a partial list of things that are going on in the mind of scientists who have some connection with the world of allergy and immunology. And please know that I am not an expert in this field (see “10 times the knowledge”, supra), so I will doubtless (a) miss important points and (b) make others that will make true experts mad at me.

      1. There are multiple systems and mechanisms at work in our immune systems. Science is a long way from understanding how all these pieces work.

      2. Response to an allergen may or may not be instantaneous. Folk frequently report no reaction to poison ivy until after repeated exposure. Some folk never have a reaction to it.

      3. Infant mortality, since the inception of the medical (spearheaded by penicillin) and agricultural revolutions of the immediate post-WWII period, has plummeted to a fraction of its former levels. Susceptibilities that formerly would have led to death (how many 19th-century infants died of allergies, which medicine at that time had no tools even to recognize) now are treated, and (importantly) passed on to future generations.

      The only “trust” that I think is relevant in this context is that the vast majority of scientific researchers are dedicated, selfless people who are busting their guts to get answers. These folk are consistently confronted with the profound perversity of nature and impatience of their fellow humans, and carry on regardless.

      For information, the only truly reliable source is the primary literature. But the points in that literature are still being argued, and because of the intensity of study needed to reach the point where one can actually make a contribution to be argued over, it’s no wonder that this literature is incomprehensible to anyone else.

      The impatience of our fellow humans has led the secondary sources of medical information to focus on “news” – news that may or may not accurately reflect the true state of knowledge, but maximizes the chances that We the People will keep the researchers in (some) funds. The response of many people to the debates in the scientific community over fine points in evolutionary theory is to reject evolution altogether and embrace creationism as a simple, easy-to-understand (wrong) answer. I think the same thing is happening in medical fields – a comprehensible falsehood is preferable to an accurate, but complex and evolving (and, therefore, still incomplete), truth.

      I don’t think I need any more words to indicate what I think of this.

  4. Thank you for those thoughts. I agree…I’ve struggled with impatience (in many areas, not just science) all my life…so now as I said, I am with Susan that here we are, with our kids with their needs, and we just deal day to day. And thank the Lord we live in the 21st century and have the children we have!

    Now go relax and enjoy some Q-time!

  5. I’ve also got a kid who suddenly developed allergies to all our favorite foods. She’s outgrown all except raw eggs and all kinds of nuts.

    The raw eggs, ironically, is relevant to flu vaccines. But she’s never reacted to the shots.

    This year, I could not get a flu shot (regular yearly flu) due to shortages. I’m the only one in the fam who did not get one. And am the only one to waste the better part of 2 weeks getting thru all those fun flu things.

    Personally, I’d rather go with the scientists than the playboy bunny.

    • Generally, Kitty, the scientists are a lot easier to deal with, and considerably less expensive. But you might have some trouble getting them to pay attention.

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