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