He who shouts the loudest…

People often think of science as something performed in labs, by people in white coats, something quite isolated from their own lives. Yet scientific research has far-reaching implications for so many aspects of society, particularly government policies and public health. For the general population, their relationship with science is mostly mediated through the media. The media, however, is not necessarily concerned with presenting scientific truths, it is usually more so about profit-making. Scientific stories are easily sensationalised, cherry-picked and distorted according to preconceived beliefs and biases. Sometimes this is relatively harmless, but it can be considerably dangerous.

Take vaccinations, for example. This map summarises global outbreaks of diseases such as measles, mumps and polio which are easily preventable by vaccines. While a majority of cases occur in impoverished regions, which lack adequate supplies and are often difficult to access by health workers (a whole other issue), there is a resurgence of some of these diseases in the US and the UK, where there is absolutely no reason for this to be happening. Really, no reason at all – the anti-vaccination movement is founded on the fraudulent data of one financially conflicted ‘scientist’ and subsequent media blitz. As George Johnson aptly points out in this fantastic article in the New York Times, subjective feelings are often trusted over scientific expertise. A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that it is more effective to counter anti-vaccination attitudes by appealing to emotion, demonstrating the dangers of these diseases, than providing scientific evidence refuting the myths.

As Nobel-prize winning scientist Peter Doherty highlighted in his wonderful talk at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival last night, people need a better understanding of the process of science. Physicist Marcelo Gleiser voiced very similar ideas (yet another great article, courtesy of NPR) – “It’s as if scientific issues are simply matters of opinion — and not the product of a very thorough process of consensus-building among technically trained people…In the end, the conflict between science and truth is most obvious when it calls for personal decisions”. This conflict is exacerbated by the internet, which is both a blessing and a curse – there is so much easily accessible up-to-date scientific evidence alongside “contortions of special interest groups”.

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(I’m really great at taking photos) Peter Doherty discussing his book The Knowledge Wars during the Brisbane Writer’s festival, at the University of Queensland.

Science is progressive; as new evidence comes to light, theories are changed and built upon, our understanding of the world becomes more detailed and precise. People need to be progressive too. As Professor David Nutt (one of my favourite scientists) points out in the introduction to his excellent book, Drugs Without the Hot Air, “Being willing to change our minds in the light of new evidence is essential to rational policy-making”. We must question our sources of information and form, and adjust, our opinions based on scientific consensus rather than invented narratives.


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