Does Science Need a Facelift?

June 26th, 2007

So, I wrote this essay a couple of years ago. I can’t remember why I wrote it, but it’s message is as important now as it was then. I found it as I was rooting through my files and thinking about the Seed Magazine science writing contest, which asks the question, “What is scientific literacy?” I don’t know whether I’ll enter the contest, but I like this essay and think that more people should start thinking about not just what scientific literacy means in this day and age, but also how we can sell science to the public. Because we haven’t been doing a good job, and something’s got to change.

The essay after the jump…

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June 24th, 2007

Every so often an email from one of the TWIS minions enters my inbox that I feel requires a special response… more than the usual “thanks for writing and for listening to my show.” I’m posting such an email with my response because I think it such an important issue.

Subject: is TWIS biased?

Hi Kirsten, attention grabbing subject line huh? Been a listener for quite a while now, and love the show. There have been one or two things that you guys have talked about lately that seem to me to be a little biased. In one breath you may be talking about faulty science from drug companies, but in the next you then go and support faulty science from government.

What I mean by this, is not to say that you are intentionally doing this, but you seem to only be looking at the facts from one side. For example, vaccination, you have reported on two topics: the HPV vaccine for young/teenage girls, and the MMR and Autism arbitration.

If you look into these subjects there is much more beneath the surface. For example, in Japan (and several other countries) they were so convienced at the evidence of MMR causing autism (ASD) that they stopped giving the vaccine, and paid out compensation to many families. Further, there are studies showing that Thimersal (sp? the mercury/additive) in vaccines is very harmful indeed.

When you delve a little into the HPV vaccine, you will find that already studies show no point to this vaccine, and that it kills many people who are vaccinated; also some evidence that it actually causes cancer.

Now I’m not against vaccines per say, but I do think that unessesary vaccination against things like the flu are just money makers for Big Phrama. I generally try to balance everything I read so that I don’t rule out any possibility, however there comes a time when you have to decide on certain things.

I’m not sure that giving your opinion that vaccines for pregnat mothers or young children is entirely safe ground, as there has been research showing definite causitive links to illness. What I’m trying to say is that if you are going to report the science, perhaps you could report both sides of the story, so that people can decide for themselves. The trouble with most science is that it is mostly theoretical, and people get fed up with being told that ‘this is right’ or ‘these are the facts’, when in most cases there are no definitive answers.

Here is my response:
Thanks so much for writing and for questioning the things that you hear. I agree with your concern, and especially your comment that “there are no definitive answers.” Science is always redefining the world around us, which I happen to think is one of the most wonderful things about science. However, it can be frustrating when trying to make decisions about whether or not to vaccinate your child. There is no right answer, and ultimately you really do have to decide for yourself.

It is obvious that you understand that there are many people working on scientific questions, thus the statement that we are only “looking at the facts from one side.” There are always multiple sides to any story. And, on the show we do try to report as many sides as we are aware of. Yet, the scientific ideas that become general knowledge are those stories in which the majority of evidence supports one particular side.

In the case of vaccines, especially the hypothesized thimerosal-autism link, I do not believe the evidence that we have reported to be overly one-sided. Scientific evidence is not the same as opinion. The scientific evidence in this situation does not support a link between thimerosal and autism. I will not give credit to unfounded beliefs simply in order to appear unbiased to those who willfully ignore the scientific evidence. That is not how science works. I would undermine my own credibility if I reported opinions rather than evidence.

The examples that you provided as evidence for the other side of the story are not accurate. Japan was not convinced of the MMR vaccine causing autism. They provided compensation to families because their vaccine was found to cause meningitis, not autism. Yes, several countries have removed thimerosal as a preservative from their MMR vaccines, including the United States, but no reduction in the number of autism cases has been found following its removal. Specifically, in Denmark and Sweden cases continued to rise. There is no evidence that thimerosal is harmful in humans. There is some evidence that it may lead to auto-immune sensitivity in mice.

As for the HPV vaccine, studies are showing that it is effective at keeping people from becoming infected by specific strains of HPV that have been shown to cause cervical cancer, effectively removing the risk of developing cervical cancer from that source. I don’t think that that reveals the vaccine to be pointless. That “it kills many people” is inaccurate. If I remember correctly, there have been 3 reports of fatalities within the study population since the studies began (that’s out of over 11,000 females), but these deaths have not been conclusively linked to the vaccine. The group, Judicial Watch, who has publicized the fatalities is a legal organization with a stated conservative mission. Interestingly, they are also involved in litigation to block the morning-after pill and RU-486, both related to female reproductive rights (the HPV vaccine is related to reproduction as well since the virus is mainly transmitted via sexual activity). I haven’t actually heard anything regarding the cancer-causing allegation.

I’m not saying that vaccines should or shouldn’t be mandatory, but we do need to at least continue the conversation. These are two cases where the science is sound, but there are definitely other factors involved that need to be taken into account. People are not robots. We have beliefs and emotions that guide us regardless of what science supports. So, we as a people need to weigh the costs and benefits carefully before jumping into legal mandates that may have serious health consequences. Science and a society’s beliefs need to come to a compromise in order for science to really be of any help.

Here are a couple of articles that might be of some help:

Thanks for writing. This (journalistic and scientific integrity) is an issue that I think is incredibly important. I hope that I’ve clarified where I’m coming from when I report on these topics, and I hope that this has been a useful email.

All the best,

I really do hope that I have started a beneficial communication with this email. I know there are many issues out there in which people promote one or another viewpoint, some of which are supported by scientific evidence and others not. A question raised in the article in the eskeptic newsletter is how do people contend with such a quantity of information when they are not necessarily trained to do so? How does a non-scientist know to know that an information source isn’t credible, or that the “facts” in an article aren’t accurate, or that a study wasn’t rigorous? I can say, “you can trust me,” but there are 20 other people saying the same thing regarding a topic all with different sets of so-called factual information (and with different intentions).

People are going to believe what they want to believe, especially with respect to controversial or morally sensitive issues. So, why and how do we even begin to have a conversation in which scientists and non-scientists respect each other’s positions? How do we eventually reach a common ground?