Friday, May 16, 2008

Primum Non Nocere - Part II

Was reading my copy of Microbe, which is put out by The American Society of Microbiology (ASM), yesterday and came across this article by Bernard Dixon. It's entitled "Questionable Experiments" and leads off as follows:
Imagine that you understand little or nothing about microorganisms, genetic modification, toxins in the natural world, or the biological control of plant pests. Now consider the following. A scientist tells you that he has been breeding venomous scorpion spiders in his laboratory. He’s also been cultivating some extremely infectious microbes, and he plans to alter them genetically so that they produce the same potent poison as the scorpion. The poison is called a neurotoxin because it attacks nerve cells, causing paralysis and death. The scientist now plans to produce astronomical numbers of his mutant microbes and release them in the countryside.
A lot of lay people would freak out. The reason being, they're not trained in the practices and principles which guide scientific research. They don't know about the safeguards which are put into place, and while they might be told about them, they can't relate to them. Sometimes they can't judge between what is safe practice and what they should be rightly leery of. It also doesn't help that with just about any scientific finding, there are going to be people who object to it. Unfortunately, a vocal few are of the "conspiracy theory" type and they will do their best to convince people that such research endeavors are dangerous, impractical, and will ... if allowed to continue ... tear at the very fabric of society, killing children, ruining crops, allowing millions to starve, etc etc.

In fact, the exact opposite will most likely be the result.

People can be naive, and if something is presented to them in a coherent and cogent form, they'll take it at face value. It's the first impression, and it takes a lot of effort to persuade someone that that impression was wrong. Which is why it's important that the scientist be there to give that first impression. If a "conspiracy theorist" (e.g., an anti-vaccine type) gets there ... woe be to science. Getting the fear out of that lay individual will be a nearly impossible task. I imagine there are a lot of reasons for that, but by and large it's rather simple, people don't want to consider the fact that they've been duped. If they admit that for one idea, they have to consider it for others. Sometimes it's just too hard to accept. This is why people fall for scams, and when they finally figure it out, rarely go for help. It's bad enough that they've been duped, they don't want to let others know about it too.

So, after they've adopted that first impression, they're probably not going to come to you (the scientist) for clarification. Especially after they've been warned that you're the source for current and/or future potential problems.

What can be done? Well, I think a lot can be done. Scientists need to be active in the community, they need to be active on the internet. Putting a face to a name is essential for proper and effective communication. Touch base with people who might be considered "customers". For example, if you work with swine pathogens, are you talking to the National Pork Producers Council? Are you speaking with local swine producers? It's not enough to be holed up in the lab thinking that your ideas will help advance science and eventually help people. You need to let people know what you're doing, and how it might eventually impact their lives for the better. In my experiences, while most people may not understand the principles behind molecular biology and/or microbiology (or any other science they're not trained in), they can understand the story the research tells. As long as the storyteller (i.e., the scientist) takes the time to explain it. Unfortunately, this is seen as a burden (for reasons which are unknown to me, since 99% of the scientists I know love to talk about themselves, and as an extension ... their research, if you give them an opening).

What is the current face of science? From my vantage point, at least in the biological realm, it's dominated by people who, while brilliant, are not necessarily in-tune with the rest of society. They take antagonistic approaches (ala P.Z. Myers and Dawkins) to beliefs held dear by the majority (e.g., religion for example), which is going to automatically result in that portion of society tuning them out. Where is the connection between these scientists, in their ivory towers, and everyone else? I don't see it.

A lot of work needs to be done to bring good scientific discussion to the dinner table. Unfortunately, I think it's a skill which isn't taught to scientists, and in this, the Age of Instant Information (Some of Which may not be True), it is a skill which is very much in demand. If we don't fill in the blanks for people, someone else will ... and it may not be filled the way we want it to be, or the way it needs to be.

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