Is It Because We Is Scientists?

Today’s Times has a piece on the bust up between Ben Goldacre at Bad Science and the broadcaster Jeni Barnett over the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccinations – a bit of spectacularly bad science that terrified many people into not having their children vaccinated and which has resulted in the reintroduction of a previously eradicated childhood disease to the UK.

The issue goes way beyond vaccinations however, and gets to the heart of science journalism. Many people have been successfully persuaded by the anti GMO lobby that science is all about people making money and Jenni Barnett actually voiced her worries with ‘hold on a minute, there’s a drug company that’s making lots of money out of it (vaccines)’ – does she think that vaccijes grow on trees (which might also be owned by someone?).

What really appals me is not just the lack of understanding about science  – that is understandable and is why we call on experts in various fields to guide us, but the fundamental ignorance of basic economics. Whether GMO’s, vaccines or nanotechnologies, somebody has to make some money out of it at some stage otherwise their is no incentive to develop better drugs, materials, or anything else.

Ah, goes the Islington fdinner party argumemt, but shouldn’t the state fund this altrusitic reseach? Well it could, but the state has to get its money from somewheer, and that is a result of businesses commercialising technologies and paying tax.

What this rather disgraceful incident shows is that there does seem to be a major prejudice against science and scientists, and that the work of one bad scientist is held to be correct because it fits nicely with existing prejudices rather than being correct.  As science touches every part of our lives we do need much better science education, we also need to look hard at how the public engages with science, and also how to improve media reporting of scientific issues. Once politicians start picking and choosing which scientific results they like and don’t like rather than accepting that you have to take science as a whole – that way any anomalies get ironed out, we are on a very slippery slope and science starts to become a tool, like statistics, where the data can be manipulated to reinforce preconcieved notions or even for political gain.

In the current climate in the UK where any perceived slight such as calling someone a one eyed Scottish idiot is seen as “an absolute outrage of the worst kind” with demands for sackings and apologies by apoplectic politicians,  I have to wonder why accusing the entire science community of being corrupt liars goes almost unnoticed? Demands for the sacking of the journalists responsible on a postcard to this chap please, who apparently will know what you want even before you do!

Comments 2

  1. Pingback: Jeni Barnett and the Missing Blog Posts About MMR Segment on LBC Radio « Holford Watch: Patrick Holford, nutritionism and bad science

  2. Ruth Seeley

    I started to leave this comment on a previous blog post (can’t remember which one, I think it was the one about nanotech replacing genetically modified foods).

    I don’t think anyone is suggesting a form of blanket slander of scientists or medical researchers is appropriate – if that were true, people would have stopped going to doctors a long time ago.

    But there are legacy issues that need to be dealt with – issues from the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s that are still fresh in living memories, that relate to the commercialization of research by big pharma, the repurposing of drugs in particular to diversify the revenue stream, the dumping of drugs, devices, and pesticides in undeveloped countries, and a lack of trust in experts that has built up because the era I like to refer to as ‘Father Knows Best’ is finally over. (You can thank the second wave of feminism for that.)

    Mistakes have been made – and sanctioned by government. And if scientists were speaking out against the making of these mistakes, I certainly haven’t heard them. The mistakes were huge, whether it was over-enthusiastic promotion and adoption of DDT or millions of women being prescribed hormone replacement therapy they don’t need (or don’t need for 20 years, just one or two, perhaps), the over-enthusiastic promotion of anti-depressants or pain meds by pharma reps – and a doctor shortage in many of the developed countries that has led them to not investigate the research thoroughly enough – or the suppression of negative studies that would have raised the alarm bells a lot sooner. Or just tobacco companies wiggling out of the very real penalties they should face as a result of having done their very best to get two entire generations (of men, anyway) addicted to their product by providing it free during two world wars.

    And no, of course it isn’t the role of government (in democracies anyway) to fund and conduct all scientific research. But since government has done a singularly bad job of actually protecting the citizens it purports to represent, people are extremely cynical about the next big thing, and trust can’t be regained in a moment – it’s a long, slow process.

    Which is why I think we really need the Ben Goldacres of this world. But we also need a different kind of scientific communications outreach that’s a little calmer, a lot more patient, and a lot more thorough.

    As for the media reporting issue – don’t know what to say there. I have been extremely frustrated by some (not all, not even most) media who not only don’t know their science but are intent on pushing only their own agenda, who persist in writing about incidents without talking to the company involved and without actually researching what happened to gain any kind of perspective. In that situation I’ve had to go over their heads to their editors, and even that hasn’t been particularly useful.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.