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!