It’s probably safe to say that most people reading this article are big fans of science. As scientists, we love using rigorous methods to learn more about how the world works. So it may come as a shock to realize that science is often viewed as flawed, immoral or just plain wrong – especially when it comes to human health. It falls on our shoulders to defend science.
Science Hype Versus Reality
Since the mid to late 20th century, western humanity has largely avoided death on grand scales. World Wars and pandemics like Spanish Flu killed millions of people, true. However, in our relatively safe, secure, modern world, the middle and upper classes have access to healthcare, plenty of nutritious food, shelter and clean water.
Yet, we still suffer from acute and chronic disease in spite of the best modern medicine has to offer. Chronic fatigue, obesity, and cancer are just three common diseases affecting millions of people worldwide. Biomedical researchers know how complex the human body is and how difficult it is to deliver new therapies. To non-scientists, however, the situation is suspicious. Millions of dollars are poured into research, yet people still suffer and die.
One major problem is that, as scientists, we’re don’t effectively counter these suspicions. Our research is released in about the most inefficient and confusing way possible. We publish in journals that are behind paywalls and not accessible to the general public. Further, the style of writing in academic journals is snooze-inducing, even within your own field! Therefore, universities that are keen for public exposure release interesting findings to the media. The media report that a cure for the condition is surely not far away.
In reality, most potential therapies never make it past clinical trials. The public are left understandably disappointed, wondering what happened to all the promising new treatments. It’s, therefore, not surprising that people begin looking outside scientific research to find answers.
Snake Oil, Inc.—Marketing Fear
Now that so much information (reliable and unreliable) is available online, there is a real sense of anti-intellectualism in regards to science. Self-diagnosis is seen as ‘taking control’ of your own health. If an MD or scientist doesn’t know the treatment for an illness, there’s a self-made guru happy to offer the answer—plus their own supplements, kits, and cookbooks at a reasonable price.
Scientists are bound by caution. They report small steps with mild optimism. They recognize how complex and difficult human disease is. Pseudoscience gurus, on the other hand, are quite free to state that their protocol or treatment WILL cure any disease or illness.
Healing with Nature
The idea of ‘healing’ using ‘natural’ techniques abounds on the internet. Western medicine is the enemy and ‘Alternative’ treatments are the only cure. A popular theory is that pharmaceuticals are simply poisons created by ‘Big Pharma’ to keep people sick.
While natural healing is very appealing, it’s unfortunately also a complete fantasy. As a scientist, it’s a slap in the face to go on social media and see people claiming that homeopathy, herbs, and diet are the real ‘cures’ for disease.
Scientists Are the Bad Guys
There are even theories that scientists have already discovered the cure for cancer (never mind that ‘cancer’ is not a specific disease) and are hiding it from the public to make money. We all work for Monsanto and are heavily compensated for our part in The Conspiracy. GMOs, chemtrails, mysterious fungi, and fluoridated water are presented as proof that a powerful entity (government, Big Pharma, Big Food) are attempting to poison us all.
Anyone who has worked in a lab without much grant money probably finds the idea of scientists rolling in money ridiculous, but we haven’t done enough to show the public how ridiculous this idea is.
Creating fear has always been a simple way to sell products. Reminding people that cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, autism, and heart disease are on the rise is a sure-fire way to create the impression that human health is in crisis.
In reality, modern medicine has dramatically decreased the number of people dying from infectious diseases, infant mortality, and starvation. A large proportion of the population are diagnosed with cancer because they have survived long enough to get it—most cancers develop in middle-aged or elderly patients. Therefore, cancer sadly remains common. However, survival rates have skyrocketed in the last few decades. But statistics are no consolation for very ill patients and their families, who are desperate for cures.
Why You Should Care
Think it’s not your problem? Think again. Public disdain for ‘brainiac, boffin’ scientists is veering towards outright hostility. CSIRO, Australia’s flagship research institution was recently defunded with almost no public comment. The Food Babe (a millionairess who doesn’t understand basic biochemistry) is wildly popular as a grass-roots voice of the people, while scientists are seen as cold white-coated robots who care very little for the common man. Science is no longer seen as a noble pursuit in the service of humanity. Instead, we’re money-grubbing shills selling our souls while poisoning ordinary people.
How to Defend Science
The first step in defending science is to acknowledge that this is partly our own fault. Research is published where the public will likely never see it. Publications are hopelessly dry, formal, and use convoluted language. Whenever distinguished guests visit laboratories, they are usually shown the best and newest facilities and given the impression that research has all the money it needs. Most non-scientists don’t know that working in research is unstable and unreliable. Also, it usually doesn’t pay well (especially postdoc positions!).
Another issue is that science is having trouble keeping pace with the modern world. The time from new ideas to publication is usually several years. In the digital age, that’s just too long. This was proven very effectively with the AIDS crisis in America in the 1980s. By the time funding was awarded to study the strange new disease, HIV-1 was already spreading rapidly. New health crises demand rapid responses, yet we’re still relying on journal articles to disseminate information—a slow and tedious process several hundred years old.
So what can we do to help change public perceptions and defend science?
Listen, Don’t Lecture
One of the most important things that we can do is to not lecture people. If you usually begin sentences with ‘Well, actually…’, you’re probably lecturing and not listening. And we need to listen. People often mistrust science because of worrying or frightening experiences. Their opinions may seem ridiculous to anyone with scientific training, but they still deserve to be heard. Being patronizing never changed anybody’s mind.
Get on Facebook (yes, really)
Help raise the profile of science. If you see an exciting piece of scientific work, share it on social media. Tell people about it.
Advocate for science. Write letters to your local or federal representatives asking for change. Even better, if you hear of any pro-science policy, express your enthusiasm. Australia’s (conservative) Government recently set aside $18 million to encourage the collaboration of academic science and small business. It won’t help everyone, but it’s a positive step that didn’t receive much coverage.
♫Always Look on the Bright Side of Life♫
The hardest part—stay positive. All of us ventured down this path because we love science, but research is a difficult career. It’s easy to become cynical and introverted as a way to cope with the stress, and often we tend to only talk about work with other scientists. Instead, try to speak positively about your work, even to yourself. We could all use a little more optimism and positive self-talk is a small step to getting started.
If we don’t speak up, we risk losing promising future scientists to the current wave of mistrust and fear. And today more than ever, science needs a voice.