Anti-science finger pointing leads right back where it began

by morgan · 15 comments


“The anti-science sentiment is entirely the fault of well-funded Koch brothers and people like them.”

Picture of cells

I was helping out with the petition to get Obama’s attention on the issue of biomedical research funding.  Amongst the flurry of emails, I got one that said essentially this:


“I’m trying to get people to sign this petition, but some people are pushing back because they’re not really sure of the value of science.”  The email then went on to point to this article that discussed how conservatives have been steadily becoming anti-science, while other groups still thinking science is OK.


That email coincided with another interesting and related event.


I saw a Facebook post by a conservative person that I know.  (Yes, I actually know some conservatives! The horror!)


The mentioned a blog article that was about a woman in Pennysylvania who’d recently had a baby.  She’d intended to have that baby with a midwife at home, but the midwife couldn’t make it in time due to the speed at which the woman went into labor, so she called an ambulance.  So she had the baby in the hospital parking lot, inside the ambulance.


Doctors took the baby from her.  They made excuses for why they weren’t returning the baby.  Then, finally they told her this: we’ll return the baby, but first you have to authorize a Hepatitis B shot. The woman says to them: um, no, I want to have my husband here, and baby should be tested for Hep B first, to see whether the baby is even at risk.


At that point, a clueless hospital social worker called the police, confiscated the baby (WTF??!?!), and ejected the woman from the hospital.  The “reasoning” (if you can call it that) is that the woman wasn’t properly looking out for the welfare of the child by authorizing the Hep B shot.  So, the rationale goes, the child needs to be taken care of by authorities.  Obviously they’ll be better at caring for this child than a mother that refuses a Hep B shot!  She must be totally off her rocker!


The mom was allowed to come back in to feed the child every three hours, but had to sleep in the car.  After childbirth.


The next day a judge said WTF?!? and released the baby back to parents.  After the hospital had already given the Hep B shot, against parental wishes. So there!


What’s this story got to do with the petition, science, and biomedical funding? They’re linked in an important way.  But one more story, before we bring it all together here.


As I write this post, I’m on a plane, headed back from Mississippi.  It’s the poorest state in the union.  I was there helping them out with a program that is designed to get more underrepresented groups into biomedical research.


I heard stories like this: “When we first started the program, many of the colleges didn’t even have a basic science lab.  We had to beg and plead with administrators to get them to consider sparing space for this.  The kids who participate in our summer research programs often have never seen a pipette before.  They don’t know how to dress for work, don’t know how to do a Google search, don’t understand even the most basic elements of doing research.  And, there are some entire counties here that don’t even have a single MD!”


The efforts of these folks to develop more MD’s and scientists is laudable.  It’s a big uphill battle.


So, back to the first email.  After that email came, I made a point-in-response.  The point was this: we scientists need to take some responsibility for the anti-science trends.  We need to become better at communicating about and doing outreach for science.  If we don’t do that, then the anti-science trend is going to continue.


In a series of quippy emails that followed, one person kept saying: no, there is ZERO blame on the part of scientists for this situation.  This is ALL the fault of well-funded, anti science interests like the Koch brothers.  It is all due to these people who want to strangle science because it gets in the way of industry, by bringing up pesky issues like climate change. They are well funded, and it’s the only reason for the trend against science now.  Let’s not take responsibility, let’s fight.


No culpability.  No admittance that we scientists could be doing a better job.  Only finger pointing. “It’s THEIR fault! They’re wrong! We must do away with THEM and their wrongdoing! Then it will all be better!”


The adamance and arrogance of this very superficial opinion by a fellow scientist really startled me.


Here’s why: the two other science-related stories I tell above have nothing to do with the Koch brothers, but everything to do with the anti-science trend.


In the case of the woman whose baby was stolen, it’s simple: there was a clash of beliefs.  The hospital staff believes it is best for everyone, without exception, to have a Hep B shot.  The woman-with-baby believes that a Hep B shot should be given only if absolutely necessary, and is concerned about the risks (there are risks, BTW).  She is part of the growing anti-vaccine movement.  I know several anti-vaccine folks.  Each one of them truly believes that vaccines are dangerous, and that they are doing what’s right for their kids.


We scientists might argue that the facts are on our side, and that kids should be vaccinated. (I vaccinated mine, BTW).  Yet, in the one such debate I’ve heard, the anti-vaccine person was eloquent and passionate, whereas the pro-vaccine scientist (an epidemiologist) was dry and factual.  Guess which person won that debate, by swaying more people to her side?  Yep – the anti-vaccine person.  This is not Koch brothers, this is passion and eloquence versus dry statistics.  Passion and eloquence will win, every time.


And guess what’s going to happen with the story of the mother whose baby was taken away? More fuel for the anti-vaccine fire!  This is the worst possible public relations blunder by the supposedly pro-science hospital that this woman interacted with.


Does this have anything to do with well-funded anti-science people like the Koch brothers?  Nada.


It’s about a clash of beliefs, where one side is eloquent and passionate, and the other side is dry, boring, and authoritarian.


Unfortunately, this clash makes science look bad.


How about the visit to Mississippi?


More than anything, the problem with science there is lack of access. Lack of relevance.  Lack of interest.  Lack of knowledge.  The culture in the many impoverished areas sees no direct impact of science on their lives.


Again, is this due to the Koch brothers or other well-funded anti-science people?  That’s hard to believe unless you’re a tin-foil hat wearing conspiracy theorist.  And if you are the tinfoil type, then let me tell you the real cause: little brown men from Mars!


In seriousness – both of the above cases of things trending away from science, there’s only one antidote.  It’s not going out and doing head-on battle with the Koch’s of the world. That’s impossible, anyway, unless you’re a multi-billionaire.


The real way forward is simple: communicating better about the value and benefit of science.


If that damned hospital social worker had, instead of trying to force the vaccine, done some very effective education and persuasion, the long-term effects on the likelihood of the kid getting vaccines would be greater.  As it is, she probably alienated the parents permanently from visiting hospitals or medical workers, and she gave a rallying cry to others who just don’t trust the science behind vaccines or the workers who administer them.


In Mississippi, the effort I was supporting is all about educating people: getting people from impoverished areas training in the biomedical sciences.  Some of those people have already gone to med school and graduate school.  Many of them have vowed that, once they’re finished, they’ll come back to their communities to help.


This is about education and communication.


Even in the case of “doing battle” with the anti-evolution folks and the climate change deniers, that battle can only be fought with effective words, education, and persuasion.


Unfortunately, a lot of scientists either don’t feel that we have the time for that, and/or we lack training in the effective doing of that.


And that’s where our culpability comes in.  If we want things to change so that the anti-science trend doesn’t continue to erode funding and support for science, then we’ve got to change our ways.


We must become passionate advocates for science.  We have to become vocal and well spoken in support of science.  We have to learn how to “market” the value of science.  


If we don’t admit the problem, and vow to do better, then we will lose. If we point a finger at others, we will loose.


This is not a battle that we can afford to loose.

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