What the Wall Street Journal should have said, “Science gets an A+”
The scientific and medical professionals, in many ways, have always been part of “the elite.” As a result, they can seem, at times, mysterious, inscrutable, and other. For example, how many magazine articles, websites, and advertisements have you seen that contain the phrase, “what your doctor won’t tell you”? This is baseless paranoia since doctors are not only obligated to keep you well informed, but information is a key aspect of the healing process. This reassurance hardly matters though if the medical elite wish to keep you uninformed for their own inscrutable and nefarious reasons. In a striking vignette, a few years back, “Airborne” became an extremely popular herbal supplement that was purported to prevent and cure the cold and flu. It’s selling point? It was “discovered” by a mere school teacher. The implicit message is a simple woman has overcome the resistance of the medical establishment to provide you with a simple and much needed cure. Airborne was successfully sued by the Federal Trade Commission for fraud. Such frauds are effective by playing into a deep-seated distrust of elite professionals entrusted with our health. In the past, doctors and scientists have been equated with witch-doctors and hucksters. Today, such prejudice is still exceedingly vibrant.
But we’re not talking about some hokey cure-all. Snake oil salesmen have been around as long as…. well, snake oil. We’re talking about a present and alarming trend of people using accusations of elitism to condemn or ridicule scientists and the scientific community. For instance, on August 15, GOP candidate Rick Perry said, “I think there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects.” In essence: scientists are manufacturing a problem to steal from the public. And quite a conspiracy it is: 95% of climatologists have concluded that climate change is the result of man-made pollution. Rick Perry wants to protect you from these scientists and the solution is as simple as turning in your ballot next November. Of course, the evil scientists may not be malicious fraudsters; it could be mere incompetence. Such is the sentiment of an article from August 10th in the Wall Street Journal.
On the 10th, the front page of the WSJ displayed this headline, “Mistakes in Scientific Studies Surge”. According to the Journal, there has been a 15-fold increase in the number of papers retracted since in the last 10 years. In 2001 there were 22 retractions versus 339 retractions in 2010. The reasons cited to explain this alarming trend were: the need for scientists to produce flashy results, unwillingness to duplicate work, poor oversight on the part of the individual journals, and fraud. The WSJ cites as its source for these broad ranging implications, a single database that controls access to 11,000 journals. Assuming the single database represents an accurate representation of the entire spectrum of scientific research; consider the sheer mass of data contained in 11,000 journals, each pumping out hundreds of articles a year. If we assume a ridiculously low figure of 10 articles per journal every year, a simple calculation gets us an accuracy rating of 99.7%. How puerile are your standards of excellence if 99.7% isn’t good enough? It is easy to show large changes in exceedingly rare phenomena like scientific incompetence or malfeasance, but this hardly realistic evidence of a disturbing trend. Yes the rate of paper retractions increased 15-fold, but that figure minimizes the dramatic increase in the number of papers and publications, and ignores completely the burgeoning complexity of the tasks scientists have undertaken.
The story of the WSJ article is simple and threatening: the common man is being betrayed by scientists. By proxy, we are betrayed by science and there is little if anything you can do about it. This is an insane argument since the numbers do not even remotely reflect that possibility.
Are there renegades and frauds in the scientific community? Absolutely. For example, the infamous Wakefield study published in the prestigious medical journal “Lancet” showed a link between vaccination and autism. That study was recently shown to be overtly fraudulent. As the result of that one small study, thousands of parents disregarded the advice of their doctors and flew in the face of conventional medical and scientific wisdom by refusing to get their kids vaccinated. The Wakefield study is a horrendous scandal that cost a lot of kids their lives from easily preventable illnesses that had all but been eradicated from this country. However tempting it might be, the occasional revelation of fraud and abuse is not an indictment of the scientific community and the community does not deserve the kind of anti-elitism endemic to our culture today.
It’s an understandable human need to seek simple answers, but all too often the media takes a single argument from the scientific discussion and dispenses it as an absolute truth. It is nothing short of a cynical ploy to stoke fears and amass attention. Unfortunately, we live in a world that is becoming progressively hostile to absolute truths and the best that science ever offers is increasingly well defined probabilities. It can be an uncomfortable place to be. While it is always difficult and frequently necessary to examine our preconceived notions of whatever passes for truth these days, the struggle is always worth it. It’s time to have a reasonable conversation about the world around us without having to resort to conniptions and hysteria. As a direct result from this kind of demagoguery, science is under a direct and existential threat from politicians and media personalities who delight and quibble over mistakes that account for far less than .3% the entire field of active research.
There are plenty of ways to be part of the solution. Voting for politicians who do not overtly disdain the opinion of professionals is probably one of the most effective strategies available. Speak up, write emails, go to the town hall meetings and make sure the candidates represent your views. Social-network the hell out of the internet. Certain television channels and programs are writhe with error and bias, turn them off and write the show demanding higher standards of excellence. We live in the information age where knowledge is literally power. This is not some meaningless aphorism, but an undeniable truth. Our weapons are the pen and keyboard. Your actions, or inaction, do matter and they do make a difference. This may be more than any one person can do. Start small with something simple like writing to the Wall Street Journal or your local congressmen and senators to ask them to support scientists on the numerous scientific issues we that we face today. In whatever way you choose, it is vitally important to get involved.