P

ITTSBURGH — I meet science skeptics everywhere.

Buses, planes, supermarkets — all are packed with people eager to share their doubts that GMOs are safe and that climate change is real, even more so when they find out I’m a scientist.

For the most part, I’ve shrugged off their skepticism. I’m in my first year as a graduate student in the biomedical sciences in Pittsburgh. I’ve assumed that people who ignore well-established science wouldn’t be in position to influence public policy and make decisions that could affect us all.

advertisement

Events in the past few days convinced me I am wrong.

With news that Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who distrusts vaccines, might be leading a vaccine safety committee under President-elect Donald Trump, that a man who doesn’t believe in climate change has been nominated to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, and that a man who doesn’t want to ensure that drugs actually work before they are marketed has been considered to lead the Food and Drug Administration, the Trump presidency seems poised to lead a war on science. I worry, as I progress in my career, that if government doesn’t like the results of my research, they’ll proclaim it false and discredit me. I’m not the only one.

Scientific findings can be unpopular. But scientists are acutely aware of the economic and political impact of their findings, because we’re people too. We engage in society and live lives just like everyone else. I like to drive — this is a fact. Cars use fossil fuels — also a fact. Fossil fuels lead to global warming — this has been shown over and over again. Not by one scientist but by many, in many different ways. So as much as I like to drive constantly, I should probably drive less. I’m not happy about it, but the evidence is there, and I have to change my behavior to prevent something catastrophic from happening. I can’t just say that because I don’t believe the evidence, that it’s not true.

Scientific findings can make us uncomfortable. They don’t always provide the easy answers we want to hear. Vaccines are safe. It’s a coincidence, a sad coincidence, that children start exhibiting signs of autism around the same time they get vaccines. But that coincidence isn’t cause. Already, we are seeing signs of what vaccine skepticism produces — outbreaks of diseases we had more or less vanquished. As much as we want an easy fix for autism, the research shows that vaccines are not the problem, and avoiding facts only creates more diseases and pain.

How do we know these facts? We repeat experiments. We submit our work for peer review. We don’t assume things are a certain way until we can show that they are. My work is constantly being critiqued and refined and challenged, even within my own lab. In my previous column, I wrote about how my work impacts my boss’s career. It’s in my boss’s best interest that I’m as sure as I can be about my science. Otherwise, there are no diagnostic tests. There are no drugs. There are no treatments.

Yes, fraud and retractions happen. But those incidents are not the bulk of scientific progress.

So why should government and the public trust scientists? We get no personal gain from telling you what you don’t want to hear. We just want policy to be based on scientific consensus, not on opinion, not on emotions, not on the potential for financial gain.

So, I’m scared. Most, if not all, of my graduate training will happen during the Trump presidency in an atmosphere hostile to science. I wonder, will my work have any relevance? Will the project I pour my life into help anyone? If I am able to discover new facts about the world or new therapies, will anyone be listening? I fear that science will get relegated to the land of alchemy or magic where it is ignored because no one believes it is real.

And as a profession, we are scared. We are scared that funding will be cut for work that doesn’t meet a political or financial agenda. We are scared that research will end for things that are crucial to knowledge, but that may lead to unpopular answers. We are scared that fear of science will bring back diseases we’ve beaten, slow progress toward treating others, and create a world where anything that feels wrong is wrong.

I’m scared of that world. You should be too.

Sara Whitlock is a first-year graduate student studying structural biology at the University of Pittsburgh. Her column will appear periodically. This is not hypothetical.

Leave a Comment

Please enter your name.
Please enter a comment.

  • Good points.
    I believe in the end that science is going to win. However, my concern is that in the process of anti science forces attempting to implement ignorance and fear in society that millions will suffer and die before science emergence where it should be.

  • Well said. We need more of these conversations. Climate change will change everything; it already is. I live in the north and see it glaringly first hand. My science background helps with the observations. Ignorance-based decision making seems to be the new mantra and its costs far outweigh its benefits. It creates a war against future human generations and most living species. It is greed and fear based. It must be confronted. Articles like this one help. They need to be front and center. Thanks.

  • No doubt about it, science careers happen in business, including universities. So what. People are expected to have a profession, to pay their way. Should scientists work for free like nuns in the hospitals of old? The problems start when they don’t get called for hiding conflicts of interest. They continue when old guard journals refuse to clean their pages f bad science, then do the rare editorial to defend the same bad science. PACE study see here the results of a tribunal (like a court)……http://retractionwatch.com/2016/08/17/uk-tribunal-orders-release-of-data-from-controversial-chronic-fatigue-syndrome-study/

    We have a crisis of transparency in science. I wish our young student author would admit it. Because the anti=scientists will use that as ammo for their conspiracies. Mad in America makes a living off of it!

    On top of which we now have “Cures 21” which promises to get meds to the needy faster than already, because they deserve the relief. As if study timelines and knowledge of long term effects were not already deficient!

    Wake up Sara. Science needs protection not only from flat earthers but from hucksters. And it needs to control the use of ad agencies to promote upcoming publications, along with the geewhizz bang ignorant crowd that gets to put their nake on the public postings so “impact fctors” can be maxed out.

    I know this isn’t going to win friends among the retrogrades, bt lets not cave in. Theres a war. A bottom line business versus Ivory tower idealismm war. Sara, WAKE UP.

  • Indeed Sara it is a moment of setback but we must remember that the trajectory of human existence shows an overall slow yet definite embrace of proven facts. It is quite amazing to know so many are profoundly ignorant of science. Most that I’ve talked to have very little understanding of the facts they assert to be lies. Considering the scientific concepts that are required to have smartphones, it’s surprising that people don’t deny their existence. Even the dark age came to an end so at least we don’t have to fear imprisonment or death anymore. Unfortunately ideas have a much longer life span than ours. The search for truth is never in vain. So don’t fear a single data point, trust the trajectory of human understanding. We’ve come a very long way since the evolutionary ability to communicate.

  • <>

    For someone who asserts fealty to science, you sound more like a congregant in the church of global warming than someone who should be continually skeptical until proof has been conclusively demonstrated and independently replicated. Have you read the Climategate emails? There are no more vicious thugs walking the streets than so-called climatologists who are committed to a leftie policy agenda and who will do anything to continue to suck greedily on the gub’ment funding teat. Just look at how Judith Curry (formerly of Georgia Tech) has been treated. Or Roger Pilke.

    If you are involved in legitimate science rather than promoting a political agenda, you can do well. If, instead, it’s your plan to promote social and economic policies under the guise of science, then you deserve to live out your worst fears.

    Buck up, buttercup. Stop with the delicate snowflake act.

    – Krumhorn

    • You are a scientifically-challenged, brain-dead moron. The scientific evidence is there. “Proof” has already been demonstrated.

    • Climate science is probably the largest field of science that has ever existed. It uses the largest computers and thousands if people work in the field. It adheres to all normal scientific protocols and basic climate theory has been shown to be correct over and over again. It is also corroborated through research into many different, even unrelated fields. It is backed up by mountains of data that is continuously collected from thousands and thousands of instruments all over the world, from the depths of the oceans to outer space and at all points all over the world between the equator and the poles. At this stage if you seriously believe that global warming is a hoax, or otherwise untrue, you are either deluded, stupid, ignorant or dishonest. There are no other choices.

  • Thank you for your article Sara. I share your fears.
    I have to implore you, and everyone else, not to use the word “skeptic” when you actually mean “denier”. I consider myself a scientific skeptic, which is actually the opposite of a “science skeptic”. Skepticism simply requires good and plausible evidence. (of course extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence). Think Carl Sagan. Every good scientist is a skeptic.
    Denialism rejects good and plausible evidence that doesn’t align (and embraces junk and implausible evidence that does align) with their preconceived beliefs/conclusions. Skepticism is a force for good.
    Thanks again, and all the best in your graduate work! Science rules!

    • Denier? As in Holocaust Denier?

      This choice of linguistics is characteristic of the political leftie foot soldiers rather than a scientist. There is more than ample basis for AGW skepticism, and those that don’t acknowledge that simple fact are not in support of science. They are in support of policies while masquerading as scientists.

      -Krumhorn

    • Krumhorne – conflating climate science denial with holocaust denial is ridiculous. The word denial can be used to describe all sorts of things. There is similarity though: denying the holocaust is clearly odious as well as being irrational. Denying AGW helps delay solutions to AGW; and it is also irrational.

      Is there any other branch off science you deny? I note you are using modern communications technology. Consistency is clearly not important to you.

  • Fear not, Sara. As long as there’s a business demand for your skills and credentials, you’re going to come up roses.

    Which is a side door into the problem you raise: for most of us in the unscienced public, science speaks to us through the media, a business we wholly distrust. Whatever science has to tell us is tainted by that association. We know that most of what the media tells us is untrue. We know they’re using our emotions against us. We live with this noise in our heads everywhere we go. Science hasn’t differentiated itself from the rest of these “hidden” persuaders as far as many of us are concerned. Climate change is being told as a story of fear (you may think of it as “urgency,” but it hits the same notes). So are vaccines. Why shouldn’t we answer their fear with our fear—of them?

    “Science,” as we see it is trying to establish a problem for which the only possible answer is more science. For us, that’s not just more research and findings. It’s more hegemony—institutional and cultural. Another reduction in the importance and autonomy of the individual.

    Science is also a business. Or it works for the biggest ones. Some of them are outright nefarious (tobacco); some are pretty close (pesticides and the seed business as a vector for selling them). We know you by the company you keep. (Even a legendary nutritionist at Harvard School of Public Health was taking money from snack food companies and saying, scientifically, that Coca-Cola was fine by him.)

    No, we can’t dispute you on your facts. But we can ask on whose behalf you’re talking when you’re communicating with the public. We’ve learned that that’s always the most important question you can ask in a society with so many hidden big-interest agendas. Not what they’re saying, but why now, and why to us? What do they really want?

    I believe there is absolutely no connection between vaccines and autism. But if there are other risks or hazards associated with vaccines, I wouldn’t know. It’s not like Vaccine Inc. is going to open with that, is it? I don’t even know where most vaccines are made, or by whom, or under what conditions of testing or oversight. Again, not expecting any transparency here (less in the new administration!). I have to trust the science of the market, ultimately: 20 million consumers of product X must know something I don’t.

    Sara, skepticism is really all we have. We are overmatched by the authority and the aggressiveness of science. It is always pushing into areas of our life where we previously had some small authority. Even if that authority was just folk belief, it let us have confidence in our decisions.

    Now if science tells us we have to vaccinate, to find another way to get around, to surrender our livelihood (in other words, our self-worth) to robots, to AI, we don’t really have much choice in the end, do we? It’s adapt or die, isn’t it? It feels like they really want us to die.

    And we probably will, with our bad habits and poor diet. But not without one last barbaric fight. We’re fighting this thing, this talking, disembodied and intrusive force that for at least 60 years has had a heavy, hidden hand in these sweeping institutional actions that have shrunken the sphere in which an average person can live without submission to untruthful, hegemonic powers.

    That’s what it feels like science wants from us: more submission. Complete obedience. It’s this totalization we’re resisting.

    • Mike from MA, there is no “Vaccine Inc”. This is a straw man.
      Science is not a business. It is a career and a calling. Yes, scientists need to make a living, and corporations fund scientists to promote their agendas. Money is corrupting, and science and scientists are not monolithic. The business-funded science doubt playbook is clear from tobacco to climate change to sugar. Knowing the source of funding is one way to critically dissect the validity of findings. But the true scientific consensus can’t be hijacked, at least not over time.
      IMO, the biggest problem we have as a society today is conspiracy thinking. We have elected a person who embraces conspiracy thinking. If we can’t agree on facts, we have no basis for a rational conversation, which is terrifying.

    • @Mike from MA
      I can not understand why you think about science as some sort of an entity or an institution. Science is an activity and a process. Being at war with “science” (as you seem to be moving towards) makes as much sense to me as being in a battle with mathematics. It’s like being oppressed by these damned numbers that show me being late for work, going into debt, gaining weight.

      I just can’t help but feel that you are picking on the wrong things here. Yes there have been unpleasant or harmful policy decisions made based on scientific consensus that turned out to be incorrect. But saying that because of that, the physics behind what makes your television set works is all BS sounds nonsensical.

      Science isn’t making you submit. That’s due to policy decisions made by people.

  • Maybe the USA has bigger issues than worry about “my career”. I am a scientist and I share the concerns listed. But the reason that worry is not my career, which, no doubt, has been impacted and will be impacted by medieval attitudes in Washington. What worries me is the impact those attitudes will have on my country and my children and their children. When we vote for someone or a policy just because our career may benefit, we are putting on some very dark horse shades and we are bound to hit the precipice. This being said; your career? The rest of us don’t care a bit about it. Get used to that.

    • Why don’t scientists judge themselves before calling the populace or the elected officials medieval. That smugness caused the exact outcome they so despise. If you can’t continually explain science to the public in a compelling way then you deserve what you get. Your smugness gets you further down the hole your digging for yourself and your colleagues. By the way, I’m on your side, but your smug superiority makes it difficult. Help me help you! Wake up.

Sign up for our Morning Rounds newsletter

Your daily dose of news in health and medicine.

X