Language in science is a challenge. Science comes with gray areas that both intrigue and confuse. Getting it right every time is unlikely, making science a perfect example of ongoing thought evolution. However, few things make me more angry than when science is twisted to suit agendas. Consider the case of Dr. Andrew Wakefield:
The doctor who sparked the scare over the safety of the MMR vaccine for children changed and misreported results in his research, creating the appearance of a possible link with autism, a Sunday Times investigation has found. (link)
One thing in particular caught my eye a little later in the article:
Despite involving just a dozen children, the 1998 paper’s impact was extraordinary. After its publication, rates of inoculation fell from 92% to below 80%. Populations acquire “herd immunity” from measles when more than 95% of people have been vaccinated.
Herd immunity brought to mind Mark Earls and his insights into why humans do what they do. I was pleasantly surprised to see him post today on this very issue:
As I’ve noted before, vaccination is a HERD thing: its real power works at a population level. If that falls below a certain level, then diseases that used to cause significant damage can become prevalent again. Fuelling the conversation that suggests that there are risks or any evidence of risks leads to the lower level of compliance with the vaccination programme and creates the opportunity for the resurgance of once almost unknown childhood diseases. Particularly when the science is so damn clear. (link)
I will never understand why scientists elect to promote ideas that aren’t backed up by real research. It seems like these pretenders are discovered with relative ease once someone elects to take a hard look at the data. Very little seems to be gained while a huge amount is put at risk.
Scientific language becomes even more important when we’re talking about things that impact lives directly. Parents want to know what they can do to best protect their children. Inaccurate information only makes this harder to do.
As a layperson, I can think of few positions that come with greater social responsibility than that of scientist. This responsibility includes choosing one’s words with care. Each individual has a right to his or her opinion, but once it’s expressed publicly, the individual must accept the consequences.
Image via Flickr by ms_cwang.