Love, Trust, Science and Ducks

Several weeks ago, a well-respected and widely popular Australian cartoonist, Michael Leunig published what appeared to be an anti-vaccination cartoon in The Age.

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I, among others, was disappointed. Others were angry AND disappointed. Predictably, plenty of people took to twitter to criticize the artist’s work and opinions.

This is pretty typical of non-anti-vaxxers’ response to anti-vaxxers. On the one hand, it’s nice to know that the majority of us regard the anti-vaxx message as one of ignorance as opposed to one to be taken seriously. On the other hand, treating these people with such disrespect and aggression isn’t really getting us anywhere.

While respecting the individual’s right to opinion is a valuable moral to hold, respect in this instance can be a pretty hard thing to find. Parents who elect not to vaccinate are putting other babies and immuno-compromised individuals at risk, whilst putting an unnecessary strain on health care systems.  Many of us are lucky enough to never have witnessed the devastating effects of these preventable diseases thanks to the technological advances in modern medicine. Some of us are unenlightened enough to regard this luck with such complacency that they will consciously make the decision to leave their children unprotected.

However, the reality of the matter is that these people are standing up against vaccination because they are scared. They are standing up to defend their children and their community for what they perceive to be a very real danger. This is all despite the fact that government, scientists, health care workers and journalists (or at least those worth their salt) have struggled for so long to reassure those of us who may be worried about the adverse consequences of vaccination.

There is, to date, no scientific evidence which suggests that not vaccinating a child is a healthier choice than vaccinating a child. Searching the term “anti-vaccination” in a science publication database brings up nothing but communication guidelines for health care workers and sociological studies. I could copy and paste infinite links to scientific publications here (Oh go on, have a few [ref] [ref]), but it would do nothing to sway the opinion of an anti-vaxxer.

So we can review. Aggressive techniques for reasoning are, unsurprisingly, ineffective. Educational techniques for reasoning are ineffective (see, “The Backfire Effect” and a wonderful This American Life episode which explores this theme). Even bribery techniques are /would be ineffective (and immoral…).

Why is this? Why does the anti-vaxx movement persist?

At the root of these educational techniques for reasoning i.e. the scientific argument, lays a major factor which often gets forgotten about.

Trust.

Doctors and scientists are asking the public to trust them. More than that: they are asking the public to trust science.

Many of us view science as a collection of facts. It’s unsurprising therefore that the public can distrust science. One day scientists are telling them that red wine is good for you because is decreases risk for cardiovascular disease, while the next day they’re reminding them that alcohol is a carcinogen, so don’t go crazy now. Who are these idiot scientists if they can’t even get their facts i.e. science right?

Where the idea of science being a collection of facts came from, I have no idea. But it’s a poisonous idea and it’s getting everyone into a lot of unnecessary trouble.

Science is a discipline. It’s an ever-evolving collection of ideas and evidence, constantly being constructed and deconstructed by people who dedicate their entire lives to this discipline. A career in scientific research is a blood bath. You are continually having your work ripped to shreds by your colleagues. And rightly so: researchers are building the legacy of their generation. There are strict systems in place to ensure that sub-par science will not make it into publication (and thus into the legacy). This system itself, the academic system, is forever evolving to improve the quality of the science it produces.

It makes sense therefore that science will contradict itself. It’s the very nature of the beast. Maybe this is why the public has so many trust issues with doctors and scientists. Who’s to say we won’t find anti-vaccination evidence tomorrow?

The thing is, we can’t promise that. By the same token though, I can’t promise you that I won’t wake up a million dollars richer tomorrow. But I’m pretty bloody sure about it. No one has ever randomly deposited cash in my bank account before, I haven’t entered any competitions and I haven’t been promoted. I’m using evidence to inform my conclusion that I am “pretty bloody sure” I won’t wake up a million dollars richer tomorrow.

In a recent interview with Michael Leunig on ABC News, he states,

“I think the science is incomplete, I honestly do.”

Well, I should hope so. Science is never complete. But what’s important to remember is that the evidence we have so far demonstrates that i) vaccinations aren’t dangerous (aside from some minor and temporary side effects) and ii) the diseases they protect against are. NOT vaccinating is like me assuming that I WILL wake up a million dollars richer AND going out and making a tonne of business deals with shady characters who have a habit of shooting off knee caps.

So how do we go about addressing our trust issues? I know this is often suggested as a “cure for all” in science communication circles, but improved education is certainly one way to go about it. If we were to teach how academic culture is designed to optimise the production of “good” science, children should begin to spot the variation in quality between different sources of information.

But then again, is an appreciation of science something we can physically teach?

Perhaps distrust is just an embedded human instinct, and we are forever destined to argue with each other. Alternatively, is our marketing-obsessed culture priming people for distrust? Is this age of distrust a consequence of the increased availability of (mis)information over the internet? A skeptical mind is a valuable thing, but a skeptical mind with access to misinformation could actually be considered dangerous.

Leunig made an interesting point during his interview,

“Is science the final say on everything?”

Well, no. Science will never have “a final say”. But it has a say. In fact, it has the only say. It’s the only real tool we have to maneuver ourselves and our families safely through this wonderful and mysterious thing we call life.

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The Only True Wisdom is Knowing You Know Nothing

I’ve been lurking on PubMed for three months now.

I know the time has come for me to make a decision regarding what direction to go in with my project/s, but it’s so cosy here in PubMed land.  I can’t make any mistakes and no-one can tell me I’m doing anything wrong. Even though I have an idea/ ideas, and my supervisor and co-workers are supportive of it, I’m still terrified about going forward with it.

I was talking to my supervisor about this fear; that someone will tell me that my research is a waste of time, or someone will spot me for what I really am i.e. just a person, not a Scientist! She reassured me that everyone can feel this way, especially first year PhD students. Another friend told me that if I really care this much about my field and what my peers think of my work, then that automatically makes me a good scientist, so I shouldn’t be afraid of making the wrong choices.

My unconscious theory before these discussions was: I’ll read everything so that I can come to understand everything, then I can make a decision based on everything, and no-one can question me because I’ll know everything!

It’s only really after admitting this strategy to myself that I realised how ridiculous I was being. To quote Socrates,

“The only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing.”

…which is all well and good, but scientists have to meet in the middle here. We can’t jump into projects and experiments without forethought or planning: but a 1st year PhD student can’t be expected to understand an entire research field before they have even begun to work in it.

I think a less dubious individual than me might not have gone through these motions, but I have. Thankfully, I’m not doing this alone, and after a pretty hefty discussion with my supervisor, I think we both realised the only way I was going to move forward was if she pushed me off the edge. So we’ve got the gear ordered, and I’ll be stepping into the unknown (like there is anything else) any day now.