I became a scientist in the early 1970s. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do professionally and was in a undergraduate degree program studying psychology…a rather soft science at that time. I took a couple senior level courses in something called physiological psychology that introduced me to the amazing connection between our bodies and our minds. I knew that a career in biological sciences was to be my new target. This resulted in a second undergrad degree, this time in bacteriology…and I was totally in love with science and the people doing science. They were my heroes.
During graduate school and postdoctoral training, as I became a professional scientist, I began to see an ugly side of science. The business of science has changed dramatically over the past 40 years, and it’s not pretty. Sure, remarkable achievements and technological advances have been made (consider gene sequencing, space exploration, GPS guidance, and of course the Internet!). Yet something insidious crept into our culture for reasons that are still unclear to me. Science credibility has taken a nosedive. Large portions of Americans now doubt the sincerity of university professors, engineers, physicians, and dentists. I ask you to read the August 21st op-ed piece by Adam Frank in the New York Times about how we have entered the age of denial. (Welcome to the Age of Denial.) Americans are skeptical of science and politicians are willing to put topics such as biomedical research and science education on the fiscal chopping block. Sadly, we taxpayers are letting them do that not realizing that we are hurting ourselves and future generations.
Before I left the National Institutes of Health, I witnessed a situation unheard of by my colleagues or me. A researcher had been asked to review grants on the topic of chronic fatigue syndrome. The researcher had published papers in this field and was considered by many to be an expert on the topic. When the list of reviewers was made public prior to the evaluation of applications, one or more individuals concluded that this reviewer was biased and would promote a particular area of research distasteful to many CFS patients. The reviewer received death threats … just because of experiments that produced results that did not meet the expectations of the skeptics!
Science has a way of filtering out junk research. It’s called peer review in which other scientists try to replicate the findings of an experiment. Recent examples: cold fusion (good finding but it could not be replicated), vaccines cause autism, and a retrovirus (sort of like HIV) causes chronic fatigue syndrome (turned out to be a lab contaminant.) If the reviewer who received death threats had done junk research, it would be discovered through peer review.
Too often, the public is eager to jump to conclusions about science and technology. Patients want cures and we all like new toys. However, the media and some misguided folks know how to build on skepticism and hope in order to get you to read or watch or listen to their message. All scientists and engineers must be aware of this, and counter unscientific conclusions with honest, credible, evidence-based information about nature, medicine, the world, and the universe. Talking with the public, even a skeptical public, is a professional necessity for researchers!