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Between 2010 and 2011 there were more than 1,500 cases of whooping cough in San Diego, a life-threatening childhood disease that can be effectively prevented by vaccination. Before the panic of that epidemic becomes just another page in San Diego’s history book, perhaps it is a good moment to draw some lessons for our future. Beyond the obvious need for things like public health awareness, effective communication and robust vaccination campaigns, our frightening memories may reveal an even more fundamental problem. The truth is that, historically, we do have a robust vaccination campaign in this country. But, as most of us know, in the last 10 years many have become skeptical of vaccines, concerned that they cause autism, or that they are simply a scam, designed by Big Pharma to increase sales.
And this sort of ungrounded skepticism (the link between vaccination and autism has been demonstrated to be non-existent many times over) is not specific to this issue. Many do not believe that global warming is real because they trust non-scientist, political opinions more than scientists. And a quick search on the internet will uncover robust communities of conspiracy theorists on topics ranging from so-called “chem-trails” to genetic cloning.
We are a population out of touch with science, and this is becoming an increasingly dangerous position. So, how has this happened? And, more importantly, how do we fix this problem? Of course, the answers to each of these questions are many and complex. Still, that should not be an excuse for not beginning to unravel them.
Science is more complicated now than ever before. Scientific knowledge has become increasingly specialized. Progress has been coming at breakneck speed. Meanwhile, science education in this country has been languishing. In some scientific fields, at the top of the educational curve we have become less and less able to produce enough scientists qualified to meet the demands of cutting edge science. And, for the rest of us, the vast majority who have taken only the minimum required science courses, our knowledge lags so far behind the curve that we find ourselves lost, confused, frustrated and defeated. To the extent that we have not experienced these feelings, it is increasingly because we have not even tried and we are largely uninterested. The options are equally unproductive.
However, when we are confronted with painfully tough questions — is the planet warming, or, could I be harming my kids, even as I try to protect them? — and we do not have the background or training to be able to work through the scientific investigations related to these questions, we are, as answer-seeking animals, drawn to alternatives with easily accessible logic and charismatic presentations.
Enter mass media science coverage.
In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, this is precisely what happens to Deborah Lacks as she gives up on the impenetrable answers she receives from the scientists at John Hopkins, so she tries to make sense of her mother’s legacy, instead, on Google. What she finds is what we have all found: simple answers that satisfy her curiosity — understandable but not necessarily scientifically or medically reliable.
But this is not simply the tale of citizens without the skills to participate in the process. This is also the tale of scientists and scientific communities who do not see the full effects of their failure to communicate effectively. As science has become more specialized and scientists have insulated themselves and their work from the public, fear and mistrust of science have kept almost apace with our growing disconnection from its progress.
Scientists must remember to be citizens too — and this means being accessible, human faces, especially for our school-age children. For them there is time to spark the fire of interest in science. This is essential, whether they become scientists or not. Scientists have the power, as citizens, to help raise our science achievement levels in this country. And, as practitioners with a stake in the future of science, they have a responsibility to participate in the behaviors that will help insure its productive future. The era when science could move forward productively without the rest of the country (if such an era ever existed) ended with the information age.
What might this new scientific face look like, you may ask. One model for such work is already in place. San Diego is already home to the new and growing science and engineering festival. Modeled after popular European science festivals, it is designed to introduce people, in accessible and captivating ways, to the new innovations and directions in sciences. Also, and equally importantly, it is a real, physical meeting place for the scientist and the non-scientist to look one another in the eye, to know each other, and to learn to trust each other.
The Reuben H. Fleet Science Center and the San Diego Center for Ethics in Science and Technology will be hosting a free public forum on March 7 at 5:30 p.m. to further explore how scientific research can be effectively explored and communicated. This forum is part of the Henrietta Lacks Series and you can register here to attend.
Stanley Maloy is dean of the College of Sciences and a professor of biology at San Diego State University. He lives in Del Cerro.
Tate Hurvitz is a project director at the San Diego Center for Ethics in Science and Technology and an assistant professor of English at Grossmont College. He lives in Chula Vista.
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