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Summer Supervillains!

<ience saw an exciting summer draw to a close this year, filled with gooey, gooey scandals and a variety of villains, from humans to weather to bacteria. Diving right in, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill turned petroleum company BP into a love-to-hate-them evil corporation. Even now, months after the company finally succeeded in sealing its leaky well, the story continues: Scientists still don’t agree on the amount of oil remaining in the Gulf of Mexico—has all of the oil dispersed? Or will clean-up efforts last for months still? As long as scientists continue to publish conflicting reports, we can only guess at the scale of the remaining damage.

But repairing the Gulf could be small fry compared to coping with the damage our next villain could inflict on the planet. A report published this summer confirmed that Earth’s temperature is indeed increasing, giving global warming a seat on my summer villains list. This villain may be the culprit behind another disturbing summer phenomenon: the loss of Arctic sea ice. The sea ice has reached its third lowest level ever recorded (and the only two summers that saw less ice also occurred in this decade, in 2007 and 2008). The increased ice melt not only affects ocean levels, but also Arctic ecosystems. Walruses in Alaska, for example, have been forced to go ashore rather than taking up residence on ice floes.

Finally, an enemy that we thought defeated reared its head in California’s summer outbreak of pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough. The number of pertussis cases has reached a high of over 4000, the highest number since 1955, and killed nine children. So how did a disease that we’ve kept under control for half a decade experience this resurgence? Some parents began refusing to vaccinate their children, out of fear that vaccines cause autism. Because vaccinations are not 100% effective, keeping a disease in check relies on maintaining an immunized population, because even those less at risk of contracting pertussis, like adults, can still pass the disease on to others. With a smaller percentage of the public vaccinated, the whole population becomes at risk of contracting once-banished diseases.

So how are the summer’s “big three” supervillains related? Although they came in a variety of forms, they shared one vital trait: They gained strength from the scientific community’s production of conflicting papers, which in turn led to public alienation and confusion.
There is a tendency to think of the scientific community as just that: a community that regularly interacts, sharing ideas and behaving with some sort of cohesion. While this can be the case, this summer’s villains indicate that wide-open communication within this community is a pleasant illusion.

Take BP’s big oil-well blow-up. With time and further study, the disparity between reports of how much oil remains in the Gulf may be resolved, but the mixed messages not only confuse, but also lead to distrust. If the experts cannot come to a consensus, then why should we listen to them at all?

While this may not make too much of an impact in terms of Gulf clean-up—authorities do not face opposition to this effort—warring opinions within the world of science can create enormous problems when it comes to issues like global warming. The widespread dissent over whether or not global warming exists (and if it does, just how much humans have contributed to it) has been raging for years now.

I’m not trying to suggest that scientists should tailor their results to match some status quo. This would oppose the very principles of scientific thinking. But I do scientists should consult others in their fields more often, attending conferences to pick one another’s brains. Perhaps more important, this would allow them to give a clear public message at the close of these conferences specifying any conclusions they reached and the causes of dissent.

By sending a unified message backed by a group of experts, instead of publishing multiple dissenting opinions over a period of time, even a message that acknowledged contradictory opinions would reduce confusion about what exactly is going on with an oil spill, or an even nastier villain like global warming.

The third summer supervillain can clarify why scientists must enlist more public support. The pertussis outbreak is directly linked to a public distrust of vaccines that puts the entire population in danger because some people refuse to immunize their children.

The concept of vaccines causing autism received its biggest boost from a paper linking the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine to cases of autism. Despite the fact that this study was discredited as inaccurate and biased (it was funded by those who hoped to sue vaccine manufacturers for causing autism), and the doctor who published it lost his license, portions of the public continued to believe its conclusions. In fact, many scientific papers have studied the same topic and produced not dissenting opinions, but a single fact: there is no link between vaccines and autism.

So why don’t parents trust the consensus of the scientific community when it finally arrives? There are many reasons for the persistence of the vaccines/autism rumor, which have been enumerated in magazines like Wired and science blogs across the internet. But a loss of trust in scientific findings is one of the culprits. There are some science-versus-public conflicts that no amount of scientific consensus can tame (I imagine that evolution, for example, will continue to be referred to as “just a theory” in certain parts of the country), but others could be alleviated with better communication, not just between scientists and the public, but also among scientists themselves.

By consulting one another and sending unified messages to the rest of the world, scientists would drastically reduce confusion about just what is happening in their field of study. If the public can understand the scientific community, it’s more likely to trust its findings. And I think that science should be trusted, for its rigor, its self-policing practitioners, and its power to improve our lives by, say, preventing disease outbreaks or keeping the planet in good health.
When superheroes take on run-of-the-mill villains, they can act alone—but taking down truly scary baddies often requires a bit of teamwork. Likewise, scientists may spend their entire careers working alone, or only within a community of their peers. In order to continue to advance scientific study, however, the public needs to support scientists’ work. And the only way for scientists to ensure this support is to communicate. That means playing nice: sending clearer messages, meeting with rivals to discuss disagreements instead of tossing off contradictory reports, and most important, building trust. Without it, how will they save the day?

-Sophie Bushwick is a Carletonian Columnist

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