08 October, 2009

Science and scientists aren’t trusted anymore

Science and scientists aren’t trusted much anymore. Nor are doctors or most professions which have to deal with science — except technology.  I'll get back to that.
I don't blame those that think what their GP says is a load of crap.  Or that a public think that a bunch of be-goggled, white lab coated boffins have to say on this, that or the other.  Or they'd rather get there informed opinion from a naturopath, psychic, astrologer or fraudster.  I don't blame them one little bit.
How did this yawning schismatic chasm of trust come about?
In a time before mine, whatever a man in a white coat said was true.  How could it be not, he’s wearing a white coat.

A Nazi Officer, Adolf Eichmann, said in his defence that he simply took orders.  “Why me?  Why not the local policemen, thousands of them?  They would have been shot if they refused…”
This prompted Stanley Milgram’s (in)famous 1961-1962 experiments, and 1963 paper “Behaviorial study of obedience.”  (Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, Vol. 67.)  Simply put, a very high percentage of people will do as they are told, despite seeing the results of what they are doing, when told by a person in authority.
Prior to this revelation, our societies believed in science.  Science had won the war, and now chemists were making stuff that killed bugs more efficiently and helped crops grow in impoverished soils.  More importantly in the US and Western Europe, science was in a struggle to win the Cold War.

By the time 1970s came along. Environmental Science was becoming respectable, and not some crazy hotchpotch of ideas.  Various chemicals that companies said were safe were, in fact, toxic — if not carcinogenic — to humans.  Names like organochlorines and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were the catchwords of unexplained tumours, animal deformities and deaths, and all-round general nastiness.
Big companies that were trusted brand names were now the enemy.
I don’t blame anyone for being even a little hysterical after finding out a chemical company knew that something it produced caused cancers or, worse, deaths.
What a bunch of irresponsible scientists!
Medical science seemed to be no different.  General Practitioners treated patients with indifference.  Often whatever was wrong with little Johnny was put down to a virus.  It didn’t matter what virus.  But these new-fangled antibiotics will help (which for viruses, of course, they don’t).
And like the subjects of Miligram’s experiments — doctors wore white lab coats after all — people were content with whatever diagnosis the doctor gave, and the prescription.  Besides, doctors were good people; they wanted to help humanity.
Yet as medical science progressed, General Practitioners didn’t, or wouldn’t. Residents were too busy and Consultants too set in their ways, or too busy teaching.  This didn’t apply to every practicing doctor, of course, but you get the idea.
By the mid 1960s, the younger generations were watching or reading about their Rock & Roll heros visiting mystics, gurus or other eastern teachers.  It seemed logical that western medicine was failing, while eastern medicine seemed to be more natural and had a history of thousands of years.
More “westerners” started putting their trust in eastern or alternative practices (even if some of these practices could be debunked very easily, or were nothing more than scams by unethical, greedy persons).  It just seemed more logical that if traditional Western Medicine couldn’t cure cancer, then anything that claimed to be natural and claimed cured cancer, then we’ve been fed lies by these people in the white coats and should do what the naturopath or homeopathist or herbalist or chiropractor says.  After all, it’s natural, right?  And natural must be better than something synthesised in a lab by someone in a white coat.
Well, no.
Whether it’s about a chemical that kills flies, or a pharmaceutical drug that stops epileptic seizures, it all comes from the same foundation of science; it’s not about proving something, it’s about trying to disprove it by controlled, precise experimentation. Any experiment must be repeatable — like a recipe — by other experimenters. Results must be tested and tested, and tested from all angles.  Other scientists must be free to debate it.
We lay peoples may not understand the jargon or the terminology.  But do we understand the jargon used by alternative medicine practitioners?
We don’t have to know how an iPod works in order to use it.  Or how solar cells and Albert Einstein are related.  We don’t need to know how the internet works to use it.  Or how Google searches the web, and so on.

Yet there isn’t a mass counter-culture against technologists.  Those goofy boffins that come up with really cute robots, or a better way to navigate in the car.  Even just a better way to communicate full stop.  The only difference between a medical researcher and a research engineer is the cuteness factor.  Research engineers don’t hurt anybody, they’re trying to make life more sustainable for humankind.
Well, not really.
Technology is neutral — until it’s utilised.  We all want ‘good’ technology but not ‘bad’ technology.  But the same technology that lets you navigate using your mobile phone (or cell phone) is the same technology that was designed for warfare.  The technology that has you gasping in awe at the brightly lit skies from fireworks is the same technology of ancient warfare; refined it’s the technology of today’s weapons designed to kill.  The technology that lets you cram thousands of songs onto your MP3 device is the same technology that governments and militaries around the world use to send secret messages; usually not pleasant ones.
So does that mean we should throw out our iPods, mobile phones, TVs, computers and stop this technical nightmare we are in?  No.  Just because a safety pin was invented by the same person that invented the semi-automatic rifle doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have babies; that’s absurd.
Today more chemicals are tested more rigorously than ever.  Over longer time-spans, and the ecological effects are a priority rather than a side-effect.
Medical researches have better understandings and better tools than ever before.  They aren’t blindly searching using the hit-or-miss techniques of the 1800s.  No, they are like a good detective following a lead.
General Practitioners, Residents, Specialists even Consultants wear more relaxed clothing.  They are better at communicating, better at diagnosing, and are constantly updating their skills as more understanding of a problem comes to hand.
As the last of the Nobel Prize functions come to a close, it’s wise to take another look at science with an open mind — after all, that’s what scientists do when they look at our world.

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