Trust Us, We’re Scientists

White Coats at Dawn by Dr Jenny Rohn

In the movies, it’s often the scientist character who tries to warn people about impending disaster – think Dennis Quaid’s paleoclimatologist character in The Day After Tomorrow. But does anyone listen?

Of course not. Disaster films would be dull if the disaster weren’t allowed to spool out exactly as foretold by the well-meaning boffin, waving his sheaf of impressive-looking printouts emphatically in the faces of the unconvinced powers-that-be.

Unfortunately, this scenario is a pretty accurate reflection of what happens in real life, where expert testimony tends to be ignored. Scientists are often baffled, and usually irritated, when people would rather trust their own judgment than that of people who have spent years studying a topic from every angle and gathering careful evidence to back up their arguments (which often involves sleeping in the lab on a camp bed, having no social life, drinking acrid vending machine coffee and convincing the nighttime security guard that you’re not, actually, an animal rights activist who’s broken into the building).

But the reasons scientists are ignored are likely to be quite complex and are worth considering.

As I mentioned in a previous piece, there is an ancient and deep-seated ambivalence about our relationship with knowledge, with the peddlers of that knowledge subject to a knee-jerk mistrust as a result. In addition, It doesn’t help that experts often tell us something we really don’t want to hear: that those pleasurable vices are bad for our health; that our culture of rampant consumerism isn’t compatible with safeguarding the climate; that (OMG!) we actually need ten portions of fruit and veg a day, not five.

And then, scientists are always disagreeing with one another, chopping and changing, going back on previously declared red lines. Fiber was good for us, and then it was bad, and now it’s good again. Dietary fat used to be the enemy, but now it’s carbs. And so on. Because scientific theories evolve as more data pours in, the tribal culture of scientists holds healthy disagreement at the heart of its profession. Given that this disagreement is frequently robust – and public – it’s probably not a surprise that it comes across rather badly when viewed from the outside. They can’t even agree amongst themselves, one might think. How can we trust anything they say?

Climate change is an obvious example of where experts have been roundly ignored in some high-profile quarters. Lacking any good scientific arguments for why scientists must be wrong, it’s become fashionable to attack the messengers. These attacks can be so ridiculous that they are almost sublime: climate scientists are only “in it for the money” – say the politicians in the pocket of Big Oil. Ignoring climate experts has been going on for the best part of a century; the first solid evidence that man-made carbon dioxide emissions could lead to planetary warming came in 1938 from British engineer Guy Callendar, but it took a long time for these ideas to be widely accepted (and as we know, acceptance is by no means absolute even today).

Denial of expert opinion is but one way to impede the solution to big problems. Another is sheer apathy in the face of it. An example getting a lot of press at the moment is in my own field of infectious diseases: the global antimicrobial resistance crisis. Penicillin, a natural product produced by mould that can kill bacteria, was first stumbled upon by Alexander Fleming in 1928. Ultimately seen as a wonder drug, especially when the secret of larger-scale production was unlocked by a team of Oxford biochemists including Howard Florey and Ernst Chain, penicillin’s utility spoke for itself.

But all was not rosy. Near the end of his Nobel lecture, Fleming used the gala occasion to draw attention to the worrisome tendency he’d noticed in his own lab of bacteria to become resistant to the miracle compound. Sounding almost like a time traveller from the 21st century, he worried that there might come a time when people would be able to access the drug too freely, or that they might get lazy and not take the full course, thereby educating the bacteria into resistance. His fears soon came true, as penicillin-resistant strains of bacteria began circulating in the wild, and the problem has since escalated to become a danger of almost unimaginable proportions: an extra ten million deaths a year by 2050, to the tune of USD$100 trillion in economic damage, if the McNeill Report is to be believed.

Alexander Fleming

It’s not as if this should come as a surprise to anyone with a pulse over the past 70-odd years. The media have reported widely on the phenomenon and dangers of antimicrobial resistance, starting as early as the 1950s. These warnings – ranging from admonishments about taking antibiotics casually and indiscriminately, to fears about their overuse in agriculture – were repeated again and again, in popular broadsheets and magazines, to no apparent effect. It was not that people seemed to doubt the fears were valid, but nothing ever seemed to happen as a result. Maybe it was someone else’s problems, or something that might become important one day in the distant future. Or perhaps fear of infection is so ancient and fundamental that it overrode any rational concerns we might have harbored about safeguarding our antibiotics with prudent use. Regardless, instead of ramping up the arsenal, the unprofitable business of antibiotic discovery ground to a halt a generation ago, and no new antibiotic classes have been formulated since the 1980s. Fast-forward to the present day, and infections resistant to all known antibiotics are killing hundreds of thousands of people a year.

There are signs, seven decades after Fleming’s initial warning, that things are finally starting to move. Last week Health Secretary Matt Hancock unveiled a five-year plan to tackle antimicrobial resistance which seems at first glance sensible and comprehensive. But like climate change, the problem is global; bacteria travel the world along with their hosts, and the problem needs to be addressed by all countries simultaneously for it to have measurable impact.

But experts take note: these problems are not solely scientific, so scientists shouldn’t have sole say over what happens. In addition to new drugs or technological solutions, we also need to change human nature and behavior; we need to explain, to persuade, to get people on side, to listen to their concerns and not just talk over them. So while, yes, society needs to listen to the experts, we scientists also need to listen to society and understand its needs and complexities – something I think we haven’t been very good at historically. Only by working together and exercising a bit of humility and respect on both sides can we tackle these massive global problems effectively.

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Dr Jenny Rohn is a practising cell biologist at University College London. She is also a writer, broadcaster and novelist. She has written three novels, the latest being Cat Zero, released in mid 2018. She was a regular contributor to the Occam’s Corner blog at The Guardian and was a co-founder of the Science is Vital group. She is on Twitter at @JennyRohn.

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