The Royal Society of Medicine hosted the Sense About Science Annual Lecture yesterday evening. The lecture, entitled ‘Epidemics and refuseniks: the birth of state responsibility’ was led by Professor Richard Evans, a historian from the University of Cambridge and attended by 250 delegates from relevant disciplines. Prof Evans talk discussed the most effective way to “contribute to the communication of common sense about science” and noted the mistrust between scientists and politicians by using a number of illustrative case studies on public health.
The first example was that of the 19th century cholera outbreak, which was facilitated by the opposing beliefs about the cause of the disease. Some were convinced cholera was caused by an infection, while political influence led others to believe it to be the result of a vapor. Prof Evans then went on to discuss the failure of South African government to acknowledge and tackle Aids by initially claiming that medication actually caused Aids, invoking public skepticism and hindering treatment. Since then, the number of retro-viral treatments given to those infected can be indicative of political circumstances and beliefs. In Britain, Evans explored how those advising action on BSE (Mad Cows Disease) in the 1980’s were slow to respond due to the demand for a high level conviction in their research results from politicians, which was at the time, not possible. This created a “massive public distrust in scientific opinion”, and created scope for future misplaced opinions such as the perceived health risks associated with being given the measles, mumps and rubella (MRR) vaccine in 1990’s. The case of MMR was exuberated by media reports which focused on worst case scenarios that were still scientifically uncertain, and have since been showed to be false. The result was a decrease in the number of children being given the vaccine, and a subsequent increase in MMR (1348 cases) resulting in 2 documented deaths which may have been preventable.
These case studies demonstrated that scientific uncertainty, political agenda, and the media’s pursuit of a good story often hinder attempts to explain scientific research. The complex relationship between government, science and society can result in politicians choosing to support science that suits their own ideology, scientists that expect people to trust them despite uncertainty, and society being caught between the two. The influence of the media on the public also contributes to a lack of trust and understanding as journalists are most likely to base their reports on the worst case scenario of a predicted event, making for a more high impact story which can sometimes lead to unnecessary panic. It was clear from the lecture that scientists need to continue to improve communication between science, policy and the media, and that the way in which those parties deal with uncertainty needs to be addressed.