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Perceptions of Science: Hubris and Public Distrust
--Guest post by Kathrina Maramba, American University graduate student.
Recently, Dr. David Agus appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to promote his new book The End of Illness. “Why do we have such a hard time allowing science to overcome our irrationality?” Stewart asked the doctor.
While Dr. Agus had his own answer to the question, the topic is one that scholars from a range of fields have studied for several decades. In The Golem at Large: What You Should Know about Technology, Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch discuss the relationship between science and engaged publics.
In their examination of cases involving Cumbrian sheep farmers and AIDS activists in the late 1980s, Collins and Pinch argue that scientists’ hesitation (and sometimes outright unwillingness) to include public input on issues they feel belong in the scientific realm actually hinders scientific advancement.
Furthermore, when scientists’ hubris is shown to be unwarranted, as was the case of the Cumbrian sheep case in the U.K., science’s credibility is undermined among the public. Needless to say, the undermined credibility of science may contribute to the people’s inability to “overcome their irrationality.”
In April 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Soviet Union exploded after a melt-down of its reactor’s core. As the worst nuclear accident in recent history, as Collins and Pinch describe, the incident not only killed those in the immediate accident but also “condemned many others who lived under the path of the fallout to illness and premature death or a life of waiting for a hidden enemy.”
The release of radioactive debris into the atmosphere was carried over some 4,000 kilometres to Britain. As documented in a series of studies by UK researcher Bryan Wynne, scientists in the U.K. advised sheep farmers in Cumbria to keep sheep in their valleys for fear of their exposure to radium caesium, a metal that is carcinogenic when it is unstable.
Sheep farmers became disgruntled with what they claimed were scientists’ unfamiliarity with fell farming and the land. The issue at hand concerned their livelihood and therefore it was particularly alienating when the government scientists dismissed their own expertise regarding the land. Furthermore, the farmers suspected that the danger of radio-caesium did not come from Chernobyl but rather from a nuclear accident that had occurred decades earlier at a nearby reactor.
In 1957, a reactor in the Sellafield processing plant in Cumbria caught fire and burned for three days. Many claimed the fire was never properly investigated, as details of the accident were never made public. The farmers contested that it was the Sellafield nuclear accident that was responsible for the sheep contamination. Scientists explained isotopic differences of the caesium proved otherwise. However, the scientists later recognized that most of the radioactive caesium were, in fact, from the Sellafield fire and “other sources” and less likely from the tragedy at Chernobyl.
At around the same time of the Cumbrian sheep farmer debacle, in a continent a whole ocean away, experts and activists were contesting another area of science. The issue in this case was how to conduct clinical trials of AIDS drugs.
In April 1984, the U.S. Health and Human Services announced that the cause of AIDS had been discovered. The culprit was a retrovirus known as HIV and the development of treatments had begun. Then unlike for any other epidemic before it, a strong grassroots movement formed in the fight against AIDS. Activists were committed to learning and disseminating the truth about AIDS and how to fight it.
As chronicled by sociologist Steven Epstein, ignorance and misinformation caused AIDS to be viewed as the “gays’ disease” in the 1980s. At one point, homosexuality was also considered itself to be a disease by medical “experts.” In turn, Epstein found that the gay community was distrustful of the scientific community. With this skepticism of experts, AIDS activists sought to learn the science behind AIDS and endeavored to take the matters of treatment into their own hands.
In the meantime, Dr. Anthony Fauci and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) were charged with evaluating azidothymidine (AZT), a promising anti-viral drug in the fight against HIV. Faucui and the scientific community wanted to use traditional experimental methods when evaluating AZT. These clinical trials are made up of a test group and a control group. The test group would receive treatment and the control group would receive a placebo in order to account for psychosomatic effects of the drug that may skew the drugs’ true effectiveness. Fauci and NAIAID argued that this was the safest and only method to effectively determine the true effects of AZT.
Activists claimed two main problems with this trial procedure. The first being that the only way to measure the success of the trial was to tally the body count of each research “arm.” In other words, did the control group or the test group have the greater number of survivors? Also a cause for concern—the protocols of the studies prohibited participants from taking other potentially life-saving medications, such as those that prevented opportunistic infections. The clinical trials, activists argued, were not ethical and undermined their purpose of usefulness for the common welfare.
The activists’ distrust of “experts” spurred them to learn the science behind the controversy. The activists wanted to prove that the preferred methods of scientists were morally problematic by using their language and in the end, were successful in winning an active role in shaping drug testing procedures and protocols. For example, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) was an AIDS activist group that began in the 1980s and by the 1990s found themselves included in annual International Conferences on AIDS among medical professionals that gather to discuss the status of the AIDS epidemic.
An Inconvenient Answer
In both the instances of the Cumbrian sheep farmers and AIDS activists, we are presented with examples of the hubris of science. These were situations in which experts were reluctant at first to consider lay expertise and active public participation. In hindsight, this resistance became a hindrance to the progression of science as an institution, undermining trust among affected publics.
To answer Stewart’s earlier question, “Why do we have such a hard time allowing science to overcome our irrationality?” I would propose that the answer is that trust and communication is a two way street. When science does not properly engage the public and utilize expertise outsides its ivory walls, those affected in a debate will be far less inclined to allow science to overcome their irrationality. You can watch the interview between Stewart and physican David Agus below.
--Guest post by Kathrina Maramba, a MA student in Public Communication at American University. Her post is part of the course Science, the Environment, and the Media. Find out more about the MA programs in Public Communication and Political Communication as well as the Doctoral program in Communication.
Collins, M. & Pinch, T. (1998). The Golem at Large: What You Should Know About Technology. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 113-56.
Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT tomorrow.
Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
A study looks at the performance benefits delivered by asthma drugs when they're taken by athletes who don't have asthma.
- One on hand, the most common health condition among Olympic athletes is asthma. On the other, asthmatic athletes regularly outperform their non-asthmatic counterparts.
- A new study assesses the performance-enhancement effects of asthma medication for non-asthmatics.
- The analysis looks at the effects of both allowed and banned asthma medications.
WADA uncertainty<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMDc4NjUwN30.fFTvRR0yJDLtFhaYiixh5Fa7NK1t1T4CzUM0Yh6KYiA/img.jpg?width=980" id="01b1b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2fd91a47d91e4d5083449b258a2fd63f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="urine sample for drug test" />
Image source: joel bubble ben/Shutterstock<p>When inhaled β-agonists first came out just before the 1972 Olympics, they were immediately banned altogether by the WADA as possible doping substances. Over the years, the WADA has reexamined their use and refined the organization's stance, evidence of the thorniness of finding an equitable position regarding their use. As of January 2020, only three β-agonists are allowed — salbutamol, formoterol, and salmeterol —and only in inhaled form. Oral consumption appears to have a greater effect on performance.</p>
The study<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTIzMDQyMX0.Gk4v-7PCA7NohvJjw12L15p7SumPCY0tLdsSlMrLlGs/img.jpg?width=980" id="d3141" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ebe7b30a315aeffcb4fe739095cf0767" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="runner at starting position on track" />
Image source: MinDof/Shutterstock<p>Of primary interest to the authors of the study is confirming and measuring the performance improvement to be gained from β-agonists when they're ingested by athletes who don't have asthma.</p><p>The researchers performed a meta-analysis of 34 existing studies documenting 44 randomized trials reporting on 472 participants. The pool of individuals included was broad, encompassing both untrained and elite athletes. In addition, lab tests, as opposed to actual competitions, tracked performance. The authors of the study therefore recommend taking its conclusions with just a grain of salt.</p><p>The effects of both WADA-banned and approved β-agonists were assessed.</p>
Approved β-agonists and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMzkxODk0M30.3RssFwk_tWkHRkEl_tIee02rdq2tLuAePifnngqcIr8/img.jpg?width=980" id="39a99" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b1fe4a580c6d4f8a0fd021d7d6570e2a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="vaulter clearing pole" />
Image source: Andrey Yurlov/Shutterstock<p>What the meta-analysis showed is that the currently approved β-agonists didn't significantly improve athletic performance among those without asthma — what very slight benefit they <em>may</em> produce is just enough to prompt the study's authors to write that "it is still uncertain whether approved doses improve anaerobic performance." They note that the tiny effect did increase slightly over multiple weeks of β-agonist intake.</p>
Banned β-agonist and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjI3ODU5Mn0.vyoxSE5EYjPGc2ZEbBN8d5F79nSEIiC6TUzTt0ycVqc/img.jpg?width=980" id="de095" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="02fdd42dfda8e3665a7b547bb88007ef" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="swimmer mid stroke" />
Image source: Nejron Photo/Shutterstock<p>The study found that for athletes without asthma, however, the use of currently banned β-agonists did indeed result in enhanced performance. The authors write, "Our meta-analysis shows that β2-agonists improve anaerobic performance by 5%, an improvement that would change the outcome of most athletic competitions."</p><p>That 5 percent is an average: 70-meter sprint performance was improved by 3 percent, while strength performance, MVC (maximal voluntary contraction), was improved by 6 percent.</p><p>The analysis also revealed that different results were produced by different methods of ingestion. The percentages cited above were seen when a β-agonist was ingested orally. The effect was less pronounced when the banned substances were inhaled.</p><p>Given the difference between the results for allowed and banned β-agonists, the study's conclusions suggest that the WADA has it about right, at least in terms of selection of allowable β-agonists, as well as the allowable dosage method.</p>
Takeaway<p>The study, say its authors, "should be of interest to WADA and anyone who is interested in equal opportunities in competitive sports." Its results clearly support vigilance, with the report concluding: "The use of β2-agonists in athletes should be regulated and limited to those with an asthma diagnosis documented with objective tests."</p>
Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.