When worlds collide: Wakefield, ethics, & where I live

The News of the Day is that the British Medical Journal has called Andrew Wakefield’s notorious and notoriously retracted vaccine-MMR study “fraud.” That’s something a lot of people had already figured out, but with the imprimatur of BMJ, I guess this makes it official.

Ah, it takes me back, though. To the time I dined with Andrew Wakefield. To that day that the Lancet issued its full retraction of that horrific, fraudulent trash heap of a paper.  To that satisfying few hours of schadenfreude when the GMC handed down its decision to strip him of his license. To my various other Andy sightings about town. To the real horrors of what he wrought when he did what he did to those children in that study.

I’ve posted a lot about Wakefield on my personal blog, and some of the posts have focused on my anger at his bastardization of science and my musings on how people might feel when they falsify data. They’ve included mapping what the enormity of the alleged conspiracy against him would have to be and breaking down with tongue firmly in cheek his plea to make his book of apologia a bestseller. There was the post that I swore would be My Last Word on Wakefield (it wasn’t).

Finally, there is what I taught my son today. We’re studying science–Science–and we were discussing the qualities that make one a good scientist. Sure, there’s curiosity. Creativity. And…there’s honesty. For that and that alone, I close with my defense of ethics in science, why ethics matter, and why I think someone who perpetrates this level of harm to public health ought to be somewhere away from his comfortable, ultra-expensive home just a stone’s throw from where I live. Preferably a quiet place, perhaps with four bare walls, a place where he can ponder the damages he’s wrought.

Scientists are evil, emotionless, conniving bastards or superheroes, or something. Do we have movies to thank?

What’s your scientist stereotype? If you are one, you may not have a broad scientific stereotype, but the public seems to have developed a few boxes into which scientists find themselves confined. I blame the movies.

Evil alien stalkers bent on tissue samples

Take E.T. The scientists stalk small children and cute, wrinkly aliens. They wear white lab coats (natch), scary masks, and seem to care more about carcasses for autopsy and sampling than they do about a little boy screaming in terror over the death of his alien friend. Sure, there’s that one guy Peter Coyote plays (and I noticed his striking manly looks much more in my most recent viewing than I did as a young teen), but generally…the scientists are the (really, really) bad guys. Thanks, Spielberg!

Emotionless. Not even human!

Or Alien. Who’s the asshole on that ship? The science officer. And he’s not even human. Just like a real scientist!

How about Mr. Spock? Chief science officer. Doesn’t understand emotion. Or that poor scientist in Independence Day, played by the guy who played yet another emotionless sciborg type, Data, on Star Trek. That guy? He gets killed by the aliens, primarily because he’s a major science dork.

Scientist as savior…or stupid bumbling fool

And if they’re not evil or dorks or emotionless automatons who will try to kill you with a magazine, then they’re the saviors, the ones who can enter with the science babble and save the world at the right moment (although that’s just so, well, fifties, isn’t it?). Unless, of course, they’re so bumbling and stupid that they can’t save the world and someone with no science training whatsoever but all the emotional connection a human can have steps in and does it instead.

The scientist is ready for her close-up

Or, strangely enough, it’s kind of glamorous, like CSI or X Files or other mass-digested tales that make science look like it’s exciting 24-7, instead of, oh, maybe 1 out of 365. Sure, that 1 is a great payoff, but as many scientists can attest, there’s a lot of stuff that’s just not reality-show ready that happens before it.

Really, being a scientist can be quite boring…unless it’s not

What movies and shows get scientists right? People have kindly made lists. But the overall sense I get from my (admittedly gap-riddled) scan of my mental movie catalogue is that scientists are caricatures. Overpromising failures or superheroes for their grasp of esoterica, emotionless cyborgs or evilly brilliant and intent on taking you or anyone near you for research purposes.  It’s no wonder the public seems to view scientists as lifesavers until, of course, they turn into diabolical robots bent on lying their way to a world takeover.

In the face of what a real scientist is…someone who wades through bureaucracy; slogs over grants around all major holidays; counts mice or fruit flies or stars or days or hours or milliseconds; navigates tenure track or derails from it; self poisons by accident with radioactivity, reagents, toxins, viruses, bacteria, and EtBR; obsesses over that one stupid mouse that just refused to freaking cooperate; and understands the meaning of ddH20, NIH, NADP, R01, NSF, FISH, CAREER, IRB, IHC, IACUC, NIC, NIEHS, EDTA, and other members of the Regrouped for Jargon Alphabet Family…in the face of this, well, kind of boring list of things scientists must deal with in addition to the fun part of science, it’s no wonder that the reality gets no play.

Regroup and try again

Are there movies or shows that keep it real, that leave viewers with an accurate conception of the conduct of science? One that comes to my mind is Apollo 13, but that may just be because I’m obsessed with that film. Sure, it doesn’t show all the hard work, but it does depict a process and a series of failures and disappointments and what one must do to regroup and try again. In the end, I think that’s what scientists do the most: Regroup and try again. And that’s something that non-scientists likely don’t understand.

Take any recent scientific controversy. Climate change. Vaccines. If scientists don’t dig in their heels, behave as though the data were unequivocal, they get called on it. They’re expected to be right, right now. But if they do what’s right and equivocate, go back, try again, adjust as new information comes in, regroup and try again, then in the minds of the audience, they’ve undermined their entire argument.

Speaking of NASA

The recent NASA debacle set up just such a disappointment scenario. Like a movie plot, NASA promised a scientific breakthrough of enormous proportions. Like the science bad guys in the movie, they overpromised, and they let the world down. And like real life, the science met with challenge, the overpromising with deflation, the findings and the presentation with good, solid, loud, detailed discourse and rebuttal. It was great to see all those science types talking all that science.

But guess which outcome fit the stereotype? And guess which one the public likely noticed more? And what can scientists do about it? Regroup and try again?

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