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Rich Woller: The skepticism of scientists and science-deniers — and how education can close the gap

I met an older couple in my clinic last year to discuss medical problems one of them was having. As with most of my patients, I finished the appointment by asking them if they are up to date with their vaccinations including COVID-19 boosters.

I was pleased to hear they received the two initial COVID vaccine shots but surprised to learn they declined to be “boosted” because they read on the internet and heard from friends that the vaccine would become part of their genetic makeup and they didn’t want that to happen.

I quickly dismissed that notion, offering a clear and concise explanation as to why the COVID-19 vaccine could never become part of their genome. I drew a diagram explaining how viruses work and replicate and how the vaccine works in stimulating our bodies to create antibodies against the SARS CoV-2 virus but not create the virus itself or integrate into their genes.

The couple thanked me for taking the time to explain virus, cell and COVID-19 vaccine biology to them and asked if they could take my drawing home to share with their friends. I left it to them to make their own decision about getting boosted, which I again recommended and felt confident enough had been said.

It’s hard to imagine why so much of our nation’s public is so skeptical of science. Why is there so much distrust? MIT psychologist Steven Pinker says part of the reason is “that human reasoning is guided by deeply rooted folk intuitions, the evolutionary legacy of having to figure out the hidden laws of reality before the scientific revolution gave us a sound method for doing so.”

The encounter with my patients brought me to the sad conclusion I have watched unfold over a few decades. For some reason, individuals and numerous groups of all kinds, from religious to political, are finding sources of inspiration for their scientific beliefs from almost anywhere other than the scientific establishment. Many are just plain irrational.

The most surprising aspect of this issue is that the majority of scientists are the most skeptical persons on earth. I learned this during the first five years of my career working in biochemistry and cancer biology labs where I learned from leading scientists the painstaking process of discovery through hypothesis, experimentation and analysis of results.

A great scientist is always questioning their own work and the work of their colleagues. Did the experiment actually answer the question I proposed. Am I interpreting the results without bias toward my hypothesis? Are other interpretations possible? What if I changed one variable in the experiment? How do I interpret an unexpected result?

These were questions I often heard while designing and reviewing experiments with my scientific mentors to help unfold the mysteries of cancer biology and collagen diseases one small step at a time. Outside skeptics should attend a scientific conference or seminar to see how scientists peer review each other by asking very pointed and challenging questions about a colleague’s research. Pity the poor researcher who gets grilled like Texas barbecue for poor experimental design, analysis and conclusions.

Scientific enterprise has made our species’ lifespan longer and richer. We can diagnose disease faster and more accurately and prescribe relevant medications or surgical techniques. We fly coast to coast in six hours — a trip that just 150 years ago would have lasted weeks if not months. The lights in our homes and workplaces allow us to greatly extend our days, and we can communicate with others around the world at little or no cost. All of these improvements to our lives owe to the nature and progress of science — nothing to be skeptical about. (Arguably there are exceptions such as nuclear weapons, depending on political viewpoint.)

Science is not perfect. Over many centuries, scientists have had to change or adapt their thinking upon revelation of new findings and knowledge. New theories are proposed and, if they are supported by experimental evidence, the old ones are discarded. Most of this is the tweaking older ideas with newly discovered knowledge. The old theories of natural selection and relativity have stood the test of time with an abundance of new information supporting and augmenting them.

Scientists need to communicate more effectively with citizens, particularly in light of rapidly developing technologies that further push the boundaries of our species and create moral and ethical dilemmas we must address together. We need more scientists like Pinker, Carl Sagan and Brian Greene and others to communicate the wonders and benefits of science to all of us.

Perhaps a national campaign could help by encouraging our academic and industrial institutions to open their labs and testing facilities for the public to enter and engage with our science community on topics from biology to physics to chemistry in both pure and applied research. Carleton University Philosophy Professor Gabriele Contessa says “addressing the concerns of the science skeptics requires more than attempting to persuade them to trust science — it also requires us as a society to take the social and political steps required to increase the trustworthiness of science.”

Gaining back public trust in science and promoting scientific literacy is paramount for a society to progress through participation. The additional five minutes I spent with my patient was a start. More needs to be done.

Rich Woller’s background includes scientific research, hospital administration and entrepreneurship. He lives in Lenox and currently practices gastroenterology as a physician assistant.

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