"Science and data save lives! Therefore, . . .


Prominent cancer researcher tells world conference of Science Journalists

     Susan Desmond-Hellman, M.D., worked for Genentech, a company engaged in genetic engineering. One day, she announced to her boss that “This changes everything!” . . . after she and her team discovered Herceptin, an antibody that increased the survival of patients with breast cancer. At least for some people, she had found a new treatment for breast cancer . . . . a difficult disease to treat or cure. The consequences of her discovery have been tremendous.

      We live in an age where much of what science says is dismissed or disregarded. At an invited lecture at the World Conference of Science Journalists , Desmond-Hellman said, “There is a lack of trust in the scientific method. I rely on science, but I also depend on other people having faith in the methods of science.” If people do not believe or trust scientists, then their healthy skepticism of anything new becomes denial. This can have serious consequences: from 2000 to 2005, denial of the existence of AIDS in South Africa led to an estimated 330,000 people dying.

Dr. Susan Desmond-Hellman
Credit: Nicoletta Lanese

      “There is a growing mistrust of elites . . . especially of scientists. It is a huge threat: it will lead to deaths and disabilities. Anti-elitist sentiment is a threat to us all !” Susan intoned.

      Examples are not hard to find. Measles can completely eradicated, she added, yet now we are seeing new outbreaks of measles in Minnesota. Measles is highly contagious, which is why widespread vaccination is so helpful in eliminating the suffering that measles causes. But opposition to vaccination is growing even here in the First World-—enough to permit measles to spread widely in a prosperous state of the US.

      Another example, a successful one: there are now only 17 cases of polio on Earth. A dreaded disease is now close to being eradicated because scientists cooperated to understand it and to perfect a vaccine against it over the last 60 years.

      To regain the faith of people in science, Susan Desmond-Hellman reminded scientists to be mindful of three C's: consequences, confidence, and credibility.

      “Our work has consequences!” As scientists, we must demonstrate that we understand the consequences of what we discover. . . both good (the end of smallpox; treatments for AIDS) . . . and bad (nuclear weapons; effective methods of torture). . . We need to be humble about our work and what might come out of it. “We scientists need to embrace our own humanity and our own communities,” she added. “Get out of your own network of friends, especially seek out friends who aren't like you. Travel and get out of your bubble.”

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       Confidence in scientists is critical. Information now spreads so rapidly, that decision-makers face significant consequences when they rely on scientific consensus or opinion. Social media takes that rapid dissemination and “just puts it on fire.”       To re-establish confidence in scientists, she advises us to

  • Resist the urge to exaggerate
  • Be forthright about reporting negative results
  • Use the words “facts show” or “data show” not “I believe.”
  • Figure out how you would talk to a non-scientist about the findings.

      Her advice to scientists is to not show uncertainty in the work; that motivates some people to attack. Rather we should say, “Today, this is the best information I have.”

      Credibility: If scientists want our messages to matter, our credibility is most important. Credibility has two sides: one is trustworthiness, the other is expertise. To re-establish our credibility as scientists:

  • We must act responsibly
  • We must end all conflicts of interest
  • We should use plain language; and we must understand our audience: speak to what is relevant to them; and communicate to be understood
  • We must ask ourselves and our listeners, What is the evidence? What should I believe? What should I do?

     Desmond-Hellman recommended an effective strategy for opposing science denialism: to “inoculate” your audience against untrustworthy sources of news. To meet skepticism or denial head-on, show people that their usual information sources have fed them false information, fake news, or only one side of the matter. Give them concrete examples of false information on something that really matters to them.

     Susan concluded with “Life is better because of Science!”

NOTE from the Author: We report Desmond-Hellman's speech as heard at the World Conference of Science Journalists, in October. Other sources we used are a report by student reporter Nicoletta Lanese, of the Student Newsroom of the Conference; and another speech of Susan, "Facts or Fear: the Case for Facts,” delivered at Cambridge University in June of this year.

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