Thursday, 3 December 2009

The Science of Fear

Look around you, the list of things that might kill, or at least severely damage your health is getting awfully long. If it wasn't the MMR vaccine that killed you, it'll be the HPV vaccine. If it's not the HPV vaccine, it'll be Swine Flu. If it's not Swine Flu, it'll be getting sucked into a CERN created black hole. If you dodge the Swiss-black-hole-of-oblivion, a Nuclear power plant will probably be exploding just down the road. And, if you are fortunate enough to avoid all of these various demises, global warming will probably get you. Ironically, many of the threats seem to be rearing their ugly heads thick and frequently, from that bastion of progress: Science itself. The advances intended to save and improve our lives seemingly do the opposite, or so the increasingly intense mainstream media science scare-storms may lead you to believe. Is the furore for real, warranted public information on new, risky scientific endeavours. Or is coverage crossing the line into irresponsible hyperboles?

The media is invaluable for getting information out to the masses. The stories they publish have an enormous effect on public opinion and decisions. This is most prevalent than in health matters. Unfortunately, there has been a number of media misfires in recent years.

The greatest health scandal of the last decade surrounded the combined Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine and an alleged link to Autism, which broke as a story in 2001. The medical paper that originally purported the link was published by Dr. Andrew Wakefield a full 3 years before the story gathered full momentum. Precious few of the pieces mentioned the overwhelming evidence against a link. They also neglected to take into account the fact that Dr. Wakefield's study was simply an anecdotal discussions of just 12 children picked out who had received the MMR vaccine and developed autism. A tiny fraction of the millions of children vaccinated and the 2 people per 1000 of the population with autism.

A single study with a sample so small is by no means capable of proving much of anything, let alone a link between two occurrences this common. The media put its full power behind the study however, and in a stunning and near pioneering display of world-class scientific selective deafness, they began finding anti-vaccination lobbyists to support their new thesis. Coverage degenerated from science into a slew of public interest sob stories, as mother after mother was 'betrayed' by science. Uptake of the vaccine fell by 20%, causing several epidemics and 5 reported deaths from an easily repelled disease.

In 2006 coverage turned when a powerful study looking for measles RNA in children with regressive autism after the MMR vaccination found no link. The vaccine was re-branded as safe and Dr. Wakefield was vilified for destroying its reputation, endangering a generation. The media's hero became the villain. However, the hyperbolic, incendiary and irresponsible reporting was really the enemy, using one man to cause an Eight-year scandal.

This year history threatened to repeat itself with the Cervical cancer jab (HPV). In September a schoolgirl died shortly after receiving the inoculation, triggering a slew of stories questioning it's safety. Three days later it was revealed that the schoolgirl's tragic death was, coincidence, caused by underlying health problems. HPV was safe once more. However, indicative of the way the humanity works, two months later googling “HPV vaccine,” the top result (behind the NHS and wikipedia page) is the Guardians story “Schoolgirl dies after cervical cancer vaccination."

Dangers remain in the public consciousness for a long time. The media cannot be blamed for this, despite slightly overreacting, it has a duty to warn the public over possible dangers. The newspapers however, can be blamed for the continuing stories. One Express front page exclaimed “JAB 'AS DEADLY AS THE CANCER.'” When Dr. Ben Goldacre questioned the quoted Dr. Diane Harper for his Guardian Bad Science column, she claimed “I did not say that Cervarix was as deadly as cervical cancer.” The entire story was based on a misquote.

Whilst the media rashly jumped to spurious conclusions on both occasions, they can be easily forgiven for reacting. It's a matter of life and death after-all. But once entrenched, they struggle to release their views as fast as they should, turning to a mixture of misquotes, select-the-source-to-suit-the-conclusion-syndrome. The irresponsibility of media coverage in itself became a matter of public health.

It's not just health that can become a matter of mortality viewed through the prism of the press. In recent years the world of Physics has become a world of Armageddons, with the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN)'s newest toy, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), centre-stage.

The LHC is a particle accelerator that aims to smash protons together at higher energies than ever before achieved on Earth, replicating conditions present during the Big Bang, searching for the Higgs boson. Safety concerns began to surface when three men, two non-physicists and an adversary of particle accelerators attempted to halt its initiation. They believed that the collisions may create micro-black holes that would rapidly grow and consume the earth. This was in disagreement with two safety reviews on the subject that had already deemed the LHC safe. Black holes formed would in-fact evaporate away through Hawking Radiation, and thousands of higher energy collisions also occur above us in the atmosphere every day. No Black Hole apocalypse has occurred.

Nevertheless as 'Big Bang Day' approached, slight statements of standard scientific uncertainty were taken as an admission of apocalypse. The Daily Mail managed to find headline's like “Are We All Going to Die Next Wednesday” and many major news-sources followed suit, primally chanting the phrase 'gobble up the Earth' in a runaway display of doom-mongering. This culminated in the suicide of a 16-year old girl and the relief of the LHC breaking down just before its first collision.

The fear frenzied by the media surrounding CERN, whilst not as dangerous to public health still provoked strong feelings. CERN scientists received death threats, whilst thinking man's Noel Gallagher and 'rock star' physicist Brian Cox was quoted as saying “anyone who thinks the LHC will destroy the world is a twat.” A phrase repeated last week on his Twitter feed as the LHC reopened. People asked “Why take the risk?”

This point of view could be dangerous and unhealthy for human endeavour. Why shouldn't we? if due care is taken. Science is about ploughing the furrows of knowledge headlong into the unknown in the name of advancement. We cannot be certain of what we will discover in the darkness of ignorance. We theorise, but we can't know unless we venture there. To constrain ourselves in this way could limit humanity's future advancement. No new drugs would get tested, no new vaccines, every good idea would be just an idea. Part of humanity's success is in its inquisitiveness.

Professor Cox's comment is more than just a display of a big pair of rock-star-Physicist-bravados. The Science community functions through intensive systems of peer review. It's how it works. Why it works. When journals receive scientific papers they undergo thorough checks for consistency before publishing. The same goes for large experiments, which before they receive funding they must apply to a panel, where scientific merit and safety is analysed.

As a community, scientists know what they are doing. This is uncomfortable for some people, where in society, everybody has a right to an opinion and it deserves to be heard on the same level, despite lack of knowledge. This does not hold in science. This is evident in the reporting of the new wave of Nuclear Fission power stations being planned.
Whilst concerns about waste management are perfectly valid at the very mention of the word 'Nuclear' mushroom clouds seem to form next door to every 'nuclear' family in Britain. This is despite the massive differences between our reactors and Chernobyl-type death traps. Newer, safer, reactors favour passive safety systems with control rods held out of the reactor by electromagnets and considerably reinforced containment building walls. In the loss of power the control rods simply drop down, stamping out the nuclear reaction.

Another previous hazard was due to bubbles forming in the coolant. Bubbles accelerated the nuclear reactions, causing heating, which caused more bubbles, in a positive feed back loop that let the reaction run out of control. British Magnox reactors use carbon-dioxide gas as a coolant eliminating positive feedback. These precautions ensure meltdowns are averted, and if there are not they will be confined inside the plant itself.

In a recent report on The One Show the increased safety was discussed by a white coat clad expert, seconds later, we were told by a man “Well he would say that.” Of course he would, it's true. It is unsettling when an expert, with all his experience and training, can be dismissed in this way. It can confuse public opinion, cloud facts, and reinforce the 'not in my backyard' fear of nuclear power.

Here lies the essence of the problem. In the media, any opinion can be presented to give it equal weight as those held by an expert. With that level of incongruity it becomes difficult to decipher science fact from fear. Panic rules. This calls for more discerning and considered reporting from journalists and public alike.

It also should be noted previous errors lead to further work to prevent repeat occurrences and enhance safety now. Science is always improving and learning from itself but in the news and public eye, once a reputation is damaged it's a struggle to repair it. Safety needs to be the focus rather than the danger.

The mainstream reporting at the cutting edge of science advances leaves a lot to be desired. The new vaccines and large scale experiments are not as scary as they are made out to be. In fact, all the scandals and scare stories should almost be indicative of their safety. With so many people searching for the next big threat, when something truly is worth worrying about, we should know about it. Science is not as scary as it seems, when the fear itself could be more of a reason to worry.

2 comments:

Kelsey said...

you are far too hard on yourself dear(:
i see nothing but good writing here

Snoopthesnoop said...

I dont know about that hun! Pretty bad I think.