Questioning the Experts' Motives


To many, science represents the ultimate Truth: hard, cold facts and figures, devoid of even the suggestion of partisanship or prejudice. But too often, scientific enterprise does only too good a job of revealing, in its own human mistakes and mistrials, its inherent nature: that of a human enterprise which falls victim to the same errors as any other.

Take, for example, three scientific announcements of sorts made this summer:

.A team of Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) scientists were forced to admit, after a trial of their AIDS therapy was already underway, that their "wonder-drug" had only been effective against a badly crippled form of HIV, a virus which causes AIDS. Thousands of phone calls from AIDS victims flooded the MGH switchboard, as patients sought places in any upcoming trials. Sadly, outside of a few newspaper articles, only a bare whimper the media fanfare which sounded the original February announcement of the "successful" therapy survived for the news of the defeat.

.As fans everywhere mourned the loss of Celtics star Reggie Lewis, questions focused on Medical School Associate Professor of Medicine Dr. Gilbert H. Mudge Jr. The Brigham and Women's cardiologist had, in the eyes of many, given Lewis the okay to resume playing, a stark second opinion from the one the Celtics-gathered "Dream Team" of physicians had offered. Most of the important questions have yet to be answered.

.National Institutes of Health scientist Dean Hamer reported that he and his colleagues had isolated a group of genes more prevalent in homosexuals than in the rest of the population. Immediately following the announcement, the words "gay genes" were transformed from figments of imagination to somewhat fuzzy reality. The sizzling controversy of homosexuality had become, for many, a purely scientific issue.

What the above three events have in common is what a literary scholar might term "a willing suspension of disbelief" of scientific fact in order to create a favorable interpretation.

When we sit down to read a book or watch a movie, we allow the author or director a certain latitude. We allow that conspiracies of which we have never heard actually run the world, or that DNA trapped in the stomachs of amber-coated insects can be used to create real-life dinosaurs from frog genes. These little lies permit us to be entertained by the author's imagination.

But in science, slight missteps such as these are sometimes too much. We all wanted the MGH "triple therapy" to work and rid humanity of AIDS. We all wanted Reggie Lewis to be healthy and play basketball again. And we all wanted a clear picture of homosexual development, regardless of our views on the issue. All these conclusions, were they completely valid, would have allowed us to sleep easier, or at least believe that humanity could control all.

And scientists, too, can be guilty of the same sort of "willing suspension." Regardless of fault, the MGH team either chose to reject evidence, namely a set of mutations, which would suggest they were working on a crippled virus. Mudge felt that the information he had at his disposal was clear enough to reject other physicians' diagnoses.

But NIH's Hamer has not yet fallen victim to the same temptation as his fellow scientists who have been catapulted to national recognition. The subject of Hamer's research was no less in the public eye, but rather than succumb to the desires of public affairs officials and media organizations and come out on one side or the other of the national or regional debate, Hamer has thus far steered clear of making any sociological determinations based on his genetics work.

Applauding Hamer, however, does not absolve those who would seek shelter behind the chromosome to explain their own insecurities. Rather, it provides a model for scientists who would--and should--seek to avoid the spectacle of half-page color pictures of Gilbert Mudge in the Boston Globe and banner headlines in the New York Post about MGH AIDS researcher Yung-Kang Chow, a "make-good" Asian immigrant.

Scientists need not hide from making public statements on social issues. And lay-persons need not hide from criticizing science or using its findings to develop their own opinions. Frankly, both sorts of statements should be taken with a grain of salt, but they are as valuable as the daily messages we receive from politicians on subjects about which they know nothing.

What is necessary, however, is that scientists refrain from creating, with the only too willing help of the media and public affairs officers, media blitzes based on subjectively presented or even wrong information.

The MGH team should have been more careful, in any case, but the knowledge that the hopes of so many rested on their findings should have prompted more caution. Mudge might have sought more consultation with other physicians, rather than amobbed press conference before TV cameras. Certainly, the media is not blameless.

Only then, when the push to accelerate publishing data before careful reconsideration is minimized, can the public have ultimate trust in the scientific community. And vice-versa.

Ivan Oransky '94 is Executive Editor and Science/Health editor of The Crimson.

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