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What Science and Society Owe Each Other

By Julie Heng, Contributing Opinion Writer
Julie Heng ‘24 lives in Kirkland House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.

The War on Cancer is not new. It began in 1971, after President Richard Nixon signed the National Cancer Act. A couple decades later, President Clinton claimed that the Human Genome Project was set to “revolutionize the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of most, if not all, human diseases,” including the likes of Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, diabetes, and cancer. In 2003, National Cancer Institute director Andrew von Eschenbach assured Congress that given a $600 million budget each year, the NCI could “eliminate suffering and death” from cancer by 2010.

Billions, if not trillions, of dollars, hundreds of targets, and several multinational campaigns later, the cancer mortality rate has barely changed — and certainly not to the extent promised. But the overpromises keep coming: The Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative announced their goal to mitigate all disease by the end of the century, and President Barack Obama claimed in his 2016 State of the Union that this time’s ”Cancer Moonshot” would get us to a cure.

I understand that cancer research takes massive amounts of data and optimism, but the overwhelming effort can be communicated without misleading headlines. Such overpromises, and to a degree overconfidence, from the scientific community fuel increasing anti-science sentiment: if cancer was supposed to be cured back then and wasn’t, why should I believe in the process now?

Are scientists wholly responsible for anti-science sentiment? No. While scientists have engaged in some degree of self-sabotage, much of the responsibility for distrust falls on the public.

Choosing to ignore or forgo science means choosing to lose our commitment to each other. We go to a dentist or mechanic or teacher with the expectation that they’ll help us achieve greater ends. Trusting science has historically led us to improved standards of living and expanded democratic processes following progressive Enlightenments. Without that trust, our species regresses.

How we move forward, then, is especially relevant during this pandemic, when trust in science is directly correlated with concern for COVID-19 safety measures such as social distancing.

Consider the thrice-amended perspective of one expert and how that transformation was largely obscured. On March 6, Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine, health policy, and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University and an adviser to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, claimed that while masks worn by those infected offer a good barrier to prevent viral spread, masks aren’t particularly effective for protecting healthy wearers because they don’t fit perfectly. He argued that the public shouldn’t wear masks not only because they were in limited supply but also because “they really don’t do much work.” On April 3, his directive changed: masks offered a “modest” benefit to wearers. And by June 29, he said, “masks protect ourselves and everyone around us.”

The problem is not that Schaffner changed his stances; it’s that he did so with the same confident tone and no explanation or acknowledgment of past mistakes. In fact, that March 6 video has been made private by Vanderbilt Health, and I have not found a written acknowledgement or rationale. The same skepticism towards the War on Cancer can be applied here: due to the dissonant advice and lack of transparency of experts like Schaffner, many now point at such early no-mask guidelines as reasons not to wear a mask.

I understand that the World Health Organization and CDC downplayed mask-wearing benefits at least in part as a strategy to partition medical-grade personal protective equipment for hospitals, but that decision ultimately hurt the health sector by muddying the facts and, in hindsight, appearing condescending. Rather than be upfront and honest, they chose to withhold certain facts and were forced to make an about-face afterwards. A lack of transparency pitted institutions of science against the public, rather than bringing them into alliance.

For scientists, especially those on TV like Dr. Schaffner, it’s time to court humility and acknowledge uncertainties. Communicate that uncertain truth to the general public — represent your data and suggestions transparently, even if they’re incomplete or confounding, and acknowledge the social and political stakes. It is vital to not only inform the public of what they should be doing but also the reason why they’re doing it and why that guidance might change over time.

And for the rest of us, we must continue respecting science: recognizing well-proven facts (the Earth, after all, is not flat) and guiding intents and principles, as well as following recommended guidelines. This also means voting out the people who don’t respect science, and keeping accountable those with the power to undermine its goals of progress.

Because without the two-way street of scientific facts and reasoning, society regresses. Yes, scientists owe the public the truth — and honesty, when they lack it. But we also owe scientists respect for that honest truth.

Julie Heng ‘24 lives in Kirkland House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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