Expertise required

December 19, 2003

Do not pander to the public's 'distrust' of science or exaggerate it, advises Lewis Wolpert

Lord Winston argued last week that the public should be much more involved in the direction of science. This is a complex issue. First, he failed to make clear a distinction between science and technology. Science is about understanding the world, while technology, often based on science, involves bringing about changes.

Second, it is essential to accept that reliable science has zero ethical content - it is about the way the world is. And the public have nothing whatsoever to contribute towards it, since it requires complex and specialist knowledge and training. The public cannot even contribute to discussions about which areas ought to be investigated, as this again requires specialised knowledge.

There are, I recognise, a few ethical issues in relation to research with which the public are concerned and should be involved, such as the use of human embryos. But the decision on such issues rests with Parliament. One may not like its decisions, but that is the nature of a democracy - power rests with our elected representatives.

The same principles apply to applications of science, such as using stem cells and therapeutic cloning for treating patients, and genetically modifying plants. Here, the public's views can be listened to, but these are technical issues that are not widely understood. For example, a survey showed that in Europe about 30 per cent of those questioned thought that tomatoes did not contain genes unless they were genetically modified.

In general, the public's understanding of science is poor, and this is also true of their understanding of medicine. They might know that one does not take an antibiotic to counteract a virus, but understanding of how a bacterium compares with a virus is poor.

Lord Winston's case is in part based on what he sees as the distrust of science by the public. It is a peculiarity of those involved in the relation between science and the public that their ideas are so weakly based on scientific evidence and rely so heavily on anecdote and personal impressions. And I do not exclude myself. There is no good evidence for any claim that the public distrust science. Is the public really distrustful of "science", as if there were no distinction between biology and astronomy? Are there really many people who have stopped contributing to medical charities because they no longer trust medical science? I doubt it. Yes, some surveys show distrust of scientists, particularly those in government and industry. But one must ask how this affects people's behaviour.

I need to be persuaded that many of those who have claimed this distrust would refuse, if ill, to take a drug that had been made from a genetically modified plant, or would reject a tomato so modified that was both cheap and would help prevent heart disease. Who refuses insulin or growth hormone because it is made in genetically modified bacteria? It is easy to be negative about science if it does not affect your actions.

There is, alas, no simple formula for explaining how science works; no formula for a scientific method. The key features are defining solvable problems; testing ideas against reality; the importance of controls; and the key role of peer review. Knowing these methods is of much greater significance for the public than, say, understanding the structure of DNA.

Science goes against common sense, and research can be technical and difficult. So, of what value, other than tokenism, would it be to put lay members on committees to decide scientific priorities for research or its applications, or to seek public votes on scientific issues?

The document prepared by Lord May, when he was chief scientific adviser to the government, is particularly relevant. It emphasises the importance of integrity in collecting evidence and openness in explaining how scientific advice has been obtained and interpreted. "Openness will stimulate greater critical discussion of the scientific basis of policy proposals and bring to bear any conflicting scientific evidence that may have been overlooked," he says. Worry about politicians, not scientists.

Lewis Wolpert is professor of biology as applied to medicine at University College London.

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