Ignorance is bliss?

Even though I have only been in science for less than a decade, I feel that one of the most important stumbling blocks for the field is the trouble with communication.  I have spent years learning about my field, new techniques, data collection and analysis, and how to publish, but yet was in no way trained on how to deliver that knowledge in the public venue. Although all fields of science may be technical to those who are not ‘in the know,’ the public does in fact WANT to know how their lives are being affected (Hadden 1989, Markowitz and Rosner 2002, Bucchi and Neresini 2008). Industries and many scientific professions seem unwilling to acknowledge that the public have their own ideas and are willing to learn and participate in the process of moving science forward (Bucchi and Neresini 2008). Taken to an extreme, the public has a ‘right to know’ (Hadden 1989) about the impact of science, industry, and technology on their lives. As such, they also need a voice that will be heard by those ‘in the know’ who can integrate a public component into future science and technological advances (Markowitz and Rosner 2002, Bucchi and Neresini 2008).

In an article by Bucchi and Neresini (2008), the authors mention a study where patients were asked medical questions to test their knowledge, while their physicians were asked to independently assess their patients’ level of understanding. Not so surprisingly, 76% of the patients were well informed of medicine, while only 50% of their doctors could “estimate their patients’ knowledge accurately” (Bucchi and Neresini 2008). Even more telling was that, given the statistics above, the doctors refused to alter their communication style, thusly reinforcing stereotypes of perceived patient ignorance. On the other hand, both Markowitz and Rosner (2002) and Hadden (1989), address the idea that industry wishes to keep the public willfully ignorant, and undermine the ‘right to know.’ Hadden suggests that industry simply would not reveal their environmental emissions, even as the surrounding communities were becoming sickened and pleading for information.  Even more troubling is the fact that the lead industry, unwilling to acknowledge massive public health issues, chose to run an advertising campaign for decades suggesting that lead was a good and valuable resource for consumers (Markowitz and Rosner 2002).

While it is hard to believe that such cases of unwilling communication or outright lying occur between the public and industry (or scientists), believed to hold their health in high regard, the Washington D.C. lead in water crisis provides an astonishing case study. As one of the most important governmental agencies, the CDC is supposed to be a responsible source for information regarding public health. In the case of the DC lead in water issue, the CDC misrepresented the dangers for the public, especially children, in a 2004 MMWR report (Edwards et al. 2009). Their report was based on inaccurate, missing, and badly analyzed data, where they concluded no significant relationship between lead concentrations in water and lead concentrations in blood (Edwards et al. 2009). These errors were pointed out in an article by Renner (2009) and a peer-reviewed publication by Edwards et al. (2009). Interestingly, the CDC (2009) immediately responded ‘within hours’ (WASAwatch 2009), totally refuting all of the claims made by those sources.

In this case, CDC represents a scientific ‘industry’ that, according to WASAwatch (2009) was “unable or unwilling to refute the serious questions raised by Salon, [and] chose to stay on the path of deception and obfuscation in order to try and salvage its reputation, at the expense of public health.” WASAwatch (2009) continued by specifically outlining errors in the CDC statement, going so far as to suggest ways to improve their vague, misleading statements, much like a reviewer of a scientific article would. A response time of 2 hours by the CDC (WASAwatch 2009) indicates that either 1) no thought went into the response or 2) they had a prepared (and generalized) response to upload to the web. The bloggers at WASAwatch spent more time conferring on the Renner articles, Dr. Edwards’ reports, and other sources prior to posting, so why could the CDC not hold itself to those same standards, at the very least? The public are not a ‘mass of ignorance’ as some believe, but instead want to know more and participate in the process of scientific advancement and the impacts of industry. WASAwatch is just one example of participation and public awareness of science; as they say in their 2009 posting, “we have learned to tell truth from spin.”

Works Cited:

Bucchi, M. and F. Neresini. 2008. Science and Public Participation. In E. J. Hackett, et al., eds., The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, pp. 449-472. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 2009. CDC Responds to Salon.com Article [Media Statement] (April 10), 2 p., http://www.cdc.gov/media/pressrel/2009/s090410.htm.

Edwards, M., S. Triantafyllidou, and D. Best. 2009. Elevated Blood Lead in Young Children Due to Lead-Contaminated Drinking Water: Washington, DC, 2001-2004. Environmental Science & Technology 43:1618-1623 (with supporting information).

Hadden, S. G. 1989. “The Need for Right to Know.” In A Citizen’s Right to Know: Risk Communication and Public Policy, pp. 3-18. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Markowitz, G. and R. Rosner. 2002. “Introduction: Industry’s Child.” In Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution, pp. 1-11. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Renner, R. 2009. Health Agency Covered Up Lead Harm: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Withheld Evidence that Contaminated Tap Water Caused Lead Poisoning in Kids. Salon.com (April 10):1-3, http://www.salon.com/news/environment/feature/2009/04/10/cdc_lead_report.

WASAwatch. 2009. What the CDC Can Learn from the National Research Council and the Public [blog entry] (May 3), 10 p.,  http://dcwasawatch.blogspot.com/2009/05/what-cdc-can-learn-from-national.html.


2 thoughts on “Ignorance is bliss?

  1. @aquaman81,

    This is in response to:
    “…A response time of 2 hours by the CDC (WASAwatch 2009) indicates that either 1) no thought went into the response or 2) they had a prepared (and generalized) response to upload to the web. The bloggers at WASAwatch spent more time conferring on the Renner articles, Dr. Edwards’ reports, and other sources prior to posting, so why could the CDC not hold itself to those same standards, at the very least?… ”

    My thoughts: The dynamics of organizational behaviour between these two sets [a) a collection of citizens united under the umbrella of WASAwatch and b) officials working at CDC] would be very different. I believe “holding oneself to a certain standard” is simpler for an individual than for an organization. There is certainly a huge mismatch between the mission statement of the CDC and it’s officials’ operating philosophy. Moreover, the personal standards of the people in CDC could be vastly different from the overall organizational ethics and standards. This is not the case with the bloggers at WASAwatch, where I believe that the members came together BECAUSE their goals aligned with the blog’s theme. So, we are talking about two entities with very different “group” motivations.

    I believe that there is no common ‘baseline’ for any comparison between the two. (I’m not defending CDC or attacking your decision to make the comparison. I’m just saying that it’s unfortunate that these two are like chalk and cheese.)

    • Coffeemug, I am not sure I understand why you find Aquaman81’s comparison between:

      1. CDC’s response to Renner’s Salon piece, and
      2. WASAwatch’s response to CDC

      “non-comparable” in terms of the intellectual robustness one should expect from CDC versus WASAwatch.

      Did I understand your point correctly? If I did, here’s my two-cents:

      CDC’s mission and WASAwatch’s mission have important overlaps (i.e., both organizations work to ensure the protection of public health through the generation/support of a clean environment and solid science). More importantly, the CDC is trusted more than any other government agency (and certainly more than WASAwatch!) to guide the public with health-related information that meets the highest scientific and ethical standards. This expectation stands regardless of potential gaps between the agency’s official mission and the personal standards of CDC employees. In fact, as part of its trust toward the CDC, the public expects personal standards of individual employees to be eclipsed by the agency’s official organizational mission. In light of this, wasn’t it CDC’s responsibility to address Renner’s points accurately, completely, and with utmost honesty and integrity, regardless of the “simplicity” or “complexity” of the task? Why do you suggest that for the CDC (admittedly a large organization) communication about science with integrity is not a simple task. Why not? Shouldn’t it be? The CDC employees dealing with this case are trained scientists. WASAwatch’s writers are not.

      We expect CDC to do the right thing not only when that’s “simple” to do, but always. Isn’t that the case?

      I very much appreciate your insights and would love to hear your thoughts.

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