Biology and medicine: scapegoats of our time?

Cross-posted from Subspecies

You know, the blogosphere is all a-twitter (see what I did there?) with the story about asking Miss America contestants whether they think evolution should be taught in schools. I won’t go into it, since my feelings can basically be summed up here. Frankly, I’m not shocked in the slightest. However, it did get me thinking. Why, why, why does good science, especially that in the fields of biology and medicine, get turned into the enemy by the general public? And more importantly, why those specific fields? Sure, you could say that the opposition to the majority of biology comes from evolutionary theory, and its conflict with Biblical (or Qu’ranic or… Toraic?) literalism.

Not pictured: evidence

I would argue that there is something deeper than that. After all, Big Pharma conspiracies abound. If someone suffers at hands of a nurse, doctor or pharmacist who was not on the ball that day, we discuss the failure of the entire medical system, not that single individual. We say MEDICINE failed them. When a terminally ill friend or family member receives no cure, develops cancer after stem cell treatment, or dies on the organ transplant list, people don’t discuss the nuances of translating basic research to clinical settings, or perhaps the misguided research of a dogmatic investigator. People say SCIENCE failed them. When the best efforts are made to save someone’s life and we fail them, people actively question the basis of “conventional” medicine, regardless of their knowledge, rather than attempting to educate themselves on it. When biology challenges long-held superstition, the expert becomes the unreliable witness, not the untrained observer. They don’t even doubt the competence of the individual they’ve dealt with – they challenge the very core of the science. One could argue that well, in these cases lives are at stake. People become emotional and are looking for a monolith to assign blame to.

You have failed us all, science!

No dice. Engineering is equally responsible for the lives of millions. Personally, I’m not particularly knowledgable in physics and engineering. I understand the core concepts, but all the formulas make my brain hurt. I acknowledge that it’s not a strong point for me, and so, like most Western individuals, I defer my opinion to the scientific consensus at this time in those areas. I don’t know precisely how the combustion engine in my car works, but I don’t need to as long as we have people we pay to know about it. I trust (with a reasonable amount of skepticism) that the people who build and design automobiles know pretty much what they’re talking about. So do most people who have equivalent levels of ambivalence to the topic. And yet, when someone’s car abandons them at the side of the road in the middle of a blizzard, we don’t blame ENGINEERING for endangering their life. We might blame the driver for abusing the vehicle, or the mechanic for giving it poor maintenance, or maybe the car’s manufacturer for producing a lemon, but never do you see people questioning the effectiveness of the combustion engine! No one seriously advocates going back to using horses for transportation because we have a rich cultural tradition of using them!

My horse is significantly prettier than my car, though. p<0.001

Similarly, when bridges with motor traffic on them collapsed in Minneapolis and Montreal, no one attacked the idea that concrete could be used to make bridges. No one asked who paid off Big Eng to design shoddy bridges to line their pocket books. No one questioned Western Bridge Design and suggested we return to traditional wooden bridges, which have been safely used in China for millennia. And yet, both of these situations are ones where people distinctly neglected proper construction and maintenance to make a profit. The majority of engineers are not in the public sector – both of the bridge collapses I mentioned happened in part because the engineering firms who were overseeing the projects cheaped out. And yet, no one talks about Big Eng just being out there to make a profit. They (reasonably) blamed the people who were responsible for the poor construction and shoddy maintenance.

This distinction, to me, seems totally arbitrary. When a promising new pharmaceutical has unexpected side effects leading to a recall (thalidomide leaps to mind, but there are better recent examples, like the narcotic painkiller Darvocet), the wolves leap at the throats of the pharmaceutical company who made it, the doctors who prescribed it based on trials demonstrating efficacy and safety, and anyone who defends the biology, pharmacology, biochemistry and physiology that supported the drug before the side effects were known. The response is, rather than “How can we modify this potentially useful medicine to make it safe?” is “MEDICINE HATES BABIES!” as if that were the very foundation of the science.

Maybe it’s because I’m so immersed in biology and medicine that I see the way it is prone to systematic denialism. Tell me, people from other professions, do you get this level of crazy conspiracy theory about your work? Am I wrong?