Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The Growing Need for Eloquent Scientists

            I stared at my score with disbelief; 47 hours and I had gotten a D on my exam.  That was 47 hours of studying for a single exam amidst all the other tumultuous activities, assignments, and aspects of my college life that needed tending to; and I still got a D.  That was a year ago.  Now, I am in my senior year of my undergraduate degree in microbiology, and I know firsthand what it’s like to be in the throes of a demanding scientific education.  However, being a senior, I have also had experiences bordering those of a microbiological career, such as doing research, communicating with other scientists, and being on the front lines of scientific presentations to the general public.  That last one was probably the most daunting, as I attempted to convey the results of my hard work to people who had no idea what I was talking about, as well as convince them of how they should follow what my research concluded about their responsibility to be vaccinated.  Although the course load for science students like you, is already considered intense, universities should require these students to excel in studying rhetoric in multiple classes because of the growing need for direct communication between scientists and the general public.  I would like to address this topic in the context of microbiology, utilizing examples from my time spent obtaining a Bachelor’s degree in this field, as well as from the perspective of someone who has seen the dire need for an increase in communication between these parties.

The general rule of thumb given to incoming freshmen is that for every credit hour in which they enroll, they will spend 2 to 3 more hours studying that material outside the classroom.  For someone who is required to take 14 credit hours to maintain a full tuition scholarship, this meant I would do best if I allotted 28-42 hours a week for studying beyond the 14 hours I would spend in class.  Immediately, the hours start piling up.  A part time job on campus is another 20 hours per week.  Showering, cooking, eating, getting dressed, and transport we can estimate at 25 hours in a week.  Volunteer hours, religious services, and staying physically fit: perhaps 8 hours. Factor in the need for sleep and a social life, and we’re hitting a jam-packed schedule with little time for additionally advanced classes such as Immunology, or studying for exams that require the memorization of a hundred scientific names of pathogens.  Yet, I recommend that the sciences consider adding a rhetorical requirement to their majors.  I understand that it’s a lot, but I also know that it is a growing need in a world where communication is quick and far-reaching.
However, communication hasn’t always been so quick.  Historically, scientists needed to convince others of their credibility using an ethical appeal in order to be heard, but they also needed to use pathetic and logical appeals in order for those people who heard them to then act on their words.  Because of a slower time frame for communication, new ideas were often presented among the elite, and once accepted as accurate they could then be taught and learned in the common household.  This method of communication of scientific ideas worked in the smaller communities that once existed and relied on snail mail for the transfer of such concepts.  In our current age, however, those who can access the Internet know the extent to which news can travel overnight.  The instantaneity with which information is at our fingertips opens up the opportunity to learn of the surrounding world quickly.  In addition to facts being added to the millions of web pages hourly, there are also many opinions flooding our screens that we must sift through.  It is impossible to sit down and research every topic you hear a conversation about, and so you are left to accept information from particular sources, in the hopes that they are accurate and unbiased.  Let’s take a look at the serious repercussions that could follow when an uneducated or false source is taken as the truth.
In 1998 Andrew Wakefield published a paper in the medical journal The Lancet titled, “Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children”, in which he provided inconclusive and inaccurate data, and made the false claim that the MMR vaccine causes autism.  It was later retracted, but the damage had been done: the media naively swarmed over the article, presenting this information to the public for all to read.  As the Internet grew, so did others’ opinions, and Jenny McCarthy added hers to the pile.  The Playboy model gone mommy blogger claimed in 2007 that her son, Evan, was autistic because of vaccinations.  Though no scientific evidence suggested such a claim, the media again attached onto this celebrity’s pathetic appeal that vaccines were at the fault for her son’s mental and social setbacks.  The false word was out, the bandwagons formed, and what is now referred to as the vaccine wars began.

Because the mode of communication from scientists to the general public was relied on to be presented through the media, the message became skewed and frenzied instead of calculated and tested.  A current website,, tallies the number of preventable illnesses and deaths that have occurred since Jenny McCarthy’s influential opinion-gone-fact was announced in 2007.  Currently the ignorance surrounding this topic has led to 9,020 preventable deaths, and 149,957 preventable illnesses.  The number for autism diagnoses scientifically linked to vaccinations?  Zero.

            Due to my unique position as a senior in the microbiology major, as well as a budding research scientist and hopeful professor, I can see a strong need for scientists who are prepared to communicate with the general public at a level in which individuals can understand the scientific principles behind research, and then be persuaded to follow the practical counsel suggested by the concluding evidence.  In the case of the vaccine wars, if the information could have been presented in this manner, then lives could have been healthier and longer, and the general public would have been left with a stronger and more trusting relationship between their families and the scientists dedicated to making their lives as safe as possible.  It seems that sometimes this route of communication really could be the difference between life and death.

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