The following is a response to Zack Kopplin and his tweeted criticisms of the blog Public Health United (PHU) along with a particular article written by PHU Science News Analyst Stephen Goldstein. Mr. Kopplin took offense at the entry written by Mr. Goldstein in which he briefly criticized Mr. Kopplin for “shouting down” at economist Stephen Moore for making an unfounded statement on an episode of the television show Bill Maher. Kopplin’s criticism hit a personal note as he attacked the blog for “trying to get attention” and “being unreasonable.” It is worth noting that the original blog article was published in April of 2013 and PHU had retweeted the link today (6/9/14) because it was recently mentioned on the Richard Dawkins Foundation website found here after a recent interview with Kopplin. After a tweet was made by PHU today referring to the article, Mr. Kopplin responded with a tweet barrage directed against PHU. This response was written because Mr. Kopplin missed the point that you don’t have to know everything to say the right thing, and that more harm than good can come from a witty one-liner. You can view Mr. Kopplin’s twitter feed here.
I praise Zack Kopplin for his (unbeknownst to him) defense of schistosomiasis research when he lambasted Stephen Moore by proclaiming, “You’re not a scientist!” in response to Moore’s opinion that the government shouldn’t be funding research into snail mating habits. Kopplin is correct, Moore is not a scientist, nor an expert in the field, and therefore he should have no say in deciding which research projects should be funded (especially since Moore inaccurately summarized the project in question). Moore is undoubtedly doing a disservice to the public by attempting to galvanize support for his stance on research funding by linking public discontent with wasteful government spending to seemingly “worthless” research into snail mating behavior. To the layperson uneducated about schistosomiasis, it certainly seems like a waste of money at first glance. However, Moore fails to mention that the project actually was addressing cost-effective solutions for treating some of the 200 million or so people infected by schistosomes each and every year. Had Moore been educated or willing to understand the topic at hand, one would suspect the economist would support research into cost-effective disease intervention strategies that will save the country money in the long-run……in a perfect world.
In a perfect world, one could imagine that the lay-people trust the experts with no questions asked, but let’s be real and accept that it is fundamental human nature to treat subjects we are not knowledgeable in with skepticism. I like to think about how I would react if I made a statement to Stephen Moore that, “CEOs of big businesses should be taxed extraordinarily heavy on their income,” and he responded with, “You’re not an economist!” I would be offended because my opinion was not taken seriously. The difference between my theoretical statement versus what Stephen Moore said, is that Stephen Moore made inaccurate claimes about the work whereas I am proposing an opinion. Still, to an uneducated public, pompousness is pompousness without context and I can see why people might take a defensive approach to Kopplin’s comments.
Kopplin’s proclamation actually alludes to one of the great dilemmas that scientific researchers face on almost a daily basis and that is public trust in science. As a researcher, I desperately want the public to support and trust in my work, but I also know that telling those who disagree with what I do that they are “not scientists” and “shouldn’t have a say” will backfire. We are told constantly from a young age not to take things so seriously, but when you invest years upon years into research that a non-scientist discounts for no apparent reason, you can’t help but get tied up in an emotionally charged defense of work that was approved by a committee of scientific experts. So here we are at the crossroads of yet another “black and white” debate into the integrity of scientific research and of human expertise in general. The question is where do we go from here?
My opinion is one of the of the middle ground, one that accepts more uncertainty in our decisions (after all scientific research is not funded based on guaranteed results) but by a balance of risk and reward. This translates into using every available opportunity, like the one Kopplin shared with Moore, to say the right things. Instead of saying, “You’re not a scientist!” Kopplin could have began by asking for the source of the study, what the major results/conclusions were, what journal was it published in, etc….with the idea in mind that if Moore is indeed lying he would not be able to produce even the most rudimentary summary of the work he is criticizing. Staying calm and rational is the tortoise that will win the race unlike the galvanizing comments that provide a short boost to the fleeting moment of the hare. Sure, I get it, this happened in a very brief moment on a live television show which makes it nearly impossible to convey all the facts and even so Moore could have hypothetically denied his lack of knowledge in the subject area further perpetuating his stance on the funding. This is why we need people like Zack Kopplin and blogs like Public Health United. Many people won’t change their mind on scientific funding based on a 30 second segment of Bill Maher, but we’re not trying to help everyone. It’s the people that want to learn and want to be reached that will find us and we must be willing to meet them with open arms…or at least try. If we start with what we do know as opposed to telling people what they don’t know or shouldn’t know, we will certainly reach the collective truth faster and empower those who are seeking knowledge. The bottom line is you don’t have be knowledgeable about every single research project, model, or system to say the right things and take the discussion in an open and positive direction.