Marcia McNutt
1200 New York Avenue NW
Washington, D.C. 20005

Concerning trust in science (Marcia McNutt Economics of Public Safety Science vol. 351 no. 6274 February 12, 2016 page 641)

Dear Marcia McNutt:
Thank you for raising the issue of trust in science.  Scientists are subject to pressure and to failure as you point out.  Looking at your article, though, it seems to me that the issue is one of failure at being scientists (and politicians) rather than of science.  But the issue remains and involves something you deal with on a daily basis; it’s vocabulary.

Some years ago I volunteered at the Clearwater Marine Science Center (yes, they’ve changed the name of that, too) where I thought as a diagnostic radiologist I could help in x-raying and interpreting x-rays on sea life.  I know a relevant trick or two.  And the human papilloma virus is so prevalent that it has found its way into Tampa Bay, where it causes growths in sea turtles.  If the growth is external, it can be safely removed, but surgery through the shell is not possible.  There are, however, ways an interventional radiologist can ablate a tumor without surgery.  Again I thought I could help. 

First level volunteers do guided tours and work as deck hands on the excursion boat.  I was neither young nor pretty, but I was strong, confident and attentive – professional skills in my field – so my relative advantage was as a deck hand. And I was going no further; scientist don’t talk to deck hands much.  I was content until the day when a marine biologist held up an animal and said to the children, “This is a sea star.”  Tactfully I waited until we had landed and the patrons were gone and asked, “Am I correct in assuming that we are now to call starfish sea stars?”  She replied with some heat, “That’s right.  It isn’t a fish.”  I thought that it certainly wasn’t a star, and besides it didn’t live freely in the sea, only on the bottom or in tidal flats and estuaries or near thermal vents.  And I realized I was never going to be able to look into a child’s eyes and say, “No, Johnny.  Don’t call it a starfish; it’s not a fish,” which he would doubtless already have figured out, and I would be unfairly calling him stupid.  So I quit.

It’s rather a misnomer, but after all it is not “star fish,” so it is no more a fish that is a star than it is the patron saint of yapping dogs nor something that resembles a starf. 

Science has its vocabulary, which changes with time.  The panda used to be a panda bear, but we were told it was really a panda because it wasn’t a bear, and now it turns out to be a bear after all. 

Look at it this way: deprive me of all the words I know and you have taken away a substantial part of my mind; say 100,000 words equals a tenth of my mind.  Destroy one word and you have destroyed my mind to the tune of one part in a million.  Destroy a word for three hundred million people, and you have done the equivalent of leaving 300 brain dead.  Just because the damage is diffuse does not mean it is not real.  It’s headline news if science leaves a half dozen consenting people brain dead.  But it’s far worse to do the same to fifty times as many who are not consenting. 

Pluto was declared a non-planet because it had not cleared it’s “neighborhood” of other orbiting material.  Really?  Was Mars not a planet until it had done so and then abruptly became one the instant it cleared some far off pebble just not quite far enough out to be an asteroid?  The definition smells of special pleading.  They changed the definition just for fun just to do in Pluto.  And that fun left, let us all say in unison, fifty million brain dead Americans who never agreed to the change. 

An honest mistake or even a dishonest one does not do as much to poison trust in science.  Remember, those folks out there vote so they have the right to restrict funds. 

Personally I’d add the sentiment that as the language changes a veil is slowly drawn over the past.  I doubt anybody else cares.  Anyway, if scientists want to give people warm fuzzy feelings, we need to leave their language alone.  Have a technical language and mung it up all we like, although even that should be done with the greatest reluctance, but leave the real world and common usage alone, and maybe they’ll fall in love with us again. 

Then there is this: good science rarely makes terrible mistakes.  But mistakes do happen.  One day it must inevitably happen that science, I mean good honest science, overlooks some assumption with the result that enormous harm is caused.  In that day we shall need friends.


M. Linton Herbert MD

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