Is this the sequel to the Autism-Vaccination Link?

May 09 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

So I  know I said I was going to talk about why I started blogging and how its evolved, but really its kinda the same old same old.  I was feeling isolated, found community, gained perspective life has changed, yada yada yada.  If you're really that interested its all over at my little neck of the woods on blogspot.  Just read through the archives and you'll learn all about why I changed labs and how I am in now in a little bit of paradise. Which is probably why I'm not blogging as much about lab life. How many times can you say life is great and I <3 my PI before people want to smack you.

So instead, I'm going to blather on about the whole MS is a vascular disease thing. I want to say that I know nothing about MS, vascular disease or even neuroscience. Half our lab does neuroscience, I've learned the difference between axons, glia, etc but still I really really have to focus to understand their research. I don't know enough of the subject to be able to critically analyze it.

However, I do have an understanding of how science works, what it takes to start or recommend new therapies and the disconnect between what I know and what the lay public knows.

I understand the need to send out press releases about research but when research and its implications are not  communicated in an appropriate manner (I don't know what that appropriate manner is) dangerous links, myths and cures can pop up. Which is what has happened with the vascular blockage theory of MS.  Canadian patients desperate for a cure have flown all over the world for these therapies, spending a ton of cash, and then are left with post-surgical complications that they may or may not get treatment for.

The reason I'm bringing this up is that when Dr. Zambonini's research first came out last year, I remember being annoyed at how much weight was being put on 1 study. How suddenly there was all this pressure to fund a particular type of research and how inadequately the research itself was discussed in our national media. It was really just superficial and sensational. Which is how I would imagine it was with the first study that showed the link between Autism and Vaccinations. Today's article on how studies are coming out which do not support Dr.Zamboni is just as sensational.

The globe and mail has done nothing to educate the lay public on how science progresses. Really this article,  to me, read more like a soap opera than a review of the science involved.  It could be summarized as this: Dr.Zamboni's key ally has turned against him, researchers are attacking him and Dr.Zamboni is too closely involved perhaps gaining financially from his theory.  Oh and be warned the line between "crank and genius is very fine". Seriously? WTF Carly Weeks?

How about putting into lay person terms what the six reports found and explain why the researchers had different results? How about instead of making it sound like this is a political issue, with other scientists "out to get" Dr.Zamboni,  have a real article talking about the dangers of pre-rushing a treatment, the need for reproducibility? How about discussing how disagreement and discussion is fundamental to moving science forward?

For some reason, I highly doubt MS researchers want Dr.Zamboni's theory to be wrong or fail. I believe that the researchers who work on MS want to find a cure, want to figure out what is going on.  I, for one, would be loath to recommend a treatment with out being confident in its ability to work and I'm pretty sure the MS community of scientists are the same.  Yesterday I gave a short talk on one of the hypotheses for my thesis. I was freaking about having to give a talk on the because I did not know for sure that my data was really supporting my hypothesis, I didn't have enough repeats, controls. I needed to test the pathway downstream to make sure it was really being activated.  I didn't have a mechanism etc. I was stressing over a short talk at a small cell biology meeting to get feedback on my research. Now if I had to recommend a treatment that could effect millions of people, I damn well would want multiple people looking at it and having it taken through the ringer. People's lives are at risk.

Unfortunately, if the link between vascular blockages and MS ends of not be real the  lack of science education, critical thinking, poor reporting combined with patients and families desperate for a cure and  those willing to take advantage of them, will be a deadly combination.  Its a combination that will enable the myth of the vascular link to stick around as long as, if not longer then the vaccination-autism link.

I don't know how we "fix" this, but better reporting in major newspapers would be a first step.  Better science education and critical thinking would be a second step.  As scientists, we need the public to understand what research is, why its important and how it works.  Up here, tax dollars and charity contributions make up of money for our  funding and unless the public understands how research works, it will be easier for unfriendly governments to cut that funding.


5 responses so far

  • Natalie says:

    I used to think Globe and Mail was beyond reproach. Not so much anymore, disappointingly.

  • I don't know how we "fix" this, but better reporting in major newspapers would be a first step. Better science education and critical thinking would be a second step.

    It's funny, but scientists always say that it's the journalists' fault for reporting it wrong, and the public's fault for not knowing enough.

  • scientistmother says:

    Natalie - yes the G&M has been disappointing of late.
    ShortearedOwl - I think for this particular story the angle of the story was wrong. I'm not blaming public for not understanding. I think that there is a serious lacking of critical thinking education. Traditionally, Canada invested significantly in public and university education. This has been slowly eroded over decades - mostly due to an aging demographic that is caring more about its healthcare than the quality of education the upcoming generation gets. Philosophy and Liberal - Arts are not longer really taught because they don't provide technical skills. And yes, we scientists need to do a better job of communicating our science. Alot of these science blogs are trying to do that.

  • You'll never hear me argue that science education (all education) couldn't be improved. But you can't blame journalists for wanting to take the angle that has the best story - that's what they do. And clearly YOU understand the importance of scientists making active efforts to communicate - you're blogging about it 🙂 - but I think more scientists need to realise that the rest of the world doesn't operate in peer review.

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