A Different Kind of McCarthyism

I've been reading a lot about Jenny McCarthy's assault on Autism science recently, (eg. Wired's recent cover story), but her latest, as reported by Jeremy Radford at Discovery News, makes it very clear that this is not just about distrust of doctors or wariness of over-vaccination. It is a fundamental distrust or disbelief in science. Here's the main face-palm moment:

McCarthy dismissed the latest scientific research as worthless, and the scientists who conduct autism research as incompetent: "We're the ones seeing the real results. And until doctors start listening to our anecdotal evidence, which is, ‘This is working, it's going to take so many more years for these kids to get better. Every parent will tell you something different that helped their child."

It's a bit unfortunate to make my first post such a disturbing one, but this is one of the more tragic and frustrating neuroscience-related stories that's been in the media recently, so it's been on my mind and I thought I'd share and see if anyone can eke more perspective out of this than I can...

In his article, Radford delves right to the core of why this quote is so disturbing, pointing out that "McCarthy, like many non-scientists, seems to think that stories and anecdotal evidence are just as good as -- if not superior to -- well-controlled scientific studies." And reading the comment thread on his article just proves his point. Some (perhaps many) people do not understand the power of the scientific approach or appreciate its benefits, and misunderstanding leads to mistrust.

A common complaint against science is the accusation of fallibility (scientists are just people - they make mistakes like the rest of us) or the suspicion of political motivation (they have an agenda to manipulate their data)... I think that there is actually a disturbing and difficult grain of truth here. It is true, is it not, that few scientists would assert that any published study should be taken at face value? We all assess the articles we read to determine how much we trust their methodology, and we know that every scientist is tempted to try to support their own pet story, as much as they try to be objective.

So the question is, what are we asking non-scientists to do? We talk about science education, and it's true that even the most basic education could help avoid the kind of drivel McCarthy spouts above. However, somehow I can't bring myself to believe that science education will ever allow the common man or woman to read a study in Pediatrics and understand all the methodology and conclusions, to really be able to assess the reliability of the source. So aren't we really asking people to take a sort of leap of faith? To trust that science has all the answers and should be trusted in all cases above other sources, even when you don't understand it? Maybe so... Or maybe I'm too pessimistic about what education can accomplish.

Anyway, I'm realizing I don't have a conclusion here. I agree that we need to focus on educating the public, but I think we need to think long and hard about what we need to teach them. There is a fundamental gap out there. We can't just hope to fill it by pouring in knowledge from on high, because it is also a gap of language and a gap of belief and a gap of trust. We need to engineer a bridge built of all these things if we can hope to leave ignorance behind. If we can hope to.