I write this, the inaugural blog post for Arrowhead’s 3rd Annual Translational Microbiome Conference, as I listen to election result returns and find cheer in the gains that my current home state of Arizona has made in voting in a minimum wage increase and in voting out an antiquated (literally and figuratively) sheriff. But this election has far greater implications for us all in the scientific community.
It is clear that science is having a hard time gaining a foothold these days. The good news is that the Pew Research Center found that 79% of 2,000 people polled think science has “made life easier for most people” and 71% believe that investment in science pays off. The bad news is that as soon as a scientific question becomes politicized, it seems no amount of evidence can sway people’s minds. For example, over 50% of the people surveyed believe that GMO foods are generally unsafe whereas 88% of scientists polled think they are generally safe.1 My very unscientific personal poll in asking friends and colleagues about GMO foods quickly reveals that the question of GMO food is almost universally confused with the issue of Monsanto and GM wheat. The fact that we believe in the value of science does not necessarily reflect an understanding of its nuances.
How and why certain scientific issues – GMO foods, vaccines, climate change among others – become politicized is beyond the limits of this post but is driven in some large part by how the media reports on scientific research.2 And I think we in the microbiome community need to be aware of the potential dangers of microbiome-based research becoming tainted by a whiff of spoiled milk.
Spoiled milk, what am I on about?
Earlier this year health officials at the CDC announced they had discovered a pathogenic connection between raw milk from a Pennsylvania dairy and two illnesses in 2014 — one in California and the other in Florida. If you are not aware, the raw milk community is a vociferous and outspoken one, and the backlash was quick. When the CDC stated that the samples were “closely related genetically” and that the raw milk was the “likely source” of the illnesses, opponents were fast to pounce and ask why the CDC could not say they were 100% certain. 100% certainty is an unattainable goal in science, as we know, but that does not mean the general public will understand that.
So when that same public goes from demanding 100% certainty that a specific bacteria in raw milk caused some illness, how are they likely going to react to the idea of “poop in a pill” or fecal microbiome transplants? Again, my utterly unscientific poll of my Facebook cohort, and their reactions to my posts on this subject, suggest “not very well” is the answer. And how the media ultimately portrays this research will have a substantial impact on how it is received, and where it brushes up against hot button topics – like access to raw milk – it is likely to become a hot button issue itself.
The role of the media, and how they report on the microbiome and their role in the messages the public receives, will be explored by moderator Colleen Cutcliffe, co-founder and CEO of Whole Biome, in her panel “The Media and the Microbiome” at Arrowhead’s 3rd Annual Translational Microbiome Conference, being held April 12-13, 2017 in Boston, MA USA.
We invite you to join us and help guide the conversation.
2 Although I will recommend the very compelling albeit slanted read, Science Left Behind: Feel-Good Fallacies and the Rise of the Anti-Scientific Left by Alex B. Berezow, a microbiologist, and Hank Campbell.