Science has two important yields: increased understanding of the world within and around us
(“knowledge for knowledge’s sake”) and solutions to specific problems. But even the most
profound scientific knowledge won’t solve world problems such as hunger, poverty and
environmental damage if we fail to respect, understand and engage cultural differences.
The resistance to vaccine use is a prime example. The supposed link between autism and
common childhood vaccines was based on fraudulent research published in the British
journal The Lancet in 1998. After the fraud was uncovered the lead author was stripped of his
medical license and the article was retracted. Subsequent investigations by the Department of
Health in the U.K. and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies in the U.S. as well as
adefinitive study published in the August 2013 issue of The Journal of Pediatrics have all
debunked the vaccine–autism link. Yet the percentage of parents who delay or forgo
immunization of their children has increased alarmingly in recent years and, partly as a result,
measles, mumps and whooping cough are making a comeback.
Similarly, genetically modified organisms, global climate change and other scientific, medical
and public health developments sometimes fail to gain public acceptance for reasons that lie far
outside the realm of science. And that is not the fault of the public—that is our fault as scientists.
We have not been effective in explaining to the public the scientific method, the peer review
system or the selfcorrecting nature of scientific research.
When we can’t make headway against misinformation campaigns based on bogus science or
political agendas, clearly something more than the robustness of our data is at play. To use that
classic line from the Paul Newman movie Cool Hand Luke, “What we’ve got here is failure to
communicate.”Scientists need not only to explain much more clearly and compellingly what we
are doing but also to establish on social, cultural and emotional levels why our work is important.
We need to respect cultural differences that lead to misunderstanding and even fear of science.
Too often we also fail to respect opinions that differ from our own. Science is a process of
iteration—of backandforth—and yet sometimes we scientists are guilty of promulgating our
own biases. Our subseq