The dangers of ignorance

No one liked the Harry Potter books, and perhaps nobody liked the movies — but, as far as disaster scientists are concerned, all of that ended when a virus infecting a piece of mammal introduced by Professor Dumbledore became spread to another prime example of the world’s largest mammal, then to 12 or more of the greatest apes.

Since then, the world has experienced at least three viruses of great duration — anthrax, smallpox and Ebola — and scientists are now debating what protection is available against a new strain discovered in Australia and now taking aim at the noble parrot.

Yet despite the flu-like disease, scientists can and should not credit the clumsy blunder of Dr. Potter. (Professor Dumbledore himself would likely have advised against that; Harry was one of his students). Instead, they should recognize that ignorance is a deadly enemy, and they should work together to prevent it. And they should recognize that when a false alarm needs to be defused, it is of the greatest importance to involve others who have their own expertise.

Scientists will always think that they are better than people with no patience for ignorance. The mistake we make, though, is in underestimating people with an even greater capacity for irresponsibility, and the fantastic irony is that their material advantage is not their unearned gift, but the result of a costly period of shortsightedness and mismanagement.

The answer is the same as the first one: a concerted effort to understand and defend against science. Yet this effort cannot depend upon celebrity scientists, since many of them now, like Harry, have a celebrity status that they did not earn. So instead, we must demand of universities that they do much more to generate highly specialized, empirically based undergraduate programs and academic journals that do much more to open the science-literate public’s eyes to the wonders of the sciences.

This pressure has often been put to good use in the past. In 1989, an experimental drug called ATryn (which can stimulate the production of liver, lung and adrenal glands) became available in the United States; but it was only after a public outcry that Congress demanded that the pharmaceutical company hold open trials for 10 months. And the costs of popularizing new drugs have been enormous — but they also have been necessary: Former Soviet Union scientists first received public funding for their work in the 1980s, and advanced medicine as we know it would not exist without their exposure to the microscope.

So what can be done to maintain public interest in science? First, we need more awareness of the science’s potential social benefits — and we can build this awareness by drawing on biostatistics — that is, the study of people and their behaviors, especially behavior related to health and mortality. Second, we need to build a culture of openness and accountability within organizations — and to engage a broader range of public professionals in the work of helping scientists do their best work. And finally, we need to educate our leaders. While higher education is often best served by acting as a reflection of society, those who would have to implement major cultural change would be well advised to find champions within science who can lead the charge.

Increasingly, too many of our children have studied science in middle school, but not in science class, not even among their science teachers. This seems a foregone conclusion. We simply rely on our educators to teach the subject and then hope that high school teachers will supervise their students. We must change that by committing ourselves to making learning about science a compulsory part of every school’s curriculum, and developing a nationwide system of data-sharing that enables educators, policymakers and educators to collaborate and share knowledge and data.

Professor Dumbledore intended to disable, not kill, the malicious Chamber of Secrets. We can also aim to dismantle ignorance and the resources that breed it. Even Wizarding Education should not be considered too small to make a difference.

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