When I first mentioned writing for the Douglas Blogs, a few friends of mine asked me why, so I thought I’d explain in my first post. I’ve always believed the popularization of science for the benefit of the general public is one of the highest obligations of anyone who works in a scientific field. Although making complex concepts digestible by the public isn’t always easy, it’s absolutely essential to fully realizing the benefits of these discoveries. Here are seven reasons why I believe that educating the public about scientific research is important, with a particular focus on the fields of neuroscience and psychiatry (as in the scope of this blog):
- Protecting the public. Without widespread understanding of the nature of brain function and psychiatric illness, members of the public may fall prey to unfortunate ‘treatments’ not supported by facts. In early human cultures, ‘trepanations’ (crude holes in the skull formed using rocks or other tools) were performed on the mentally ill to allow ‘demons’ to escape from the afflicted person’s head. In the last century, lobotomies were routinely performed without a full understanding of their consequences or mechanism of action. Charlatans constantly exploit the public’s lack of information by selling impossible products with false promises. And disturbingly recently, our own government supported the forced sterilization of the mentally ill. These and similar ill-advised practices can only be avoided through education.
- Eliminating stigma; in this context, I’m referring in particular to prevention of stigma against the mentally ill. Conventional beliefs among the general public in the past (and, unfortunately, still today in some cases) held that mental illness was a result of inherent weakness on the part of the patient. Today, we know that mental illness is a complex product of how one’s genes and environment interact in brain development and function; we also know that the causes of these illnesses are biological, as opposed to due to personal weakness, and that they are very often treatable. This information, however, would not be (and is not) available to the public without education.
- Influencing public policy. Legislation is written, amended and voted on by legislators representing members of the public. If the public is informed, so are the choices of their representatives.
- Increasing investment ($) in science. Money for scientific research comes primarily from government sources, and for better or worse, the amount of research that can be done is contingent on the amount of money the government doles out. A well-informed population is better equipped to tell their representatives to support legislation increasing science funding. Similarly, it’s your money; you should know where it’s going. If you’ve ever paid taxes, you’ve contributed to government-funded research and public mental health services; as a result, barring security or privacy issues it’s your right to know what your money funds.
- To counter pseudoscience experts. Not all pundits spreading misinformation are malicious; some are just sorely misinformed. To see an example, just look at the debacle over whether vaccination causes autism. Although the science conclusively refutes this myth, without letting the public know about this research thousands of children a year might unnecessarily go without vaccination, with catastrophic results.
- It’s currently lacking. According to a 2009 survey (Pew Research Center), less than half of Americans know that electrons are smaller than atoms, or that lasers don’t work by focusing sound waves; just over half know that stem cells divide into new types of cells, or that antibiotics don’t kill viruses. Similarly, only 32% of the American public (as opposed to 87% of American scientists) believe that humans and other organisms evolved naturally. These results speak for themselves; the public’s education has been lacking, and for all the reasons listed above this has frightening consequences.
- Fostering a sense of wonder, in the current and future generations. Although great research might be enduring, scientists themselves unfortunately are not; to keep science progressing, it’s necessary to constantly replenish the ranks with a new generation of aspiring students with a passion for research. And regardless of how boring your 8th grade biology teacher might have been, science presented properly and passionately is pretty cool.
My point is that getting the word out about scientific discoveries and topics, especially (I feel) in psychiatry and neuroscience, is not just important; it’s obligatory. So my goal with this blog is to try to do exactly that.
Thanks for reading, and happy holidays.
Posted in Public Education.Posted on 15 Dec 2009