A scare need not turn into a panic

Scientists should miss no opportunity to explain what their work involves

Over the past few days, we have witnessed an outbreak of common sense. The World Health Organisation said there was some evidence linking mobile phones to brain cancer. As ever with health scares, the story could have done significant damage to the businesses involved, but mobile phone users just carried on chatting.

The WHO survey of research put the cancer risk from phones in the “limited evidence” category, along with bracken fern and carpentry. “Mobile users not alarmed by scare,” reported the South China Morning Post, reflecting the apparent lack of concern everywhere.

If consumers wanted a full-blown panic, the European E. coli outbreak could have provided one. The German authorities appear unable to determine where it started, 23 people have died and thousands are ill. But almost all those affected appear to live in Germany or to have travelled there. At the London supermarket I visited, shoppers were calmly dropping their fruit and vegetables into their baskets.

Contrast this sensible behaviour with the frenzy of opposition that followed the introduction in the late 1990s of genetically modified food that had never killed anyone.

The still-lethal effects of a health scare from the same period are still with us: the publication in The Lancet of an article suggesting the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine caused autism in children. The research has been thoroughly discredited and the article withdrawn, but some parents still refuse to vaccinate their children.

The result is that the US, which thought it had eliminated measles in the late 1990s, reported 118 cases in the first 19 weeks of this year, 40 per cent of whom ended up in hospital.

In France, where measles cases increased almost ninefold in the first quarter of 2011 over the same period last year, three people have died. In England and Wales, where vaccination rates have edged up but are still below the desired 95 per cent level, there were 334 confirmed measles cases in the first four months of 2011, compared with 374 for the whole of last year. Health agencies in all the countries concerned said the vast majority of sufferers had not been vaccinated.

Fiona Fox, director of the Science Media Centre, a UK organisation to promote better understanding between scientists and journalists, says the MMR crisis was a low point and that reporting of science has improved since then.

Even in a social media age, what news organisations say about science-related businesses matters. A recent survey of public attitudes to science, carried out for the UK government, found that 54 per cent of people got their information about science from television and 32 per cent from print newspapers.

A study chaired by Ms Fox last year found that the reduction in news organisations’ staff had led to a fall in science reporting, particularly in the US. However, UK science reporting in mainstream outlets had survived, even if it hadn’t expanded, and science stories had been given greater prominence.

Some panic-inducing articles still appear, but there are indications that people are readier to accept science’s benefits. When asked in the UK government survey about issues such as fertility treatment, cloning or genetically modified crops, a majority – 56 per cent – said that “people shouldn’t tamper with nature”. But this was down from 70 per cent who felt the same in 2008.

There are lessons for scientists, government and companies in the change in public attitudes. The first is that people can cope with uncertainty. One of the problems during the MMR episode was that public health officials repeatedly declared the vaccination “safe”. Instead, they should have admitted that a minority of children sometimes reacted badly to immunisations, but added that there was no evidence that these jabs caused autism and that diseases such as measles could be life-threatening.

Second, where there is a chance, however remote, of danger, people should be given information on how to mitigate it rather than being told either that everything is fine or that they should avoid the supposed peril altogether. So parents should limit children’s mobile phone use and people should wash their fruit and vegetables. Scientists should also miss no opportunity to explain what their work involves. While the UK government survey found that 62 per cent of people had a basic grasp of peer review, many did not know it was called that.

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