A Sense Of Proportion About Fear Of The Unknown

Einstein ranks extremely high not only among the all-time practitioners of science but also among the producers of aphorisms that place science in its real-world context. One of my favourites is "If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn't be called research." This disarming comment, like so many of the best quotes by experts in any field, embodies a subtle mix of sympathy and disdain for the difficulties that the great unwashed find in appreciating what those experts do.

One of the foremost challenges that face scientists today is to communicate the management of uncertainty. The public know that experts are, well, expert - that they know more than anyone else about the issue at hand. What is evidently far harder for most people to grasp is that "more than anyone else" does not mean "everything" - and especially that, given the possession of only partial knowledge, experts must also be expert at figuring out what is the best course of action. Moreover, those actions must be well judged whether in the lab, the newsroom or the policy-maker's office.

It must not, of course, be neglected that many experts are decidedly inexpert at communicating their work in lay terms. This remains a major issue largely because virtually all experts are called upon to engage in general-audience communication only very rarely, hence do not see it as a priority to gain such skills. Training and advice are available, often from university press offices, but even when experts take advantage of such opportunities it is generally too little and too late.

However, in my view that is a secondary issue. As a scientist with the luxury of communicating with the general public very frequently, I can report with confidence that experience only helps up to a point. A fundamental obstacle remains: that non-scientists harbour deep-seated instincts concerning the management of uncertainty in their everyday lives, which exist because they generally work, but which profoundly differ from the optimal strategy in science and technology. And of course it is technology that matters here, because technology is where the rubber hits the road - where science and the real world meet and must communicate effectively.

Examples of failure in this regard abound - so much so that they are hardly worthy of enumeration. Whether it be swine flu, bird flu, GM crops, stem cells: the public debate departs so starkly from the scientist's comfort zone that it is hard not to sympathise with the errors that scientists make, such as letting nuclear transfer be called "cloning", which end up holding critical research fields back for years.

One particular aspect of this problem stands out in its potential for public self-harm, however: risk-aversion. When uncertainty revolves around such areas as ethics (as with nuclear transfer) or economic policy (as with flu vaccination), the issues are potentially avoidable by appropriate forward planning. This is not the case when it comes to the public attitude to risk. The immense fall in uptake of vaccinations for major childhood diseases following a single, contentious study lining them to autism is a prime example. Another is the suspension of essentially all clinical trials of gene therapy for at least a year in response to the death of one person in a trial: a decision taken by regulatory bodies, yes, but one that was in line with public opinion.

These responses to the risk benefit ratio of cutting-edge technologies are examples of fear of the unknown - of an irrationally conservative prioritisation of the risks of change over the benefits, with unequivocally deleterious consequences in terms of quality and quantity of life in the future. Fear of the unknown is not remotely irrational in principle, when "fear of" is understood as a synonym for "caution about" - but it can be, and generally is, overdone. If the public could be brought to a greater understanding of how to evaluate the risks inherent in exploring future technology, and the merits of accepting some short-term risk in the interests of overwhelmingly greater expected long-term benefit, progress in all areas of technology — especially biomedial technology - would be greatly accelerated.