By Chris | November 17, 2009
A video circulating around the internet is disturbing. An aspiring NFL cheerleader had a negative reaction to a season flu shot. It activated dystonia disorder. If you haven’t seen the video you should look it up on YouTube. Note: Video previously embedded was removed from YouTube.
YouTube comments express skepticism, compassion, but most of all — fear. I can’t help but wonder how many of the 1.2 million people who watched the video were persuaded to skip this year’s flu shot. How many mothers vowed not to give their daughter the shot that might render her immobile? About 30,000 people die of the flu each year. Vaccines save countless lives. And, yet facts and figures are no match against an image of a beautiful young women unable to control her muscles.It made me wonder what responsibility researchers have for the interpretation and application of their findings. If I discover that the swine flu vaccine is slightly more dangerous than previously thought, should I broadcast that information to a public who will apply it irrationally? Suppose as an economist I document theoretical cases in which trade makes a nation worse off. Am I responsible for politicians who utilize my researcher to advance harmful protectionism? If I discover that different races have different innate abilities, am I responsible for the actions of bigots who use my findings to justify evil.
These are tough questions, and I know I’m not the first one to ask them. Researchers must consider the consequences of their findings, and yet, they cannot be held responsible for the actions of others. It’s impossible to know the bad or good that may come from one’s research. The best you can do is anticipate and caution against misapplications of your work.
Part of what got me thinking about this topic was the whole hoopla about Levitt and Dubner’s global cooling chapter in their new book. I don’t want to comment on the merits of the chapter itself. However, I was intrigued by one of the biggest concerns of critics. They argue, by lending credence to the idea that geoengineering could reverse global warming, Levitt and Dubner empower skeptics of global warming in their political goals. Are the SuperFreaks responsible for the impact of their chapter on public opinion and policy? What if they lead policymakers to conclusions that Levitt and Dubner never intended? In one chapter, the authors discuss how walking drunk is less safe than driving drunk. Are they responsible when an alcoholic takes this as advice, gets in a car, and kills a pedestrian?
Ultimately, scientists are accountable for the truth of their findings. But, that doesn’t mean they can ignore the practical implications of their arguments. The less certain you are, the more you must qualify your findings. The more irrational your audience, the more you must caution your readers. You may not be responsible for the irrationality of the masses, but you you’re a fool to ignore it. Levitt and Dubner may have had the best of intentions when writing their book. They may make some unique contributions to the discussion on global warming and driving under the influence. So, they probably shouldn’t be burned on the stake for ignoring how others may interpret their findings. But, I can’t help but feel they deserve to take a little heat.