Vassar Stories

Cool Courses: Unraveling Scientific Controversies

Hydrofracking, global warming, GMOs, the health benefits of red wine, the dangers of childhood vaccination, the case for butter, the ethics of embryonic stem cell research—we are beset by controversies from every direction. How are we to make sense of them?

Jose Perillan, assistant professor of physics and STS, and other members of the class listen as Alex Campbell ’15 presents his controversy on quantum consciousness.

That’s one of the goals of "Great Scientific Controversies in Context," taught by Jose Perillan, assistant professor with a dual appointment in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and the multidisciplinary Program in Science, Technology, and Society. “In the first half of the course, we read multiple case studies and examined different theoretical frameworks for looking at controversies,” says Perillan. “In the second half, each student picked a particular controversy and devised a framework for analyzing some aspect of the controversy.”

Cara Hunt ’15, an STS major, looked at the controversy surrounding autism and the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccination.  The controversy began in 1998 when Andrew Wakefield published a paper in the British medical journal The Lancet purporting to link autism spectrum disorders to the MMR vaccine. “I chose this controversy because I remember my mom reading me these articles about the dangers of vaccines when I was in middle school,” says Hunt. “At the time, my little brother was very young, and she held off vaccinating him for a while.  And it’s completely understandable. If you are a parent and there’s even a small chance that this vaccine might hurt your child, you’re not going to do it.” 

Wakefield was later thoroughly discredited and even barred from practicing medicine in the UK. “He falsified his results, and he had serious conflicts of interest,” says Hunt. “He was being paid by a lawyer who was trying to sue the company that manufactured the vaccine. But what I found interesting was how, once this fear was unleashed on the general public, there was no containing it.”

Cara Hunt’s visual representation of the vaccination-autism controversy

Hunt’s framework for “unpacking” this controversy was rhetoric and the concept of doubt.  “Doubt means one thing to the scientific community, and something else to the public, and it has different operational value to each group,” she explains. “To the scientific community, doubt is necessary to maintaining a healthy level of skepticism. You need doubt in order not to jump to conclusions or to close controversies too soon and to allow for anomalies to arise that may lead to new discoveries. But in the public sphere, doubt takes on a different meaning. There is a disconnect between the scientific community and the public, a misunderstanding of how science actually works, and that results in a mistrust of science.”

Owen Brady ’15, also an STS major, looked at two controversies of public opinion—climate change and GMOs--using the framework of political ideologies to untangle them. “Public opinion on these two current issues seems to be based more on political ideology than the science,” says Brady. “It’s a fact that political conservatives in the US are more likely to reject climate science and be skeptical about the global consensus on climate change than liberals.  It’s also the case that liberal anti-corporate ideology aligns with anti-GMO attitudes,  even though we don’t have scientific evidence at this point showing that GMOs are problematic.  So it seems that these controversies exist mostly in the public sphere and are kept alive more by political biases than the science behind them.”

Owen Brady’s summary of the political underpinnings of the climate change and GMO controversies

Brady says that the main thing he’s learned from this course is that “nothing is as it seems.  In fact, that’s what I’ve learned at Vassar generally.  You have a few people who say that science is mostly a social construct and that there are no facts, and you have the other extreme that claims science is quite real and that you can rely on the facts without worrying about world view or anything like that.  And we, in STS, try to find the middle ground.  We acknowledge that science is influenced by all of these social factors—where the money is coming from, broader historical trends—but there are also things that we can know.”

Hunt concurs. “If anything, this class has complicated my view of science,” she says. “We’ve done a lot of work demythologizing science.  In the public perception, science is this non-emotional, rational, clean body of knowledge—but it definitely isn’t. It’s prone to fallibility and fraud and political and economic schemes, just like any other field.  But I don’t think that’s to the detriment of science.  I think once we become aware of the myths, we’ll be able to use science and scientific knowledge to function better in our society and the world.”

These outcomes are exactly what Perillan was aiming for. “These students are thinking about controversies in very nuanced ways,” he says. “What is this thing that we call science?  It’s certainly not this homogenous, heroic march towards truth.  That’s a very simplistic, mythological framing of it.  And it’s also not this evil conspiracy to promote capitalist interests.  It’s neither of those.  So let’s unpack this and problematize some of these pictures.  That’s what we do in this class.”

--Julia Van Develder

Posted Thursday, December 18, 2014