The re-emergence of measles after its eradication from the USA (Bruni, 2015), misunderstandings about the transmissibility of Ebola (Harvard School of Public Health, 2014) and the ongoing controversy about genetically modified foods shine a light once more on the failure of so many of our business institutions to explain their science effectively. Nor is this failure confined to the world of health and chemistry.
The recent rash of cyber-attacks and the continuing suspicion of consumers about what companies are doing with their data is increasingly exacerbating the trust gap between citizens and what were once called learned intermediaries – bankers, lawyers, insurers, accountants, doctors and scientists (Perlroth, 2015). As a result, there have also been numerous examples of changes in government health recommendations recently that are being roundly ignored.
New doubts about the validity of regular prostate tests, colonoscopies, breast exams, even the weakening of longstanding warnings about salt and dietary fats are being rejected, all as part of a growing disconnect between what the experts are saying and what people believe (Perry, 2013). The astonishing persistence of anti-vaccine activists in the face of amply documented evidence showing that there is no connection to autism suggests we have once again reached a strange moment in the history of society’s relationship to science (Ropeik, 2015). Arguably, chemical, health care and technology companies have brought some of this public opprobrium on themselves. Whether one traces the public skepticism about chemistry and medical science as far back as the birth defects caused by Thalidomide, widely prescribed in Europe in the late 1950s for morning sickness, there have been periodic outbursts of public fear of scientific innovation in each of the last five decades.
Some of these have led to regulations banning the use of certain medical drugs, processing chemicals and herbicides. In one case, the pesticide Atrazine was banned in Europe but not the USA. The continuing controversy about this chemical is only one example of many that are affected by alarming (alarmist?) news reports on a regular basis. In 2015, the US public has once again been treated to harrowing news articles about how Atrazine in ground water emasculates male frogs and turns them into hermaphrodites based on research from the 1990s (Hakim, 2015).
On the information technology side, paranoia about data privacy and surveillance of individuals seems to breach new barriers every day. Over the course of three days in early 2015, for example, major US news media carried two reports that illustrate this trend. In the first, readers of The New York Times learned that new spyware had been developed that could break into the BIOS level of personal computers that run the entire machine. “What makes the latest discoveries so disconcerting,” says Nicole Perlroth (2015), the article’s author: is that if a government or company can plant spyware in the lowest level of the machine, it can steal your passwords, serve up any web page, steal your encryption keys and control your entire digital experience without detection.
Another story, combining both biological and technological anxiety, describes a recent development in the use of DNA to track down criminals. Using sophisticated analytics, researchers are increasingly able to generate images of the human face based solely on DNA left at the scene of a crime. While these DNA-generated images are not yet accepted in a court of law, their accuracy will undoubtedly improve over time, like the traditional use of DNA, so that they will become a regular feature of crime solving (Pollack, 2015).
On a final note, we have the continuing threat of integrated data sets giving the companies we do business with unprecedented insight into our daily habits. The Wall Street Journal, which has been very vocal on the subject of data privacy, described a perhaps apocryphal case in which someone seeking health insurance was quoted exorbitant rates because the insurer’s data analytics identified a recent purchase by the same person of an electric fryer, suggesting an unhealthy lifestyle. At first blush, the emasculation of frogs and data privacy concerns would seem to exist in very distinct universes.
I believe, however, that they represent different facets of a singular problem which is that the language of scientific communication and education has failed to keep up with advances in science. This has been true in many eras, of course, but if we are to successful navigate another period of significant scientific innovation, we need better tools to create credible messages about the benefits of these breakthroughs in a way that also calms the natural tendency of human beings to be fearful of their fellow human beings “playing at God”. The challenge will only grow more acute as medical science pushes into nano-robotics and digitally gathered patient-generated data leads to new kinds of predictive analytics.
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“The emasculation of frogs” appeared in The Journal of Business Strategy, Vol. 36 Issue: 3, pp.57 – 60, and is reprinted with permission from Emerald Publishing Group Ltd.