On reading More Spin than Science: Risk Communication about the H5N1 Bioengineering Research Controversy by Peter Sandman, a transcript of a Skype presentation to ‘Freedom in biological research: How to consider accidental or intentional risks for populations’, at the Fondation Mérieux near Annecy, France, February 8, 2013.

Sparkling Brittany, France, oil on plywood, Thierry Devouassoux

Sandman is a risk communications expert and one of the few outsiders to have taken an interest in the GOF H5N1 flu engineering controversy. His website has six other articles on this matter. On reading was a speaker at the Foundation Mérieux meeting and heard Sandman’s blunt take.

Some general points about risk are worth noting. The opposite of benefit is not risk, but harm. And while risk and harm can be quantified, harm has stronger overtones of $$$ in the modern world. On Sandman’s web site we read that risk = hazard + outrage which nobody else has mentioned. In the GOF controversy the little discussion has been around calculating hazard. On reading had already morphed from risk to catastrophic risk when all the while it should have been hazard of catastrophic harm. Point taken.

At the end of his talk Sandman came out in favor of pursuing GOF research on H5N1 flu viruses. On this we disagree. However, this difference made his comments even more valuable. It shows how virologists and the science establishment avoided tackling the problem almost at every turn. The lines below provide an aperçu that hopefully will encourage the reader to tackle the sandpaper itself.

Sandman makes five specific points and backs them up with example and discussion. The first is that scientists haven’t the faintest idea about what the public thinks. Compared to other issues this has been a very small kerfuffle indeed.

The second point addresses interesting versus important aspects in the controversy. In the event of such a controversy broadening into a furor over scientific research more generally … the main focus would not be the importance of scientific freedom and the threat of censorship. It would be the threat of out-of-control scientists arrogantly ignoring the dangers posed by their research.

He then outlines a number of scenarios by which H5N1 flu research might ignite a pandemic. Rather than enumerate them here a few noteworthy remarks are highlighted, notably everything I know about risk perception and risk communication tells me that the risk is greater than the experts believe it to be, and that the experts believe it to be greater than they are willing to admit publicly.

This is reminiscent of a study commissioned by Nature. The upshot was that researchers overestimated the benefits of their work and systematically underestimated the risks. In short, well-meaning but not too objective.

One of the scenarios is A laboratory accident at a facility not bound by safety procedures – perhaps in the garage of a hobbyist inspired and instructed by the published research of more legitimate scientists. The use of published research by others is not something scientists bother about although it is integrated into the notion of Dual Use Research of Concern. This is in line with a longstanding scientific perspective that says scientists are not responsible for evil uses to which others put their research. As we’ve discussed this (Do no Harm 1) lets’ move on, although it’s good Sandman brought it up.

The third point was The scientific community never really sought public engagement on the H5N1 research controversy. Its preferred option would have been to ignore the public, but it was forced to retreat to its second choice: to “educate” the public. Listening to the public wasn’t really on the agenda. This is mitigated somewhat by Their disinclination to engage with civil society does not distinguish scientists. They share that disinclination with corporations, governments, and virtually everybody else.

And he’s not finished; trying to “educate” one’s opponents out of their opposition never succeeds. Ouch. There is a lot to assimilate, especially as Sandman piles on the examples. Some more hard-hitting one-liners are, So the burden of proof is on those who wish to assert that this is a sensible thing to do followed by Arrogant and self-serving rants about “censorship” won’t help. It is easy to pick out a few lines and perhaps take them out of context, which is why On reading’s job here is to entice the reader to click on the original.

The fourth was, H5N1 scientists did themselves no favors by addressing public and stakeholder concerns with one-sided advocacy. Again, the sander is at work – In their effort to win over publics and stakeholders, scientists far too often did violence to the truth … and to the science. They did violence to science around which their careers were made. Thanks for being blunt.

The next few paragraphs are so full of important remarks On reading passes. Click! The section ends with Paradoxically, the contempt for public concerns too often demonstrated by supporters of unfettered H5N1 research might actually provoke stricter regulation of that research, and of science more generally. Those concerned by new regulations (Going Places) perhaps should have turned to Sandman for some communications advice before having put pen to paper.

The fifth and last point is equally coarse grained: The evolution of Ron Fouchier’s public descriptions of his own research provides a particularly stunning example of scientists’ disinclination to be candid with the public. The fact that scientists who were privately irate at Dr. Fouchier closed ranks to hide his miscommunications is even more stunning … and far more dangerous.

For once we have blunt talk from an outsider who knows about risk and communication and has taken the time to read up about the work that precipitated the GOF controversy. He’s done us a service; bravo. He reminds us of the simple point that the burden of proof lies with the proposer. Otherwise, it’s not good science. Indeed, it’s always been this way.