The Bird Flu Debate: How to Avoid Ruffling Feathers While Still Having a Real Conversation

02/10/2012 07:15 pm ET | Updated Apr 11, 2012

The recent controversy over whether to research and publish data about a human transmissible H5N1 bird flu is disheartening to one who has spent a career advocating policies to promote and protect the public's health. I am disturbed that so much coverage of this dispute -- so deserving of sober consideration -- is fixated on fear mongering.

No one side has a monopoly on scare tactics. Those opposing research or publication warn us of potentially deadly accidents and of "betting so many lives on the promise" of that experiments can be conducted in "complete safety. They predict that publishing results will lead to abuse or misuse by terrorists looking to create a biological weapon. Those favoring continuation of the project warn of "censorship," a constitutional no-no particularly when involving the "suppression" of science; or they speak of "the futility of efforts to suppress human curiosity." Some claim that maintaining secrecy is impossible because criminals, spies, and publicity seekers can figure out how to steal the data, while others argue that the enterprise is a waste of limited research dollars.

These are indeed legitimate concerns, but framing the debate in terms of the worst-case scenario does not promote public enlightenment. Rather the repartee echoes the current presidential debates in which the candidates dramatically declare that dire consequences will follow from their opponents' policies. Each contender seeks to convince us that he can best protect us from such nightmare scenarios. In this climate of inflated egos, admission of uncertainty, ignorance of information as yet unknown, and humility are not allowed.

I am not suggesting that scientists, no matter how competitive their instincts, should be equated with the Republican presidential contenders. But the scientists' concentration on terrifying possibilities is drowning out discussion of the less fantastical concerns: where to funnel research dollars, the tensions between transparency and national security, the meaning of academic freedom in the post-9/11 world, and even the continued viability of the tenure system in higher education.

Scientists and the public health community are losing an opportunity to set a higher tone for public debate in which reasonable people disagree and to make the rest of us smarter and safer as a result. Admittedly, the debate in the academy and their professional learned societies involve detailed and complex evaluations of real and potential risks and benefits that do not fit into 30-second soundbites on television or pithy opinion pieces.

Nevertheless, these debaters should accept the challenge of modeling a public discourse that others -- including politicians -- might emulate. They can explain their policy ideas while admitting uncertainty. They can demonstrate that there is no shame in not knowing with certainty the impact and unforeseeable consequences of the choices before them and that there is no reason to blame those with different ideas. They can explain that we may never determine who is correct since it there is usually no concrete evidence that the roads not taken would lead to better results. There is, for example, no definitive proof that, absent the economic stimulus package, the economy would have improved by itself or that America would be better off if General Motors had been allowed to fail. It is not only that such arguments, although weak cannot be disproved, that making them obscures the more important debate over what actions to choose now to ensure future improvement.

Rather than simplifications, accusations, and headline grabbing worst-case scenarios, scientists can help the public understand that sometimes decisions must be made without complete information. Although the issues are complex, they should educate us, the public, about the value of experimentation and the considerations that go into choosing between risk and caution. They should also involve non-scientists in the debate. At a minimum this can reveal areas of exaggerated fears and misunderstanding, which experts can then dispassionately address. Those with differing opinions can agree to disagree where they cannot achieve consensus without vilifying one another.

These highly educated men and women can demonstrate to industry leaders and politicians that even smart people benefit from outside oversight. They can highlight the weaknesses of self-regulation when decision-making has serious public health and national security consequences. There is room for debate over how extensive such oversight should be, but simple soundbites and scare tactics will not illuminate the issues.

In short, scientists examining whether to pursue and publish H5N1 and other contagious disease research have an opportunity to provide a model for public policy debates at a time when public discourse is degenerating. They can demonstrate the value of vigorous disagreement and affirm that policy choices that fall short of expectations are not the consequence of stupidity, disloyalty, or dishonesty, while mistakes often provide lessons for the future.