Everyone has an opinion and everyone’s entitled to it. Prince Charles is yet again in the press for sticking his nose in where it’s not wanted. He stands accused of using his healthcare charity to wage a war on Edzard Ernst, professor of complementary medicine at Exeter University, who is an extremely public critic of the Prince’s views on complementary medicine.
What he is accused of is against the law and I’m not here to discuss that. Reading the article yesterday whilst on the train did however make me wonder who has the right to comment on science and in what capacity? We are all able to express our opinions and are invited to do so on blogs across the net and in papers’ letter sections. Discussion is good and to be encouraged amongst scientists and the public.
I think it’s good when a member of the public expresses their opinion on something to do with science, I’m encouraged by the public taking an active interest in the debate, my problem however is it’s often not really their opinion. It’ll really belong to a columnist in the Daily Mail, or Jeremy Clarkson (does he have a column in the Daily Mail?) or some other celebrity who is certainly no expert. Every year the charity Sense About Science publish a leaflet responding to misinformed celebrities who make it their mission to tell the public that kids shouldn’t really drink milk or that Foie Gras causes Alzheimer’s. The public believe what they read and, as I’ve discussed before, don’t always have the ability or even inclination to assess its reliability, so very quickly a comment made on GMTV becomes The Truth that evil scientists don’t want you to know!
So should some people keep their mouths shut? I’m sure Prince Charles knows a lot about alternative medicine, what he lacks are the tools to critically assess what he knows for validity and reliability. That’s what scientists have trained for many years to be able to do and that’s why we need scientists and why the government relies on their expertise. What Charles and other “celebrities “ need to realise is that they wield enormous influence, ridiculously more influence than someone who’s studied a subject for 40 years, at least in the public’s eyes. Some people make their comments out of ignorance of their power and the subject, Prince Charles however knows what he’s doing when he speaks at a conference and pushes his views. He knows what he’s doing when he donates “his” money to charities that lobby for alternative medicine.
An editor of a very well known and respected scientific journal once told me that it was our (scientists) job to get the facts right and a journalist’s job to entertain. That view disgusts me because it is basically renouncing everyone except the scientist from a social responsibility for fairness and accuracy. Personally, I think very carefully about what I write and strive to make sure what I say is true to the best of my knowledge, if I don’t consider myself knowledgeable enough to comment on something then I won’t. If you have power of any sort then you should use it responsibly, that means ensuring that what you say is accurate and based on fact. Of course you might suffer as a result.