In the comments to the XDR-TB update post, Scott suggested that bloggers were putting too much emphasis on whether the TB patient was stupid/arrogant/self-centered/whatever, and later that “waxing indignant is pointless.” I started this as a response to those comments, but thought instead it might be an interesting conversation–is it pointless? Certainly indignation about this guy’s behavior won’t change what’s happened. Indignation about creationists’ abuse of science won’t make them stop. Does it have a point? My thoughts on it below the fold.
So, my thoughts. I think there certainly is a place in science for “just the facts, ma’am,” without any personal spin and minimal interpretation or emotion thrown in. The ordinary scientific literature is largely a place for this–rather dry, few personal anecdotes, certainly not a lot of accusations of stupidity (or if they are, they’re couched in really, really polite language). I don’t think a blog is the place for this, and especially with stories like this, I don’t feel that they need to be devoid of indignation.
Thing is, my writings on the TB case aren’t just about the science. Because it’s a public health matter, it’s also about the policy–how we deal with the potential spread of this pathogen, what we do when someone like this guy doesn’t care about the well-being of others and puts his own trivialities before the health of others. How do we deal with that, as scientists, as public health workers, as government officials and law enforcement agencies, as private citizens? How do we go about making a plan? This should be rooted in science–looking at history to determine the best ways to enforce quarantines, looking at epidemiology and clinical microbiology to determine how long to isolate a patient, how to determine if they’re infected and infectious; relying on biochemistry and pharmacy to provide us with chemicals to kill, treat, or prevent these illnesses in the first place. But they necessarily involve a human element as well, that can’t be measured simply and that isn’t inherently scientific.
For people to want to take action, for people to care about things like this, I think some indignation is necessary. A patient with TB is an abstraction. something most of them have probably not thought about prior to this story. But people have loved ones, and people want to keep those loved ones safe. I think about this joker on a plane, and picture him sitting next to my kids, breathing near them, potentially spreading a highly deadly bacterium around with no regard for who he may be harming. I think of him unknowingly being near my friend’s dad, still immunocompromised after chemotherapy and susceptible to all manners of infectious disease. And yes, I get indignant.
I’m not saying we should try to coerce people on matters like these, or to purposefully play to sympathy, or outrage, or other emotions. But this is a medium where we can express opinions along with the science, to show how it’s relevant to one’s everyday life, to show what its impact either is or could be. Science isn’t done in a vacuum, and good science can–and should–underlie good policy, and a bit of indignation every now and then just may have the effect of getting someone out of their chair and up to take action.