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A few years ago, I heard an interesting thing from another mother when I picked my oldest daughter up from daycare. The other mother was suffering from a head cold and confessed to me her fear that she had become “antibiotic resistant.”

I found this statement pretty funny at the time, especially since I was teaching microbiology to college students.

Over the years, though, the joke quit being funny. Now I suspect that the worry voiced by the “antibiotic resistant” mother is shared by many people. It should also be noted that my anxious friend is an educated professional and at the time, worked for our local school district, although I don’t recall exactly what she did.

Why did this other mother think that she had become resistant to antibiotics?

She was a college graduate with a master’s degree in something (I think psychology). Wouldn’t you expect that she would have taken biology at some point and learned about antibiotics?

Not anymore.

A possible problem, that I see anyway, is that some of us at ScienceBlogs write about complicated ideas in biology without providing (or linking) to the background information that new readers (or non-biologist readers) might need to understand why we think certain things are true. I think we provide useful insights and updates on in scientific issues, but really:

How do we expect people who think that they can become resistant to antibiotics to grasp the reasoning behind directives to take your antibiotics for ten days, even if you’re feeling better?

Naturally, as a science major, I used to assume that all college students had to take a few science courses. Somehow, I managed to forget the green pallor tracing my college friends’ smiles when I happily described doing an autopsy or isolating DNA (it looks just like snot!); especially the ones who were majoring in physics or architecture.

Once I started heading up a college biotechnology program, and taking an active role in advising students, I had to learn more than I had ever wanted to know about the course requirements for science and non-science majors alike. At our community college, students could get an amazing assortment of degrees starting with “A;” an A.S., A.A., or A.A.S; and only degrees with an “S” included more than one science course. I think the minimum requirement for graduation was one science course, lasting one quarter (about 12 weeks).

Worse yet, many of the students, at our college, who weren’t majoring in a science field, met the science requirement by taking astronomy! (Snobs that we were, some of us suspected these students were shocked to learn that astronomy and astrology are not the same thing.)

So, how would college prepare most students?since I find it hard to believe that most students are biology majors—understand somewhat complicated concepts like antibiotic resistance and evolution?

Stay tuned, a primer on antibiotics is headed your way.


  1. #1 writerdd
    November 27, 2006

    Oh puhlease, you need to go to college to learn about how antibiotics work? This should be taught in the third grade for pete’s sake. There’s no excuse for the level of ignorance that is prevalent in the US.

  2. #2 luna_the_cat
    November 27, 2006

    And why would antibiotic resistance be an issue for a head cold anyway? Aren’t most colds viral? Aren’t antibiotics NOT antivirals?

    Meh. It has come to amaze me, how many people wander through life with an almost medieval level of knowledge of how things actually work. Which is why selling “magnet therapy” and homeopathics is so profitable, of course.

  3. #3 Sandra Porter
    November 27, 2006

    I agree. The level of scientific understanding among the general population definitely helps explain why homeopathy, chiropractors, herbal medicine, and many forms of alternative medicine are so popular and why people accept these notions so uncritically.

  4. #4 Paul Orwin
    November 27, 2006

    A related question-
    How to make sure that MEDICAL Students and practicing physicians are properly understanding this topic? (don’t hate me, MDs) The fact is that too many doctors either don’t understand this topic well enough, or can’t explain it well enough (often the latter). Since many people get medical information from TV, the internet, or their doctor, we need to think about all 3 conduits. It can be as simple as a doctor saying “we need to switch to zithromax because your daughter is resistant to amoxicillin” rather than “we need to give your daughter zithromax because the bacteria causing the ear infection are now resistant to amoxicillin”. These things probably don’t seem important at the time, but every little bit of proper information helps.

  5. #5 rhubarb
    November 27, 2006

    I’m not a biologist; in college I took a laughably easy Bio 101 course for my required three hours of credit, and I know about antibiotic resistance because I’m interested in it (same reason I lurk in scienceblog.com territory). I found your entry listed on the main page, Dr. Porter; I read it, and was compelled to jump to the handy Google search bar in my browser to find more. I typed in “antibiotic resistance” and chose the second webpage listed, an easy-to-read history of antibiotic resistance from the CDC. I next went to wikipedia.org, because I wanted to know more about plasmids. The whole exercise took me less than ten minutes.

    It’s not that the information isn’t available. It’s that people like the woman you mentioned and someone I talked to recently, who actually majored in biology, don’t want to know. They want easy fixes. The person I know had a virus, went to her doc and was prescribed bed rest. She insisted on antibiotics. She got ‘em (I don’t know which of the two I’m angrier at) and crowed to me that she was over the sore throat, congestion and fatigue two days later. “Yeah, right,” I told her. “Otherwise it might have taken 48 hours to get rid of the bug.”

    Good luck with the primer. I’ll read it, because I’m interested, but I don’t hold out any hope that people like the woman you told us about and the one I mentioned will have any motivation to do so. How that motivation can be generated is a mystery to me — one I hope people like you will be able to solve.

  6. #6 Fred
    November 28, 2006

    Most people are not motivated to know more because they don’t have to. Most people drive a car with little comprehension how the engine or brakes work. When you cook, do you know what chemical reactions occur in an egg, pot roast, or bread? Do you have to in order to be a successful cook?

    Admittedly, being knowledgeable about factors affecting our health is not really in the same category as being able to cook a three-minute egg. But the reality is that most people survive long enough to reproduce with minimal knowledge about their bodies, medicine, or proper nutrition. A lot of them make it well into old age.

    Perhaps the real issue is that we have difficulty understanding people’s seeming complete lack of curiosity, the very thing that drives academics and people who read science blogs. Curiosity drives us. Satisfying our curiosity makes the world not just understandable for us but also a whole lot safer and manageable. Most of the world just doesn’t work that way.

    By the way, I’m an obsessive academic who also reads widely outside my discipline. I’ve also had to accept that I’m the oddball.

  7. #7 Sandra Porter
    November 28, 2006

    Paul – Sloppy language is a problem. If a doctor tells a patient that they’ve become resistant to an antibiotic, a patient would be inclined to believe it.

    Rhubarb and Fred: good points about having the motivation. The information is out there, sometimes we just need a bit of translation.

  8. #8 luna_the_cat
    November 28, 2006

    Fred: I think you’ve hit it on the head. I think there’s an interesting form of blindness, stemming most likely from our long species history of empathy. I simply cannot understand people with no curiosity about the world they live in, because I am so curious about how and why things work, and I just can’t comprehend NOT being that way; it’s so much part of my makeup that I assume it must be part of everyone’s. And very religious people can’t comprehend anyone not being religious, so they probably do see “science” and “evolutionism” etc. as being other religions. And people with very strong political convictions see those who patently don’t share them as simply being delusional, since obviously anyone sane would see things the way they do….etc.

    Maybe taking the time to explain to people how knowledge really IS power might help….if you have a decent amount of knowledge, you don’t waste your money on scams? Most people value money, even if they have no curiosity.

  9. #9 Deepak
    November 30, 2006

    I don’t even know where to start. Sometimes I wish people were ignorant, cause what we have right now is partial knowledge, combined with poor education. OK, I am biased, but I have been in a graduate physical chemistry course, where half the class dropped out when they found out that some knowledge of integral calculus was required. Isn’t that something you learn in the 9th grade. If not, it should be. Similarly, there is no excuse to get out of high school, without a sound understanding of biology (and chemistry and physics and mathematics). It’s the point people miss about education. Like luna_the_cat says .. Knowledge IS power and education is all about knowledge, or it should be.