Caution call on 'maverick' claims

Scientists should think twice before courting publicity for their "minority views", says an ethics expert.

BBC NEWS, Feb. 10, 2004.

Professor Udo Schuklenk, writing in the Journal of Medical Ethics, warns patients may be led to refuse treatment most experts think safe.

For example, some parents rejected the MMR jab after suggestions it causes autism - even though most scientists believe the vaccine is safe.

But other experts said science only develops if assumptions are challenged.

'Social harm'

Professor Schuklenk, of the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, highlighted the work of scientists who questioned the link between HIV and Aids.

Scientists can't be responsible for the behaviour of members of the public Dr Richard Nicholson, Bulletin of Medical Ethics When other researchers rejected their views, the group went to the media instead.

The South African government was convinced by the group's argument and the country is now believed to have the highest number of people with AIDS in the world, with around one in seven people between the ages of 15 and 49 infected.

Professor Schuklenk said scientists must inform the public if their views are not widely supported.

He said: "Scientists should be aware of the social harm that can result from the premature proclamation of claims that are weakly founded.

"[They] must be particularly careful when their science deals with questions of human import. They have entered the political arena."

He said there were cases where a minority view had turned out to be correct, but that this was rare.

In order to prevent confusion, Professor Schuklenk says ethical guidelines should be drawn up governing how scientists present their work to the public.

He said if these guidelines were then ignored it would alert the media and politicians that they should be wary of the views expressed.

'Valid questions'

But Dr Richard Nicholson, editor of the Bulletin of Medical Ethics, told BBC News Online: "Science only goes forward by challenging public concerns and assumptions."

He said the questions that were raised over HIV's link to Aids were valid at the time.

"The links between HIV and Aids did not meet the standards for proving that a particular organism is the cause of a particular infectious disease."

Dr Nicholson said researchers could not be blamed if people stopped taking medication or refused vaccinations.

"Scientists can't be responsible for the behaviour of members of the public."

Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2004/02/10 00:17:51 GMT