CNN, Science, and Grandma

August 31, 2011 § 1 Comment

Thursday night dinners have become an almost sacred ritual in my family. Every Thursday my twin brother and I make the pilgrimage to our grandparents’ house (a mere 8 ½ minutes away) and enjoy gluttonous amounts of food showered on us by our mother’s parents. While the stereotypical trip to Grandma’s house involves tales of sore feet and the smell of stale cat food, I count my grandparents among my closest friends and these nights among my favorite childhood memories. Whether the lesson was intended or not, I never failed to learn something.

On this particular night our normally full table had dwindled to just two (my grandfather had recently passed away and my brother had left for college). As the now bare t-bones were cleared away and the strawberry shortcake was set on the table, my grandma asked me what I was most excited for this year at college. After a short answer about all the organizations I was involved in and the friends I was particularly enthusiastic to see, I came to a brief description of the research I would be doing in a biology lab. My grandma’s ears unexpectedly perked up at this. While x-ray diffraction and electron microscopy are invaluable scientific tools, I hardly thought they made for lively dinner discussion. Nevertheless, she continued to press me for information.

As it turns out, the research I was doing involved a special type of misfolded protein, called an amyloid, which has been associated with Alzheimer’s disease. I won’t bore you with the details of the conversation that ensued (involving many references to little known family members and statements like “You know, the aunt from back east with the really big hair”), but it amounted to this: My grandma, having just dealt with the loss of her husband, was worried about her memory failing and the fact that several of her family members had had Alzheimer’s. That was ok though, because I was working on it, and she was sure I would figure out how to cure it.

Being a student of science, I recognize that this scenario represents several of the fundamental communication problems between the scientific community and the general public. The first is simply wrong information. Contrary to Grandma’s ideas, the vast majority of Alzheimer’s cases show no genetic correlation. While this provides comfort to my grandma as I leave her quiet suburban home, it leaves the much bigger issue of her general misconception about how science is performed. My research focuses on a tiny part of amyloid morphology and, while important, is not going to directly lead to a cure for Alzheimer’s. Even further, my grandma’s views, like many others, suggest that curing diseases is a simple matter. To her biology might as well be Yiddish, and fully formed cures simply spout from the minds of people who can understand the dialect.

This gap in communication is at the heart of the disjunction between science and the public. Ideas like cold fusion and unlimited energy continue to gain traction because the public lacks the prior knowledge to tell between fact and fantasy. The media compounds this by only covering monumental successes and catastrophic failures. This CNN science is all that my grandma sees of research, and she assumes that is all there is to it.

The difficulties this causes aside, I don’t think her overly optimistic attitude is all bad. It is the everlasting hope of people like this that continues to drive and fund research. Who knows how many breakthroughs would have been mere fantasy if not for the constant encouragement of Grandma?

– Joey S.

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