Breaking Down Science, Step by Step

Italian scientists are coming under attack yet again, this time, being blamed for an infection which is endangering their olive crops.

Italy’s olive trees have been under siege by the bacteria Xylella fastidiosa, which Italian scientists pinpointed to a strain from Costa Rica, which was brought in along ornamental plants. Rather than focusing on how to deal with this invasive infection, scientist and officials have spent energy dealing with all sorts of accusations. The scientists themselves infected the trees deliberately. Or, the scientists suck at their job, and weren’t able to prevent the infection from occurring (hey, that kind of accusation sounds familiar). Or the scientist have it all wrong, and it’s actually another type of infection (despite evidence to the contrary). Or the scientists are part of Big Solar, and carrying out some sort of nefarious campaign to benefit them through...killing olive trees?


And of course, these complaints weren’t ignored, and instead were acted upon by public prosecutors. From the article:

On 4 May, police confiscated computers and documents from the University of Bari and the IPSP, as well as documents from the Centre for Agricultural Research Basile Caramia in Locorotondo, Puglia. Two weeks later, police also seized documents from the Italian ministry of agriculture in Rome. The IAMB has voluntarily passed documents to police.

I’m struck at the contradictory nature of these accusations. They simultaneously place a lot of belief in the power of scientists (why couldn’t you predict and prevent everything bad that could happen?!) and belittle it (scientists are incompetent and/or lying). Plus I’m kind of mind-boggled how this has even gotten to this point. Lack of primary school science education? Corrupt system that just looks for scapegoats? Failure of open science communication between academia and the public?

And while these cases from Italy represent an extreme with the criminal prosecution system getting involved, I don’t think we’re all that far off in the United States. There are all sorts of anti-science groups that believe They Known Best, and our own government officials pandering to this mentality through aggressive prosecution of research (sup Lamar Smith). Plus, recent high-profile retraction cases aren’t helping to improve the public view of scientists. =/. Both sides need to get their shit together, and do something about the breakdown in communication and trust.

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