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Elena Cattaneo: scientific knowledge is the seed of progress

Elena Cattaneo: scientific knowledge is the seed of progress

An internationally renowned scientist and life senator, Elena Cattaneo has always been faithful to her commitment to defending scientific knowledge against anti-scientific prejudices and feelings which have been increasingly permeating our society. In this exclusive interview to ResearchItaly, she shared her thoughts about some scientific topics which have great impact on the public opinion, including vaccines and the Stamina case.

Senator Cattaneo, scientific progress seems to be associated with an increasing "anti-science" feeling involving part of our society. In your opinion, what is the reason for this scepticism about science?

There are multiple reasons underlying this phenomenon. What strikes me most – apart from such phenomena as cultural impoverishment, discouraging percentages of relapse into illiteracy, etc. – is that (almost historically) the Italian ruling class tends not only not to enhance the intellectual elites, but even to surrender to the populist fashion of mocking them. We can better understand that this is particularly true about the scientific culture if we remember that at least since the times of Croce and Gentile the cultural impact of science, from the point of view of knowledge as well as of ethics, has been systematically diminished; even if our country has given birth to Galileo Galilei, the father of the scientific method, the public debate often overturns this method, by choosing to consider facts only if they are instrumental in confirming preconceived positions.  

However, great part of the society still trusts scientific knowledge…

If we take a closer look, the society is also very hungry for science, eager to understand the way it works, its achievements. It is reassuring to see that public opportunities for science dissemination have multiplied with dedicated festivals, always hosting a great number of participants. But the yeast is lacking, the daily and "structural" use of scientific knowledge. I wouldn’t want participation to be only a "plastic representation" of an increasing polarization of an active and interested minority against a "technically" ignorant majority. 

The Stamina case is considered as one of the greatest failures of scientific knowledge. How do you think such a short circuit of misinformation can have occurred?

As you probably know, I have been co-rapporteur of an investigation at the Senate, completed in 2015, which produced a huge final report of 160 pages. This document summarizes over seven months of depositions and document analysis concerning one of the most obscure health care cases of the last few decades. The presumed effectiveness of the questionable Stamina method has ended up with arising the interest of and involving the entire state apparatus, from the executive to the legislative and judicial powers (civil, administrative, and penal), involving the national and international scientific community, with a particularly strong effect on the sensitivity and emotions of the citizens-audience and, above all, generating huge thaumaturgic expectations in thousands of patients and their families. Courts, media, the Government, the Parliament (which then corrected themselves, too late, acknowledging their mistake) all supported a "magical rite".

What has emerged from your final report on the Stamina case?

In that report, in the final conclusions, we unanimously stated that “health institutions must pay great attention to the need to always meet in a scientifically honest, medically objective and socially useful way the care expectations of patients and their families”. Even if with the current governance of health care institutions and the changes that have been made to the law such cases should never happen again, we cannot let our guard down, since it is very easy for emotionality – especially if conveyed and fuelled by irresponsibly sensationalist and misleading media – to get the better of the scientific method, preventing us from giving due consideration to the facts that science makes available to us.

The new vaccine decree has made vaccination mandatory for all children for enrolment in nursery schools and kindergartens. What is your opinion about this decree?

I think that the debate that has taken place over the last few months and has accompanied the approval of this law has been beneficial to convince those who, being little informed, did not vaccinate their children because it was easier rather than out of conviction, and are now made aware of the issue and "forced" to take a "position". I think that the arguments in favour of this extraordinary conquest of medicine, which will save another 25 million people in the next 10 years, convinced people, well before vaccinations were made mandatory for children to be accepted into schools. However, in my opinion it is still too early to evaluate the effects: this law has come into effect only recently and not enough data is available to make a definitive judgement about this regulatory intervention, even if the first few sample surveys are encouraging about the percentage increase in vaccinations.

Do you consider the approval of this law as an important end point for public health?

I still believe, as I also said at the Senate during the debate on this issue, that this is one of the most important public health laws of this legislature and that it will improve the health prospects for Italian citizens, even if it would be a mistake to consider it as an end point. It is, rather, a starting point for regaining people’s trust on this topic, learning to inform them in a clear and correct manner so that they can make informed choices in an area concerning everybody’s health and well-being. The ways in which people are informed have an impact on how the evidence presented is accepted. Our evolutionary history has rooted strong prejudices in our brains which can lead to misinterpretations of evidence and risks, as well as a misunderstanding of the difference between correlation and causality. Not vaccinating children fearing to expose them to an imaginary risk exposes not only them, but also weak subjects who cannot be vaccinated, to an actual risk of contracting the disease.     

In your book "Ogni Giorno. Tra scienza e politica" [Every Day. Between Science and Politics] you explain that some politicians and scientists are not exempt from responsibility for this anti-scientific feeling. What are their faults? And what is the path to follow for a correct dissemination of the scientific culture?

As I explained above, politics has two sets of problems: on the one hand, there is a tendency  to take facts and data into consideration not before an opinion is formed, but only after, in an instrumental manner, to support one’s own preconceived beliefs; on the other hand, the impression is that facing complex issues on which it would be important to legislate in an informed manner, starting from the data available on the phenomena to be regulated, one prefers to follow the instinctive fears of many citizens faced with unfamiliar innovations (which would actually benefit them a lot), ending up with introducing generalized bans on innovative scientific approaches, rather than regulating complexity. It is certainly true – and demonstrated by science – that facts and data, however verified and reliable, cannot by themselves convince someone to change their mind and leaving their "cognitive biases" behind, but this is why scientists should also be in the forefront of finding communication ways that take these biases into consideration and help minimize their effects. Moreover, if we scientists remain silent, whether for "a quiet life" or, worse, not to compromise any personal interests and expectations, or – finally – because we live the public debate as an activity unrelated to our work, we cannot be surprised if people of science, faced with obvious distortions of the scientific method or with non-transparent procedures, – when "forced" to move – do so with little credibility and effectiveness.

Publication date 12/22/2017
Tag Life Sciences