Bird Flu Controversy An Opportunity To Set A Higher Tone For Public Debate

In this Huffington Post opinion piece, Leslie Gerwin, associate director of law and public affairs at Princeton University, reflects on the recent controversy over whether to research and publish data about potentially dangerous strains of the H5N1 bird flu virus, writing, “I am disturbed that so much coverage of this dispute — so deserving of sober consideration — is fixated on fear mongering.” She notes, “Those opposing research or publication … predict that publishing results will lead to abuse or misuse by terrorists looking to create a biological weapon. … Those favoring continuation of the project warn of ‘censorship,’ a constitutional no-no particularly when involving the ‘suppression’ of science.”

“These are indeed legitimate concerns, but framing the debate in terms of the worst-case scenario does not promote public enlightenment. … Scientists and the public health community are losing an opportunity to set a higher tone for public debate in which reasonable people disagree and to make the rest of us smarter and safer as a result,” she continues. She concludes, “Rather than simplifications, accusations, and headline grabbing worst-case scenarios, scientists can help the public understand that sometimes decisions must be made without complete information. … In short, scientists examining whether to pursue and publish H5N1 and other contagious disease research have an opportunity to provide a model for public policy debates at a time when public discourse is degenerating” (2/10).

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