An Open Letter to Humans of New York from a Person Who Wears a Lab Coat

Because open letters seem like the preferred form of expressing Internet concern these days, here’s one of my own.

Dear Humans of New York (or HONY, as we nearly all end up calling you),

I really love your project. I think it’s cool. I follow you on Facebook and nearly every update that ends up in my news feed makes me smile. This week I was super excited to see the photo and quote below during lunch one day.

“I’m not sure what I want to do, exactly. But I know that I want to wear a lab coat. Everyone I’ve met who wears a lab coat is helping people.”

Especially because after lunch, I was planning on preparing samples to do an experiment. Which also meant I was planning on putting on a lab coat.

So I was a bit disappointed to see that on a page typically so affirming of everyday people, the comments seemed markedly more negative than usual. The top comment was your own remark “unless they’re cooking meth.” I don’t watch Breaking Bad, so maybe that’s just not my cup of tea.  What worried me more, though, was that so many of the middle comments seemed to say “Yeah, except [insert name of some unpopular science-focused company here]”. Monsanto and Pfizer seemed to be the two most popular ones.

I’m not going to defend Monsanto’s and Pfizer’s political and legal maneuvers. But the people doing those aren’t typically the ones in the lab coats. And I’m not going to say all their products are wonderful, or even neutral but used to nefarious ends (though it’s worth pointing out some nasty chemicals Monsanto has made were ordered by the government for purposes of war, so maybe people should focus more on a government and society that condones such action instead of blaming the company in a vacuum). But a lot of their products have done good for people. Monsanto was one of the first mass producers of aspirin in the US. They were one of the first companies to sell LEDs.

Blaming companies for manufacturing chemicals before scientists realized they were dangerous (sometimes with a gap of decades) seems to be blaming people for not having incredible foresight. (If you bought a cell phone before the mid-2000s, consider the trade off you made in getting a cell phone before a scientific consensus on cell phones’ effect on human health was formed). It also ignores competing interests. PCBs, another chemical Monsanto produced, are now recognized as incredibly hazardous chemicals. But they were also crucial in electrifying communities, because they were one of the best early  insulators to prevent utility poles from catching fire from power lines. While they are definitely harmful, they were made because some people in a lab coat thought they may help society.

Similarly, lots of people seem to call out Pfizer for drug prices (again, not really controlled by the scientists) or for making Viagra. It’s worth pointing out that Viagra was initially looked at as a treatment for high blood pressure and chest pain (angina), and treating those seems like something that would be really helpful. During clinical trials, one of the researchers discovered its more well-known properties and realized it wasn’t as effective at treating angina. But eventually Viagra did get approved for use as a treatment for pulmonary hypertension because the same mechanism also helps relax the ventricle and relieve stress on the heart. One of the reasons Viagra is marketed so much is because it turns a good profit to help fund Pfizer’s research into new drugs. Other comments seemed to view all bioengineering with suspicion. I wonder how many of those skeptics shared that Upworthy video about “injecting a dying girl with HIV” to cure cancer (ignoring how much that oversimplifies the issue) and thought it was so inspiring. Even though the modified virus is also an act of genetic engineering. People should also realize the girl’s in a small early trial, which means all the potential dangers aren’t known.

It’s also interesting how there seems to be uniquely negative focus on this young man’s career aspirations for looking at medicine or a technical field. You don’t see a remark under your other posts about aspiring artists saying we hope they don’t end up ordering ethnic cleansing, forced sterilizations, and euthanasia as part of a eugenics program if they don’t succeed. Or a comment under a post about a performer saying “I hope this person doesn’t join a religion that routinely locks practitioners in confined spaces for months at a time as a form of torture.” And while posts about old couples typically get charming sentiments, this thread is filled with lots of Viagra jokes with the punchline that old people having sex is awkward and shouldn’t happen (or based on jokes about vaginas being tired, men who take Viagra seem to either become rapists and/or sexually incompetent). I honestly don’t know if you moderate your Facebook page or not, but the very different tone of comments on this post seems striking.

HONY, your work typically challenges our preconceived notions of people and that is part of the reason it’s so rewarding to see. That’s why I’m disappointed that in something about my own field, this doesn’t seem to be happening. I don’t place that blame all on you. It just makes me a bit sad.

Sincerely yours,

A trivial scientist

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3 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Humans of New York from a Person Who Wears a Lab Coat

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