The White Coat Wall of Silence

Related articles

An article in this month's Annals of Internal Medicine discusses what physicians should do when a colleague acts unethically towards a patient. This dynamic, however, isn't exclusive to medicine. All fields of science must deal with the problem of how to confront a colleague when he or she is wrong.

During a vaginal hysterectomy, while sterilizing and cleaning an anesthetized women's vagina and inner thighs, a surgeon looks over to a medical student and says, "I bet she's enjoying this." What's the student supposed to do? What are any of us to do when our colleagues, much less our superiors and mentors, act so inappropriately and so unprofessionally?

These are some of the questions posed in a recent article titled "Our Family Secrets" that appeared in the Annals of Internal Medicine, as part of its series entitled "On Being A Doctor." Though about the medical profession, these pieces are applicable to any field, since we all can be confronted with situations in which our colleagues act out of line.

It's easy to say we would all stand up to such obvious instances of sexual harassment, as the one described above. But what about instances when a colleague's miscarriage of science are so egregious that they put lives in danger?

Dr. Oz is a prime example of this. Before those affiliated with the American Council on Science and Health did so, how many of Dr. Oz's colleagues were calling for his termination from Columbia University? Not many. Even after we did, it took awhile for the university's leadership to respond, issuing a statement saying that it wasn't thrilled with his behavior.

In the science and health care fields, we have an added obligation to call out, and publicly criticize, our colleagues when they act unethically because these fields impact lives directly.

GMOs have the potential to save millions of lives each year through the adoption of plants like the golden rice, and the super banana crops. The science is settled on these issues yet so often off-based critics speak out unchecked. The economist Charles Benbrook, until recently at Washington State University, was clearly being funded by organic corporations in order to undermine science, yet many scientists on staff there were silent about his behavior. A similar situation is occurring with staff scientists at New York University, which employs the very vocal, anti-science crackpot Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Science can be, and often needs to be, a debate, particularly in data poor areas. We still debate the causes of many diseases and the solutions for many of the world's problems, but good scientists do so by backing their arguments with data. The bad ones back their arguments with retracted papers and the like. It is with these individuals that we need to be unafraid, when the situation warrants it, to speak up and call them an a**hole.