The backlash this month surrounding the Oregon Health and Science University researcher studying homosexuality in sheep has not only been global in scope, but also particularly fierce. It has also highlighted the dangers the scientific community is facing in the modern era.
Dr. Charles Roselli set out to study what makes some sheep gay, but found himself under attack from the moment the media and blogosphere discovered the study's subject matter. There were attacks from both gay advocates and animal rights groups. The rage reached its climax when The Sunday Times (of London) falsely asserted that Roselli was working to cure homosexuality and that his work could help scientists discover a way to breed out homosexuality in humans. The New York Times, reporting on the storm of bad publicity, quoted an outraged Martina Navratilova, the openly gay tennis star who is also a PETA supporter, as having replied to a reporter's question by asking, "How in the world could straight or gay sheep help humanity?"
The PR team at the institution where Roselli conducts his research has done its best to quell the storm. Not only has it consistently pointed out the inaccuracies in The Sunday Times piece, it has gone further by enlisting bloggers, persuading some to change their tune by seeking them out and presenting them with the facts. But much of the damage has already been done.
Science often relies on uncertainty for success. The principal of vaccines, the invention of the X-ray, and the discovery of penicillin and insulin, among other finds, were all unintended results of scientific studies. But the public doesn't handle uncertainty well. Regardless of what purpose a science inquiry may serve, if the Navratilovas of the world have a question, someone representing the science community must provide an answer.