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Friday, October 17, 2014

Anti-Science, Anti-Math

isn’t new. Nor will it ever go away. Like war and slavery and frankly everything else that has ever begun it will never end. It is manifest today in so-called creationism, anti-GMO hysteria, fear of vaccines, the denial of global warming. It would be easy to say it comes from fear. No doubt fear is an element—though whether it’s an element in everyone who resists scientific conclusions on scientific issues would be hard to say. Simplistic anti-anti-science thinking does a disservice to everyone. It’s ungenerous, unchristian. More than fear I think ideological blindness drives this perspective. Once one’s view of the world has settled into a clear, definite, circumscribed pattern, one holds on to it tightly. The ossification of ideology is a huge problem, fundamentally human. No one is so open minded she is free from it. I note how quickly I turn the channel with I hear the other side promote their (absurd!) views. The ossification of ideology is the most likely cause of the end of humanity at this point. Not a sexy enough view for a James Bond movie, but so nonetheless.
                The anti-science perspective is always dangerous, but dangerous in different ways depending on the particular bit of science one is against. If you’re anti-GMO you can still eat healthy food. Your personal preference harms no one. If you prevent research into the genetic modification of food, however, you may—with all good intentions—contribute to the unnecessary deaths of millions. From a moral point of view, that is tragic. Anti-evolutionary forces do real harm to the mind, teach false facts and bad thinking to vulnerable people. To hold this view personally won’t kill you. To spread it—to compel teaching about creationism in a high school science class—sets back trust in science in general. There’s the danger. It will lead to or at least provide fertile ground for all the rest of it. If you don’t believe in global warming, even your own excess carbon usage itself won’t matter in light of the whole. But the combined output of all these deniers may have measurable effect. The blockage of real action that could to lead to real solutions—there again is the danger. We see a pattern. As long as my personal belief remains my own and no more, no harm, no foul. As soon as it enters the arena of discourse and becomes taken seriously, even if it only delays good action, it leads to the actual pain and suffering and death of actual people. Sincerity is no defense. Then there is fear of vaccines. I find this particularly troubling though for the world the long term effects of this fear is statistically negligible. It leads to unnecessary suffering and the death of children but on the whole not that many children. Why I find it particularly troubling is that it comes from a process of thinking that is so irrational, so illogical that it goes beyond mere anti-science and into an area of what seems to be pure emotion.
                We can all agree that science can sometimes make mistakes. We can all agree that it is fundamental to the scientific method that further evidence may lead to a rethinking of even the most fundamental beliefs, even the most solidly worked-out conclusions. There is no scientific evidence that vaccines cause any of the problems that those who fear them fear they do. There is hearsay, anecdote, chance correlation, but no hard evidence. And yet, as with all anti-science claims, it’s not certain they are wrong. Vaccines may cause all those things—from ADD to autism—despite the lack of any hard evidence to the contrary. Do they? That’s the right question for a scientist to ask. And scientists have asked it over and over. But it’s the wrong question for a parent to ask. A parent’s question can only be this: Is my child safer if he is vaccinated or if he is not? And that can be answered now. Even if we grant credence to the whole range of want the anti-vaccine crown fear, we can say, categorically, that it is still better to have your children vaccinated than to risk the diseases that the vaccines guard against. One can easily look at the numbers: hundreds of millions of children are protected by vaccines. The percentages of those who come down the conditions that some fear might be reasonably associated with the shots is very small. But the number who come down with the diseases is not. And the danger of those diseases includes paralysis and death. One can certainly sympathize with the parent (however misguided) who is afraid to give her child something that, in her mind, might (however minute the chance) lead to autism. But that risk—even if it were real—would be nothing compared to the very real risk that not vaccinating the child will lead to some combination of mumps, measles, rubella, chicken pox, small pox, or polio.
                There is a vaccination of each of these diseases. There is no vaccination however for fear, or the failure of logic. Very intelligent, well educated, thoughtful people sometimes fall into ideologies that lead them to the dangerous, potentially disastrous resistance to the morally neutral conclusions of good science. This condition will never go away. So we’ll continue to resist it in a struggle that tests our compassion. We continue to struggle and we try to retain our souls, as we pray for the best.

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