The Tragic Consequences of Anti – Science

I’ve long worried about what I see as a sort of anti-science backlash worldwide. I covered this, in relation to climate change here and here. This week in Wales we saw the tragic consequences of this mistrust of science with an outbreak of measles and possibly the first death of that outbreak.

As always, our tale of anti-science follows a predictable formula. Step one is some dubious and disputed science (like climate change denial) and a complete misunderstanding of the public as to its implications. A few years back science papers were published that suggested that the MMR vaccine could be linked to various side effects, notably Autism. From the start, this was a controversial stance (note that it’s not the job of science journals to “censor” scientific papers, merely act as adjudicator and facilitators in a scientific debate). Further research cast doubt on these results (as well as a number of undeclared conflicts of interest on the part of the original researchers), eventually leading to the withdrawal of the previous research.

Unfortunately, some parents reacted by either delaying getting their children vaccinated, or didn’t get them vaccinated at all. Some even allowed their kids to deliberately become infected with the disease. This may well have come about as they felt that Measles, Mumps and Rubella are benign diseases. Not so! While the majority of people who contract these illnesses suffer only mild symptoms, a certain number of people (about 3 in a 1,000) will suffer “serious complications” (sufficient to require hospitalisation) with the potential for brain damage, permanent disability and even death a possibility. Every year in the developing world, countries where a free MMR jab is not available (we don’t know how lucky we are), tens of thousands of children die each year due to these illnesses (all told 158,000 people die each year worldwide from Measles alone!).

Now that a vaccine can have side effects is not unheard of. This is why we don’t vaccinate against Smallpox anymore. The risk of catching it is so small (given that it only exists in a few labs these days), it’s not worth the risk involved in taking the vaccine. However for a “live” virus like the MMR trio, the tiny risk posed by the vaccine (millions to one against) has to be balanced against the much larger risk of the virus (measles has an infection rate of about 40-50% and as noted about 3 in 1,000 suffer complications). You’re literally a thousand times safer getting your kid vaccinated than taking your chances with the disease.

And like climate denial and creationism, the key promoters of the anti-MMR stance are the usual suspects. That being a mixture of pseudo-science homeopathic quackery (see Dara O’Brian’s take on homeopathy here) and paranoid right wing (nuts).

Now as I’ve said before, a healthy skepticism of authority is good in any democracy, but some on the right take this to a whole new level. They automatically assume that the government is constantly conspiring against them and that everything the government does is part of some megalomaniac “agenda” (granted the way the Tories are acting these days I know how they feel, but they take this a bit too far). Naturally the thought of letting some “government” sponsored doctor put a needle in their child fills them with dread (who know’s the drug might make him smarter and he’ll become a liberal, gasp! 😉 ).

Of course the reality is that yes, the government does have “an agenda”. That of cutting down on infant mortality! They also recognize that vaccinating against a disease is vastly cheaper than having the NHS pick up the pieces after a pandemic starts. A cost I might add, that we as tax payers are paying for. And of course there’s the cost to the economy of all those sickies people will be taking over the next few months.

If there’s one thing to take away from this crisis, it’s the need to recognize that there is little point in us spending millions of pounds for scientists and doctors to give us their expert opinion if we’re not going to take it seriously. It was listening to the naysayers of the anti-science movement that put Europe into a six centuries long dark age after the fall of Rome.

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3 thoughts on “The Tragic Consequences of Anti – Science

  1. Science does itself no favours by spending vast sums of money on what is pointless research. A few examples: The Hadron Collider and now an even larger one is postulated.
    Missions to Mars while many are struggling to exist on earth. Pointless investigations into bizzare diets when some have insufficient basic food.

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    • While acknowledging there is some wastage of money, I tend to take the “bigger picture” attitude to science.

      While going to the moon might have seemed a wasteful exuberance, many new technologies were spun out of the R&D from solar panels & Fuel cells, electronics, plastics, etc.

      So we might well scoff at the waste of the LHC, but we might be singing a different tune a decade or two from now when a host of new techs in fields such as nano tech and quantum computing emerge.

      Finally, I would question whether fad diets counts as “science”.

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  2. Many scientists work in the diet field it is where the money is and with the help of the media it passes as science.
    The outcome of science largely benefits the rich the poor are often left high and dry. People are going blind through vitamin A deficiency while others are having heart transplants.
    My final gripe science has made us greedy consumers of energy and resulted in global warming. One old horse power is 750 watts a mere nothing for the rich world consumer.
    Lets hope we are here to sing a different tune and not knee deep in water.

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