December 03, 2014

Getting a shot

Vaccines have become a hot-button issue for some parents. Credit: NIAID / Flickr Creative Commons

If you’re trying to make a decision, it’s easy to pick the side that pulls on your heartstrings.
 
But what about when extensive scientific research is on the other side? Turns out, when faced with an overwhelming issue like global warming or AIDS, a lot of people will ignore hard facts in favor of an easy fix or emotional appeal, even if it has been proven scientifically incorrect.
 
This type of “denial writ large” is hindering scientific progress, says Michael Specter, a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives. “It’s not just a defense mechanism,” he says. “It makes for a lot of harm in society.”
 
Back in 1998, a researcher named Andrew Wakefield conducted a small study linking autism diagnoses to vaccination. Even though the study has been completely discredited by the scientific community, it spawned an anti-vaccine movement so strong that certain diseases that have been on the decline for years, like whooping cough, are now recurring in record numbers.

“It’s a disgrace,” says Specter. “This has become a sort of religion among certain people.”  

But the problem isn’t simply a lack of science education. Rather, the root of denialism lies in the disbelief that larger catastrophes – global warming, or a disease epidemic on the scale of AIDS, for example – could actually happen to you.
 
Spector points to another large-scale crisis, world hunger, where many food scientists see genetically modified foods as a promising part of the solution to global food shortages. At the same time, an anti-GMO movement is calling for a halt to all research, even though there have been no documented illnesses caused by GMOs.
 
“There are ways that we can use science to help grow food in the developing world,” says Specter, “and we’re refusing to allow it to happen.”
 
Part of the issue is how distant a matter like hunger feels to the movers and shakers here at home. Most Americans are generally inured to the realities of extreme hunger.

“They can eat their grass-fed chicken that costs $30,” Specter puts it bluntly, “but that’s not a reality for most people on the planet."
 
So is denialism going to beat out science and rationality? Not necessarily, says Specter.

“All we really need to do – and this is not a minor thing, but it’s a doable thing – is educate people more to the value of science, to the value of participating in a modern world. And that includes the risks – understanding the risks – so we don’t feel let down when things don’t always work perfectly.”

Michael Specter, denialism, Culture, science

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