Science and the Public: the Prevalence of Discredited Mythology

Observers on the modern era will agree that one of the greatest weaknesses of democracy is the public’s inability to responsibly discuss science. As an example, this week saw the release of a study conclusively refuting the alleged “link” between vaccines and autism, and revealing England’s Dr. Wakefield, the originator of this pernicious lie, as a paid, deliberately mendacious hack.

But, look at the poll attached to the Daily News’ article. Immediately after reading an article revealing the “link’s” fraudulent origin, a staggering 12% still say they believe that vaccines cause autism, and 19% want to see more studies.  This despite the absence of any non-fraudulent study, ever, linking vaccines to autism. Compensating for the unscientific nature of internet polls, this is still a substantial delusion. Why?

Two theories (and I welcome more). First, we as a country are deeply distrustful of certainty. This is a consequence of the country’s foundational anti-elitist spirit, which proves to be our greatest strength at the best of times, but our greatest weakness during the rest. Despite a basis in earned knowledge, and the best of intentions, scientific advice is still a statement that you know better than someone. We bristle at such proclamations.

Second, we believe in fairness, again a noble sentiment perverted to evil ends. A great deal of life takes place in shades of gray. President Bartlet (ah, the quotable West Wing):

Every once in a while, there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts.

Unfortunately, we forget this lesson when we need it most, and remember it at all the wrong times. Science is not subject to fairness review. Except on the cutting edge — the debates the scientific community largely conducts in private — as applied to policy construction, there’s a right answer and a wrong answer. Like 2+2=4, natural selection explains life on earth, and “creationism” does not. And yet science reporting tends to insist on a second side of the story, because only two things make news: controversy, or hysteria.

There’s no real solution to this problem. Education, as always, is the silver bullet, but that’s a whole other thing.

14 comments

  1. Suspected Replicant · ·

    The trouble is that Wakefield’s lies *do* involve a body count. It’s impossible to say exactly how much damage he did, but his fraud has caused – and continues to cause – needless suffering and death.

  2. Three things make news. You forgot tragedy!

  3. While I am completely sympathetic to your post, I have to call this statement hyperbole:

    “Observers on the modern era will agree that one of the greatest weaknesses of democracy is the public’s inability to responsibly discuss science.”

    I think science gets discussed a lot and mostly responsibly. Social science, my area of expertise, gets a pretty fair shake. Various technologies, so far as you can call an iPad the end-result of science, is also prety benign.

    The big controversial issues really all surround biology for the most part. I think maybe that’s just where we get a little crazy. We all have our trigger points. I’m a moderate skpetic on climate change but I’m a completely lunatic when it comes to fighting back against teaching Intelligent Design. I don’t too worked up over certain endangered species but I DO care a lot about habitat restoration for others. Etc, etc.

    1. I only think it’s hyperbole if we quibble over how many weaknesses qualify as “one of the greatest weaknesses” that democracy has. Otherwise, yeah, the public’s got a big inability to responsibly discuss science. But the public’s got a big inability to responsibly discuss much of anything, not just science in particular.

  4. But don’t you know you have to teach the controversy?

    1. I’m hoping that’s sarcasm Knute…

    2. Oh I’m sure of it ;)

  5. http://www.badscience.net/2010/05/evidence-based-smear-campaigns/

    Evidence to the contrary, it seems, only reinforces what we think. (Though I’d really like to see this study repeated.)

  6. […] Johns Hopkins Medical School found to know about science than Jenny […]

  7. mgardener · ·

    When you have a large religious body denying evolution and denying the age of the earth, you can see why believing in vaccine caused Autism is logical.
    These people are sheeple. They need to have somebody tell them what and how to think. If they did it on their own, their brains would explode.

    1. i think the Creationism folks and the autism folks represent two pretty different groups (although i’m sure there is some marginal crossover). The ID folks are religious in nature and allow that to trump science. The autism folks seem to be a lot of over-protective hyper-moms.

      1. They want someone or something to blame. When I look back at my family line and my husband’s, however, I see a lot of “shadows” and indicators that there is more to autism than just a vaccine.

  8. As the mother of a son with Asperger Syndrome, I have never believed the vaccine theory. The people who point to the rising numbers of individuals with autism conveniently forget that the definition of autism has expanded into a spectrum, leading to more diagnoses, of adults previously diagnosed as well as children.

    The anti vaccine crowd don’t seem to understand how horrible and even deadly some of these illnesses are. Diptheria slowly suffocates you. Pertussis (whooping cough) makes you cough until you puke. (My doctor described it this way: “It won’t kill you [as an adult], but you’ll wish it did.”)

    Oops. Where did that soapbox come from? Stepping down now.

  9. Um, that was “adults previously UNDIAGNOSED” in the last line of paragraph one.

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