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.