by Bill Schlesinger
Science is facing a deepening crisis in America. Despite our best efforts to increase funding for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education to train a new generation of scientists, we are seeing an increasing denial of science by the general public—often spread by cell phone and social media, paradoxically two of the most visible products that computer science has brought to us.
Nowhere is this more visible than in the rise of the anti-vaccination movement. Vaccines have protected humans from the scourge of epidemic diseases—smallpox, polio, measles and flu—for more than 100 years. As in any scientific endeavor, the development of vaccines involved observation, experimentation, and analysis. The measles vaccine is remarkably effective, and the risk of receiving the vaccination pales by comparison to the risk of mortality and complications from a measles infection. Yet, a small but vocal and visible group has seized on the idea that vaccines cause learning disabilities in children—autism—despite careful demonstrations to the contrary. Nevertheless, anti-vaccination myth is spread across the internet to a growing body of “believers.”
The same is true of the anti-mask movement in response to COVID-19. Despite scientific analysis that wearing masks is the most effective way we know to slow the spread of COVID-19, the mask has been politicized as an infringement on person freedom. (So, I might add, is the wearing of seat belts and motorcycle helmets, even though they clearly reduce mortality).
Similar denial is seen regarding human-induced changes in climate, proven repeatedly by observation, experimentation, and analysis. You can’t raise the carbon dioxide content of the Earth’s atmosphere without big consequences for the heat balance of the planet—something so well established that it is no longer fodder for high school science fair projects.
Why does science denial have an audience? I believe that as people fill the planet, we are dismayed at our inability to enjoy the freedoms and resources that were available when there were fewer of us. Individual freedoms are being curtailed, but a libertarian view persists. My kids shouldn’t be required to be vaccinated. Someone is responsible for my child’s autism; it can’t possibly be me, so it must be the mandatory vaccinations. Someone is responsible for COVID-19 shutting down the economy. I shouldn’t have to wear a mask to protect others; even the President won’t wear one. Someone is responsible for the changing climate and rising sea levels. I’ve always driven a big car, and no one worried about carbon dioxide. The changes in climate are natural cycles.
Science is not perfect, but it is self-correcting. Good science replaces sloppy science, and new analytical methods replace less incisive approaches. Science provides us with the best truth of what we understand at the moment. What the country needs on top of better STEM education, is a massive effort to remind all citizens of how science approaches problems and how it solves them, and the refinements and limits to its success. The abundant food, better health, and helpful consumer products that we all enjoy are the products of science.
Vaccines, masks, and renewable energy are good for us. Science has shown this; what remains in doubt is the public’s belief that it is true. We have work to do outside the laboratory.
Chu, D.K. et al. 2020. Physical distances, face masks, and eye protection to prevent person-to-person transmission of SARS-CoV2 and COVID-10: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Lancet 395: 1973-1987
Geoghegan, S., K.P. O’Callaghan and P.A. Offit. 2020. Vaccine safety: myths and misinformation. Frontiers in Microbiology 11 doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2020.00372
Hviid, A., et al. 2019. measles, mumps, rubella vaccination and autism; a nationwide cohort study. Annals of Internal Medicine doi: 10.7326/M18-2101
Johnson, N.F., and 9 others. 2020. The online competition between pro- and anti-vaccination views. Nature 582: 230-233.
Taylor, B. et al. 1999. Autism and measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine: no epidemiological evidence for a causal association. The Lancet 353: 2026-2029.
Zhang, R., Y. Li, A.L. Zhang, Y. Wang and M.J. Molina. 2020. Identifying airborne transmission as the dominant route for the spread of COVID-19. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 117: 14857-14863.