Anti-science beliefs that are driving me crazy.

By James Barta of Portland, Oregon. James is a longtime political activist and policy advocate.

While our society is becoming more technological, we are becoming less scientific. Thanks to technology, we can access more information than ever, but many have less trust in the science that made the technology possible. The politicization of science has exacerbated this problem. Decades ago, cigarette companies hired scientists and lawyers to cast doubt on the cancer causing effects of their product; now similar tactics are being used on numerous other issues.

An application of the scientific method could debunk many common, strange, and dangerous beliefs. A recap of the scientific method from your junior high science class: (1) make a specific hypothesis that describes the world around you; (2) create a testable prediction; (3) carefully test the prediction; and (4) formulate the simplest rule that incorporates the previous three steps. No matter how much you love your hypothesis, if it fails step (3) it’s wrong.

One of the interesting ramifications of this process is that hypotheses can only be disproven. Numerous experiments and observations that match the predictions will allow a hypothesis to graduate to a theory. However, even a theory can be found to be incorrect given enough data that contradict its predictions. For instance, Einstein’s theory of general relativity corrected errors in Newton’s Laws of Motion 200 years later.

On the jump, in ascending order of immediacy and harm, my list of public policy and societal beliefs that reflect our society’s failure to understand basic science – and the harm these beliefs cause.

Astrology

Given the prevalence of the belief in astrology, registering my annoyance may be a surprise to some. Given one quarter of Americans believe in astrology in the 21st century seems a good place to start for the anti-scientific thinking prevalent in our society. The theory that distant astronomical bodies affect our lives here on Earth seems farfetched at best.

Experiment: Compare personalities and traits of pairs of people born at the same time. Former magician, James Randi, effectively demonstrates other contradictions with astrology.

Harm in belief: Minimal. Symptomatic of a lack of scientific knowledge, but whatever. As Douglas Adams might say -- mostly harmless.

Creationism

Religion offers meaning for billions of people, something the scientific method can’t do. However, the scientific method is a more effective tool to judge empirical knowledge. These two human endeavors have different strengths and use different techniques to arrive at “truth.” However, despite more than one hundred years of scientific data, almost half the population lets their faith interfere with their understanding of biology.

Experiment: Evolution is super easy to disprove. A scientist simply needs to find a fossil in the wrong geologic era. After more than a century of digging, the scientific community is still waiting for evidence to disprove it. In the meantime evolution serves as a powerful tool to understand our genes and the rest of the living world.

Harm in belief: Symptomatic of the lack of science in society. People let their own personal beliefs, or worse their political beliefs, guide their basic science understanding. By teaching the non-existent scientific “controversy,” the U.S. risks its lead in biological sciences.

Opposition to water fluoridation

Plenty of scientific reviews describe the benefits of Fluoridation and lack of harm. Original studies showed fluoridation to reduce cavities by 60%. The effectiveness has decreased with growing access to fluoridation in consumer products, but there is no doubt that it is significant.

Experiment: Like evolution, it should be super-easy to demonstrate the harm of fluoride – a study that demonstrates its harm in the doses prescribed by the Center for Disease Control. In the numerous studies over the last 70 years of water fluoridation, opponents cannot produce one study showing the health harm of fluoride at the recommended levels. Not one.

Harm in belief: Fear of an undemonstrated harm is preventing thousands of children from avoiding the pain and health problems of rotted teeth. Children are experiencing pain and suffering for society’s misplaced fears.

The denial of anthropogenic global warming

Not as easy to rigorously demonstrate or disprove, but the harms caused by doubts by decision leaders have serious ramifications for the future of life on our planet. Given the usable supply of fossil fuels continues to increase with our continuing demand, our country and our world need to start recognizing the human and financial costs of global warming.

Experiment: While global warming is readily apparent, proving a link from human activity to worldwide temperatures is difficult. (Anyone with a planet they can spare for experimentation? Besides Venus (pdf) of course.) Significant empirical evidence does exist. Assigning blame for specific weather events is clouded by the vagaries of short-term effects versus long term forces of climate. Predictions have been made, such as the rise in ocean levels. Unfortunately waiting to see if they occur will likely mean the deaths of many and the displacement of millions more. Given the stakes, we should agree with virtually all scholarly climate papers and recognize humans are the cause of recent worldwide temperature increases.

Harm in belief: How much evidence will it take to prove something needs to be done, how many people will need to be harmed? Disease prevention is much less costly than treatment; in this case it is very difficult to convince the patient (society) of the consequences of this disease until the symptoms are acute.

Anti-vaccination activism

This is the classic instance of the ‘correlation does not prove causation’ problem. The diagnosis of autism and many diseases typically and coincidentally occur right after the first round of child vaccinations. The single study purporting to demonstrate a connection has been debunked and retracted (pdf); unfortunately the damage has been done. While parents’ temptation to believe in this falsehood is understandable, as their child’s health could be the greatest emotional force in their life, this falsehood does immediate damage. The safest place for a person to be is to not take a vaccine and be surrounded by people who have. So whatever level of ignorance is at play here, not taking a vaccine is a greedy action that can directly harm the rest of society, since many are medically unable to take the vaccine and rely on herd immunity.

Experiment: The researcher who wrote the “scholarly” paper purporting to show the link between vaccines and various diseases has been convicted many times, one count of being paid by lawyers who were working on a case against vaccine makers. He is now prohibited from practicing medicine in the United Kingdom. Numerous people tried to replicate the debunked results, without success.

Harm in belief: People are dying from preventable diseases. Period. Public policy that will save people’s lives? Promote vaccinations -- it doesn’t get any easier.

End of rant, but a final thought: given enough countervailing evidence we all should be able to change our minds no matter the belief. Let’s not ignore new knowledge and the possibility that we can be wrong. Critical thinking has expanded our technology and our knowledge of our world, let’s not forget about the scientific process the earned it for us.

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