It’s really only since I began voicing my opinion (based on the best available scientific evidence, of course) on all things climate related that I again found an interest in the various wars on reason. A long time ago I had given up the nonsensical evolution debate and now can see that in this way I was in part accommodating irrationality. It might seem harmless, but it assists to devalue science, scientists and the relevant advances (pretty much everything) that we now enjoy.
I finally understand why Richard Dawkins takes the matter very seriously.
Closer to home I have experienced one of the other wars on reason that appeared when my partner and I discussed the possibility of having children – vaccination.
She has all but bought into the fear surrounding vaccination and my numerous attempts to explain the science, provide the evidence and even explain it as a civil act (being that it benefits not just the individual, but the whole community) all but fell on deaf ears. She did concede as far as to say that if it meant so much to me, then it will be my own responsibility to go through with it. Of course this is a hollow victory and has remained a burr in my side since.
Last night, however, SBS aired the documentary The Vaccination War (available for online viewing here under Watch Full Programs – Documentary, at least for the time being) and I simply had to watch it – mainly in the hope that it would assist our debate on the subject.
What surprised me most about this program was just how parallel the war on reason was with vaccination to both evolution and climate change. In every case, the internet has been seen to be the most effective tool for the spread of misinformation. A place where lies seem invulnerable to evidence fuelled debate. That or the argument provided by anti-vaccination (creationist, climate change denier etc) is so slippery that is avoids the debate entirely. As Diethelm and McKee (2009) put it;
The normal academic response to an opposing argument is to engage with it, testing the strengths and weaknesses of the differing views, in the expectations that the truth will emerge through a process of debate. However, this requires that both parties obey certain ground rules, such as a willingness to look at the evidence as a whole, to reject deliberate distortions and to accept principles of logic. A meaningful discourse is impossible when one party rejects these rules.
Or as Dr. Paul Offit puts it in The Vaccination War, “…now, and this is classic for pseudo-science, you just keep moving the goal posts.”
Likewise, many of the leading bodies / authorities have stated that widespread vaccination is in everyone’s best interest (hell, where’s Smallpox today?), yet anti-vaccination groups prefer to listen to an ex-playboy model and comedian. The same level of confidence as has been witnessed within the scientific community regarding anthropogenic global warming, (AGW) where journalists, retired weathermen (not meteorologists) and geologists are held in greater regard than the established scientific community. A phenomenon noted by Diethelm and McKee (2009);
Denialists are usually not deterred by the extreme isolation of their theories, but rather see it as the indication of their intellectual courage against the dominant orthodoxy and the accompanying political correctness, often comparing themselves to Galileo.
Later in The Vaccine War, Barbara Loe Fisher, president of the National Vaccine information Centre, said, “… People are taking control of their own health. They want to be more in charge of the way that they live and not simply rely on a doctor.”
When I heard this, I couldn’t help but retort pointlessly at the TV, “Well get a bloody degree on the subject then.”
As with climate change denial and creationism, there is a confusion as to what valid scepticism is. It’s not remaining unconvinced, which is simply a personal belief that goes beyond reason and analytical judgement.
Valid scepticism, or more correctly, scientific scepticism, results from training and is not a native behaviour (in fact, it seems we’re inherently programmed to designate purpose, potentially as a side effect of our large brains and our modern world – see here, nearly 2mins in).
To be sceptical of vaccination, evolution, AGW or any other scientific conclusion is to have developed an understanding of that subject and to be able to analyse the evidence critically – as occurs within scientific community.
As Dr. Paul Nurse states, previously quoted in the post, Evolution Deniers vs. AGW deniers;
Consensus can be used like a dirty word. Consensus is actually the position of the experts at the time and if it’s working well – it doesn’t always work well – but if it’s working well, they evaluate the evidence. You make your reputation in science by actually overturning that, so there’s a lot of pressure to do it. But if over the years the consensus doesn’t move you have to wonder is the argument, is the evidence against the consensus good enough.
There simply fails to be valid reason to claim to be sceptical of many of these conclusions not because of a consensus but simply because highly trained sceptical scientists have failed time and time again to disprove these conclusions. This goes for the relationship between autism and vaccination as well as the other noted wars on reason. Hence why I stress the need for training before presumed scepticism.
Barbara’s statement is an obvious one (look at any private health insurer advertisement now including all sorts of New Age therapies on their list of covered items), but it is clearly a conclusion as devastating and as pre-enlightenment as that we some times hear of when a parent denies medical assistance for their child – preferring to leave the child’s health in God’s hands. If people made the same choice elsewhere, the results would be just as absurd;
“People are taking control of their vehicle servicing. They want to be more in charge of the way that they commute and not simply rely on a mechanic.” (I can already imagine the freeway littered with dead cars)
“People are taking control of their appliances and home wiring. They want to be more in charge of the way that they power their homes and not simply rely on a electricians.” (Fires… electrocutions..?)
“People are taking control of their safety. They want to be more in charge of the way that they live and not simply rely on a police and the fire brigade.” (Too horrible to contemplate)
It’s not, as previous generations have had to endure, a rebellion against fascism or orthodoxy, but simply the denial of the most important treasures of the modern age; demystification; the ever increasing understanding of ourselves and the universe around us. Our lives are almost immeasurably improved by the efforts of scientific methodology, probably so much so that we take much of it for granted, ultimately leading to the accommodating of irrationality.
There are many reasons for such denial, but most seem to boil down to a fear of the ramifications. They don’t really address the reality that seems most likely with our current understanding, but rather what it could mean if applied – thus leaving deniers willingly with their heads in the sand instead of addressing the true debate; how best should we apply this new understanding to our societies.
In The Vaccine War, it’s noticeable that the experts are under no illusions – they’ve witnessed the worst of what these now preventable diseases can do. They were no doubt concerned by the potential harm vaccination could have been inflicting, hence the many independent studies – all of which found absolutely no relationship to vaccination are autism. Yet, as we see in other wars on reason, mounting evidence does nothing to take the wind from the sails of those who simply don’t want it to be so – they just are not concerned by evidence as the rest of us are.
Such groups / individuals who are quick to attack those who rely on the scientific methodology as being adherent to a ‘dogma’ are blind to their own ideology and in entertaining them, we all pay. For me, Dr. Cynthia Cristofani, rounds it up beautifully,
“It’s a tragedy that there are kids who are unprotected because their parents are choosing not to vaccinate, out of fears the are unfounded. The other tragedy is that the kids who have autism who desperately need better research into why and more important what to do about it now; that research isn’t being done, at least to the degree that it should’ve been, because most of the would be research – those dollars and hours have been lost.”