Monday, August 20, 2012

Scientific Illiteracy

In 1998 British physician Andrew Wakefield was offered £400,000 to publish an article claiming the vaccine against Measles, Mumps, and Rubella could lead to autism. The article was funded by lawyers preparing for an anti-vaccine lawsuit, and despite the fact that his results could not be reproduced and were dismissed by an overwhelming majority of researchers, a massive and ultimately deadly panic swept across the world. Vaccination rates dropped across Europe opening the doors to completely preventable outbreaks, children were killed or permanently disabled, and an estimated $25 million in avoidable hospital bills were accumulated due to completely avoidable MMR outbreaks.

It ultimately took a long and unnecessary campaign by researchers and health professionals to re-prove the safety of the MMR vaccine, but the scientific agreement hasn't quite been translated to the public - in fact today about 48% of Americans either don't trust or are unsure about the safety of vaccines, largely based on that one fraudulent article.

Vaccines are a dramatic example of the consequences of a public that doesn't trust or doesn't understand science, but they are absolutely crucial to public safety. Not getting vaccinated is not only a hazard to yourself but also to everyone around you. Sadly modern outbreaks of completely preventable diseases, such as the recent Whooping Cough outbreak, are reminders of the impact of ignoring science.

Studies have shown, though, that in general the public has a very poor understanding of some fairly basic concepts. Take for example these survey results on scientific literacy:
  • 6% of Americans don't believe smoking can cause lung cancer
  • 13% don't know that plants produce the oxygen we breathe
  • 20% aren't aware the center of the earth is very hot (and are presumably very confused by volcanoes)
  • 25% still think the sun goes around the earth
  • 46% don't know it takes the earth a year to orbit the sun (but were probably still stumped by the previous question), and
  • 52% fell hard for the Flintstones and believe dinosaurs and humans coexisted
Admittedly none of these specific misconceptions of science are likely to be dangerous to an individual, apart from perhaps lung cancer and smoking. What's instead frightening is that these are all concepts that are taught during or before high school, and suggest a public that is largely ignorant or apathetic to some of the most fundamental concepts we rely on. Even more horrifying is that these percentages have tended to only get worse between 2001 and 2010.

Regardless, though, of whether the misunderstanding of science is harmful on an individual basis or not, this attitude towards science of either apathy or automatic distrust is very dangerous for society. Distortion of science for personal or political benefit is very common, and has even been used explicitly to cause harm.

Two particular government exploitations or distortions of scientific understanding come to mind. The eugenics movement in the early 20th century claimed that human breeding needed to be controlled in order to advance our evolution, and was pushed ferociously by political groups and individuals around the world. Even countries like Canada and the United States got caught up in the movement, with individuals like Tommy Douglas and Alexander Graham Bell advocating for restrictions on who could marry and have children, and certain provinces and states forcibly sterilized individuals who were considered unfit to breed. The movement ultimately led to the rationalization of murders in the name of cleansing in Nazi Germany. It ultimately took the combination of the end of World War II and the further understanding of genetics to bring about the end of the vast majority of eugenic based programs, but not after massive personal and societal loss.

On the other hand, Soviet Russia took control of science and dismissed genetics entirely as a "bourgeois pseudoscience", instead adopting the practices of Lysenkoism for agricultural development. This explicit adoption of absolutely useless techniques held back Russian understanding of genetics for decades, and resulted in the firing, imprisonment, and execution of legitimate Russian scientists.

But misunderstanding of science still harms us daily. Despite court findings of fraud, millions of dollars a year of "ion bracelets" are still being sold by pretending to be scientific. Fictionalized versions of polygraph tests have led to the belief that they're foolproof - and private polygraph examiners have likely been responsible for propagating actual lies - even though psychologists have determined that they really aren't any better than guessing. Some people will often reach out to homeopathy at the expense of medically-proven treatments even though it's been consistently debunked by doctors.

Fortunately it's not all bad. The public acknowledgement of Canadian science journalists like Jay Ingram and Bob McDonald with the Order of Canada recently was an important step for supporting the field, which is undeniably important for keeping people informed, and televised outreach through the Discovery Channel and shows like Mythbusters has done a lot for increasing interest in science topics and critical thinking. Hopefully as science continues to advance we will see fewer opportunities for people to take advantage of people's misunderstanding of it, and more opportunities to get people interested and engaged. We definitely need it.

This was also posted on TheWandererOnline with graphics by Michelle Weremczuk. Check it out!


Cornelius said...

This is a well-written article, Michael. Nice job! Something you neglect to mention, however, and which is particularly problematic in the U.S., is the public's attitude towards anthropogenic climate change.

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