Chien Young argues with full vigour the dangers of science denialism.
“Vaccination is a monstrosity, a misbegotten offspring of error and ignorance; it should have no place in either hygiene or medicine. Believe not in vaccination; it is a worldwide delusion, an unscientific practice, a fatal superstition with consequences measured today by tears and sorrow without end.” Charles Rauta.
That was in 1899. You would think that the human race has wised up after going through 100 years of the most rapid development our species has ever experienced. Sadly, this is far from the case. Only days ago, I came across a vaccine denialist speaking on a prominent television talk show, spouting copious amounts of pseudo-science and poor logic. I was outraged, not as a medical student or a science-literate geek, but as a rational human being. I was appalled that he had the gall to deceive the public as such and to spread his unfounded lies. As my disgust receded, I reminded myself of the perspective that he and others like him hold. This was the worldview where wilful ignorance trumps all, where consequences are swept under the rug, and where reason bows down to irrationality. Enter the realm of science denialism.
Science denialism is exactly as the term describes; it is the rejection of well-supported scientific knowledge, often in favour of speculative beliefs instead. It masquerades behind the veil of scepticism when the reality of this worldview involves nothing more than the outright denunciation of truth. Science denialists take on many forms; ranging from conspiracy theorists who believe lunar landings never occurred, to religion-gripped creationists who vehemently reject evolution, and to a certain Manto Tshabalala-Msimang (former South African health minister) with her ‘AIDS-curing’ concoction of garlic, beetroot and lemon, but the point is that they all share the same blatant disregard for evidence.
That being said, one obvious question comes to mind; where did our capacity to deny the undeniable come from? Well for one thing, humans are exceedingly nostalgic beings. In spite of our overbearing intellect, we are surprisingly resilient to change and when science propels us into the future faster than we can embrace it, we are often left clinging to the past. Our belief system is also deeply flawed; we would rather place our trust with anecdotal evidence or sensationalised tabloids instead of a peer-reviewed article, because the latter is simply boring (and we know only too well how the mundane tends to be forgotten). Couple both with a failing education system and throw religio-political agendas into the mix and what you get is a fertile breeding ground for ignorance.
Then again, it is all too easy for us to take science for granted. After all, how hard is it to deny the efficacy of vaccines when the last documented case of smallpox occurred 50 years ago? Never mind that science has tripled our life expectancy since the last century, or helped us to feed 6.4 billion mouths, or allowed us to explore the edges of space, because the fact is we will never fully appreciate progress so long as we live off its comfort. However, we do so at our own peril as fate forks human kind into profoundly different paths; we are at the twilight between achieving a utopian civilization and withering our planet into wasteful nothingness, and the outcome rests on how we handle this period of complacency.
Why then, should we place our trust in science to ride us through such a crucial phase? To quote journalist Michael Specter, ‘Science is not a belief, ideology, or even an idea; it is a process.’ Some critics may pan science for being fallible, and rightfully so too. Like all things, science is imperfect but it is through incongruity that our understanding of the world grows. At the heart of the scientific method are two fundamental concepts; self-perfection and meritocracy. It is a potent combination that embodies the very essence of progress, for each new piece of evidence unearthed inches us ever closer to the truth while at the same time, leaves no theory immune from rational dissent. As the biologist Jean Rostand aptly said, ‘Science has made us gods even before we are worthy of being men.’
In spite of all that has been said, apologists often cite the docility of moderate, day-to-day denialism in defence of their worldview. After all, what harm could come out of subscribing to superstition or peeking at your daily horoscope? Some might even add that science denialism promotes healthy scepticism. There is no doubt that we should question everything, for science itself is deeply rooted in inquiry. However, when presented with evidence, we are obliged to accept them because if we choose to ignore fact in favour of fiction, we are in danger of reverting back to the dark ages. One look at the 2005 MMR vaccine controversy is all that is needed to observe the unsettling effects of science denialism, when an unfounded claim linking the vaccine to autism caused a nationwide scare in the UK, leading to decreased inoculation rates and a 37 fold rise in mumps cases.
The 21st century has ushered in an era of unparalleled scientific discovery. Mankind is at the horizon of achieving greatness; we are mere decades away from conquering disease and eliminating poverty but as long as science denialism lurks unattended, progress will remain shackled.
Chien Young is your everyday Malaysian lad who somehow found himself in an Australian medical school. He enjoys the occasional discourse and thinks there is nothing more gratifying than the combination of headphones, good music and the view from the backseat of a moving car.