“Science is too hard for me to understand”
“I’m not smart enough to be a scientist!”
“Science? It’s all part of a government conspiracy!”
“Science is an affront to my religious beliefs!”
“Honestly, science, who even needs it anymore?”
I often wonder what is really becoming of science in terms of how it’s viewed in the public eye. Sadly, the prevailing image of scientists as unemotional, white lab coat wearing androids I think is all too ingrained into society. Now, don’t get me wrong, as part of the science communication movement (not by profession, but other means), I definitely think we have made huge progress in helping to inform the public about science in its entirety. But that doesn’t mean that we have to be blindly optimistic: a consistent dose of realism is crucial. That said, I would hope that, going forward, we maintain a healthy degree of optimism that we will inevitably need to educate a world that is increasingly reliant on science and technology.
Of course, I think a large part of the problem is fueled by the fact that science can give off this image that it is inherently complicated and you really need a whole bunch of qualifications to understand it. That is far from being true. I think anyone that is curious about the world around them can be called a scientist in one aspect – not academically, sure, but in a way that appreciates their personal qualities are in line with those whose role it is to simply always discover new things. And is that not what are all doing, in one form or another? Now, I am not advocating that everyone suddenly becomes a scientist and suddenly we have all this pseudoscience plague us. Science still has to be bound by rules and codes not because scientists enjoy being ‘rigid and boring’ (they are not, believe me), but because without these regulations in place, people could simply make things up and pass it off as bonafide science.
I want to take a look at one of the ways we can win back public trust in science: by tackling pseudoscience. Make no mistake, it is a constant struggle. Pseudoscience is an insidious plague that legitimises completely false information as actual science. It’s not just a case of proving to people that they are gullible because they fell for it, either. I believe that these people sincerely believe they have the proven facts and that the ‘evidence’ scientists present is just heresy. Without forcing this on anyone, here’s why you should trust the science: briefly, science is where one has an idea, evidence is collected and then analysed to see if the data support this idea or not. If they do, great, we have learnt something new and the idea is explored further. If the data do not support the idea, then the idea is refined and the process is repeated. This is the process because it works. Pseudoscientists have an idea. They then spread it around as science even though they have either done no research or have used completely biased examples to ‘prove their point’. Often, they will attack a straw man to try and win the moral high ground (a straw man is where somebody attacks a point that the other person did not even make in an argument in an attempt to win it).
I will now explore three of the main ideas of pseudoscience that are epidemic in society. These are ideas that have dealt blows to science through their insidious lies that appeal to human emotions.
1. The Anti-Vaccine Movement: this has to be one that has reared its ugly head time and time again. Like a persistent hydra, it just won’t go away despite the fact that there is a mountain of evidence supporting the use of vaccines. “Anti-vaxxers”, as they are commonly known, are a crafty lot. I’m reluctant to use the word ‘clever’ as, if they were, they’d probably vaccinate their children, right? Snap. The claims the anti-vaxxers make range from the bizarre to the downright insane. A fair amount of them still make the assertion that vaccination is linked to autism. People, this has been debunked ages ago. It is all to do with the controversy when Andrew Wakefield, a now discredited doctor, published a study in The Lancet (an incredibly, if not the most, prestigious medical journal) claiming that the MMR vaccine had links to autism. I’ll give you the abridged version of the story: he was wrong, there was no evidence linking the two at all. But he had a massive impact on disease spread: the rates of measles, mumps and rubella rose dramatically in the UK and the USA. Despite all this, Wakefield was never arrested. I find that fact abhorrent in itself, especially so because it means that anti-vaxxers can still rally behind him and defend his “research”. Oh, but it did turn out he was pandering to the interests of those who had everything to gain from vaccines being discredited. Bias research? That’s a massive science NO!
Other ludicrous claims I have come across are that it will make you addicted to injecting, the natural progression that you then inject drugs and that it can “overload” the immune system. I read the former claim off a satirical poster but, honestly, I can really imagine people believing this. Being vaccinated does not increase your risk of going onto injecting drugs much in the same way that taking prescription painkillers does not increase the risk of you popping ecstasy and using an inhaler increases your risk of smoking (regardless of substance). The immune system claim is equally horrendous tripe. Being vaccinated and gaining immunity to diseases can actually reduce the load on your immune system. Once exposed to a vaccine, immunity is granted because your immune system knows the right antibodies to make to fight off the invading pathogens. It takes a LOT less effort/resources to fight an enemy you already know than one you do not.
Overall, don’t be fooled. While the anti-vaccination movement consists of parents concerned for the welfare of their children, if they really cared for them, they would know that you can’t protect them from everything from breast milk. In fact, if you were not vaccinated, then you have no immunity to certain disease…so how can your children?! Don’t be fooled by the trolls: if you care for your children, listen to the science. The evidence for vaccination is enormous.
2. Climate change deniers. Oh boy. John Oliver recently did a segment on climate change denial, which was both hilarious and profoundly astute. In it, he asserted that, despite one in four Americans being skeptical in climate change, it actually makes no difference at all. You don’t need to have an opinion on an established fact. Climate change is happening, it is real and you can’t simply ignore it by ‘cleverly’ claiming it is part of a liberal, hippie agenda or part of an Illuminati conspiracy. We should all be incredibly worried by climate change as it directly affects our lives but it seems that no one is. Who do we have to thank for that? Those loud, obnoxious types that ignore the science – which, of course, has actually done the work to collect and analyse evidence – and go on to further attack the facts. Ironically, although these people claim to be the ones fighting those with an agenda, they themselves are, more often than not, the ones with the agenda.
Now, a more valid (but, by no means, completely) question can be whether climate change is human induced or not. I personally think it is due to human activity but certain people make the argument that it is not. I, and many others, would say that the evidence is clear that the Earth is warming and it is due to human-induced activity. My belief is that, by adopting the line of thought that we are not responsible for it, you can make the logical leap to absolve humanity of their horrific environmental crimes. Make no mistake, we are royally messing up this planet. But, that aside the crucial point is that, by asking this question, you openly acknowledge that climate change is real. That is the important thing. I put climate change deniers in the same boat as Holocaust deniers. Is that a bit too extreme? Perhaps, but we have substantial evidence for both…one cannot just blindly ignore either. Recently in the UK, we had an increase incidence of floods. Many climate change deniers denied it having anything to do with climate change at all, with one particularly misguided UKIP MP blaming the weather on gay marriage. Yep, we even got kinda biblical there, people.
Climate change deniers have sneakily concocted in order to undermine and distract from the effort to help people realise that a) climate change is real b) it is most likely man made and, most important c) is ready to make things incredibly difficult for us. Instead of debunking the popular myths one by one, I will leave you to explore the evidence yourself: be skeptical, ask for evidence and sources for what you read and evaluate the information you are getting. Here’s a potential starting point: http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn11462-climate-change-a-guide-for-the-perplexed.html#.U5gxrHJdVxp
Oh, but I will say that flood incidence has no link to gay marriage whatsoever. …not that it needed to be stated. Ever.
3. Evolution deniers (a.k.a creationists). One of my biggest passions in life, as a science communicator, a scientist in my own way (not academically…yet, I hope) and one of the biggest issues modern religion has with the scientific community. From claiming fossil evidence is fake to claiming that humans rode dinosaurs, the amount of completely off the wall claims made by those who deny evolution is a real thing is nuts. Now, this is not to debunk or attack anybody’s religion at all. I do know people that are religious but believe in evolution. It is not unheard of. But there are those who really stick to what they were told growing up, taking everything in religious books as factual evidence. The thing is, we can’t do that as scientists: we have to know what actually happened. Evolution is no exception. The amount of evidence that the scientific community have uncovered to support evolution is astounding, with the advent of fields such as genetics only further fueling our quest for knowledge. Using novel genetic techniques, we can even observe speciation in action around us. Of course, we are only observers to one miniscule segment of the incredibly long process.
Creationists claim that the Earth is 6000 years old (no doubt a biblical date). Various dating techniques, including carbon dating, have all given exhaustive evidence that the Earth is billions of years old. Creationists (and others) claim that dinosaurs coexisted with humans. Unfortunately, watching The Flintstones does not count as adequate scientific research! If we were around at the same time dinosaurs were, we would find ancestral human fossils along with dinosaur fossils. ‘lo and behold, the fabled human fossils do not exist! Though, of course that is all a clever hoax….right? …ahem. Plus, you’re conveniently ignoring all the years of Homonid evolution. Homonids have nothing to do with homosexual people, by the way – homo just means ‘same’. Creationists believe that we are inherently perfect, that creation is perfect. That is not exactly true at all. Environments change all the time, no organism is adapted to every single environment. To cleverly tackle this issue, evolution is inherently unguided and blind. This way, mutations that confer advantages in a given environment are random and organisms are able to adapt to survive (as populations, not individuals). Creationists also believe that evolutionists state we are descended from monkeys. Unholy matriarch of Anopheles, could you be any further from the truth? This is not magic: we did not just turn into humans from monkeys. Through millions of years of painstaking evolution, we evolved from a COMMON ANCESTOR with monkeys. I realise that may be a difficult concept for some to understand, so here is a simple diagram. Every time there is a split, that is where the common ancestor between the species is placed.
See? Simples! The saddest part of those who disregard evolution, though, is that you totally miss out on the beauty this world has to offer. If you believe in a God, or a supreme deity of any sort, why is it so difficult to accept that your chosen deity created the process of evolution? I think it is a fantastic and ingenious process to have come up with and, if indeed it had a creator, I give them much kudos. To think that it all started from simple, single celled organisms is astounding. They were the progenitors of the immense variety of lifeforms that we see around us today, as well as those who have gone extinct and those will come after us.
By the way, forging a nice link back to vaccination, one way we observe evolution today is through the evolution of microbes. Bacteria and viruses have a much faster rate of mutation due to reproducing at a much faster rate than we do. Given that they go through so many generations in a much smaller time frame, we can observe evolution in action. It is what helps give rise to vaccines and other weapons in the fight against disease. I have heard stories of staunchly religious doctors walking out of evolution lectures before. My advice? If you can’t accept it, find another profession, preferably one where your beliefs do not conflict with your solemn duty as one who is entrusted with the lives of people.
Scientists aren’t doing their jobs properly if they only seek to invest in their own personal gains whilst disregarding the factual evidence or if they intentionally mislead people. Science is a quest for knowledge, truth and wisdom. We have gained much of it in our endeavours so far, yet have so much more still to gain. But the information we gather is useless if we don’t act on it: if we let ourselves kill our planet, we lose out. If we let babies catch lethal diseases because we believe in fear mongering, we lose out. If we blindly ignore clues and incredible information on our own genesis, as well as that of other organisms on this planet, we lose out. At the heart of it, science should be inclusive to everyone, not just those who believe it as an elite privilege. In an age where we are increasingly relying on technology at a staggering rate, we cannot afford for large chunks of us to still be lost in the dark ages of knowledge.
Science is awesome. Pseudoscience is destructive. It’s crucial to know the difference.