Often on this blog I write about things that I think aren’t alarming, and that I don’t think you should be overly worried about, like pesticides and GMOs. I thought maybe I should tell you about something that does actually alarm me. I wouldn’t want you guys to think that I’m all, “nothing to see here, move along.” So I’m going to tell you about some things that I do think are troubling.
I recently read a book called Denialism by Michael Specter, a journalist who writes on science and technology for The New Yorker. I recommend it highly. The book was about how people often stare into the face of scientific evidence and fail to accept it. This is something that concerns me, and frankly, should concern you. I’ve seen this happen first hand on both the Internet and in person. In fact, recently I had to take a break from Facebook because I’m overwhelmed and depressed by the denialist and anti-science crowd. I’m hopeful that much of this movement is a fad, because if it’s not, I fear we’re headed to a very bad place.
My grandpa had polio when he was a child. Thankfully, he survived, but it crippled him. He limped and wore a brace from his foot to his hip for the rest of his life. When he got engaged to my grandma, my great-grandparents pulled her aside and told her to reconsider – they didn’t think Grandpa would live past the age of 20. Amazingly, he lived past 90. I wouldn’t be here if he had died of polio, and countless others aren’t here because thousands of children died from diseases that have since been mostly eradicated with vaccines. Today, we’re bringing those diseases back. Oregon has the highest rate of non-immunized children in the country. Why? Because our generation doesn’t remember the suffering these diseases can cause.
I was recently at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry and saw an exhibit about the leading causes of death in the US over the years. In 1850, six of the top 11 causes of death we now have vaccines for: diphtheria, whooping cough, measles, tuberculosis, meningitis, and typhoid fever. There’s a reason those diseases aren’t the leading causes of death anymore: scientific progress. Yet it feels like today, more than ever before, people have forgotten that much of what we have today is because of science. Vaccines are one of the most effective public health measures in human history, yet one study (described as fraudulent) showed a link between autism and vaccines, and now parents are ignoring the science and believing the anecdotes. Jenny McCarthy took that fear and ran with it. I understand the fear. We don’t know what causes autism, and as a parent, that’s scary. I understand wanting to have something to blame it on and vaccines seem easy. We don’t know anyone who’s died of measles, and so we don’t see any benefit to the vaccines, but we do see a risk. And it feels like the risk outweighs the benefit. But it doesn’t. The scientific evidence is undeniable: vaccines work and there is no link to autism. Yet plenty of parents don’t want to hear that because they’re afraid. They are staring into the face of a mountain of scientific evidence and consensus and putting their fingers in their ears and squeezing their eyes shut. And the result: those diseases are coming back. That’s what we should really be afraid of.
That’s troubling to me. How did we get here? How did we get to a point where people so freely dismiss scientific consensus? Well, unfortunately, science is not perfect, it’s a process. There have been mistakes. Vioxx is one that Specter discusses in his book. Chernobyl, Thalidomide, DDT. It’s very easy to say, as I recently heard from someone very close to me, “They say it’s safe until they say it’s not.” We’ve lost trust in the experts and in the data. There’s nothing really wrong with questioning the experts. In fact, that’s what science is all about. Have an idea, test the idea, interpret the data, and test it again. Then encourage others to test and question it, too. Adjust, and then test it some more. That’s fine. What’s troubling is resisting the evidence when the evidence is compelling. You should question it, but when the data and the proof are there, accept it as truthful. Often I hear people say, “but there isn’t enough evidence, there haven’t been enough studies yet.” The problem is, denialists are so entrenched in their beliefs that no amount of evidence will change their minds. There will never be enough studies, enough evidence, and a strong enough scientific consensus. I’ve heard, “you haven’t proven it’s safe.” Nothing can be proven safe. Ever. Science can’t do that. It can only prove that it isn’t unsafe. And no one is walking around eschewing cell phones or automobiles or light bulbs because no one has proven them safe.
I understand people being skeptical. But don’t confuse skepticism with denialism. To me, one of the red flags of a denialist is when they start pulling out the conspiracy theories. This idea that Big Ag, Big Pharma, or Big Oil are hiding studies and data and paying off scientists and PR firms to lie for them. Or that the government and corporations are in bed together with the goal of taking all our money at the expense of our health and the environment. It’s all a big conspiracy. Look, you don’t have to like Monsanto or Pfizer or Exxon Mobil. If you don’t like the role that large corporations play in our society, that’s fine, let’s talk about that, but let’s not ignore the science or worse, dismiss it, because you don’t like the company that developed the product. We have real problems to solve: feeding our growing population in a changing climate; health care; and dwindling natural resources being used by more people at a higher rate. Let’s not muddle up the solutions to those problems with misplaced fear and frustration over corporate America.
I got called a shill the other day by the associate editor of a weekly paper in Oregon. I was taking issue with some factual errors in a story about GMOs and she publicly called me out and made it look like the information I was providing was questionable (and paid for) because I used to work for Monsanto. Surprisingly, this is the first time I’ve actually been called a shill. But I find this attitude everywhere, and frankly, it’s concerning. To many people, my knowledge on a subject is completely and utterly tainted (and apparently dismissible) because of my association with Big Ag. And I’m not the only one getting called a shill. There will always be corrupt scientists, and corporate executives who make bad decisions. But that doesn’t mean that all scientists are corrupt or that all companies are evil. Just because you don’t like the mouth that the information is coming out of, doesn’t make it less true. But knowledge is often dismissed because the listener doesn’t like the delivery mechanism. Just because Pfizer did the study, doesn’t mean it’s all a big lie in the same way that just because I used to work for Monsanto doesn’t mean that the inaccuracies in their story are less inaccurate.
Specter said, “We’ve never needed progress in science more than we need it right now.” And instead of making progress, what we’re doing is a lot of wheel spinning. We’ve got people like the Food Babe, Dr. Oz, and organizations like Natural News, and the Environmental Working Group enabling denialism by fueling the misinformation fire. I would like to think that the vast majority of people are reasonable, but you wouldn’t know it by reading those websites. You can have your own opinions, but you can’t have your own facts. These activists are not contributing to a solution, they’re making money by selling you fear.
Here’s my bottom line: you don’t have to take a side on these issues. You don’t have to start a blog, or try to get out there and change people’s minds. Just don’t contribute to the problem. Don’t let yourself be a denialist. Even if you come to a different conclusion than I have on an issue, do some real reading on a subject and not from only one side of the issue. Don’t just read the Food Babe’s website or listen to a speech by Vandana Shiva and think you’ve got all the information. For that matter, don’t read one story in the New York Times and think you have all the information you need to make a decision. Know that you may never know all the information, but be open to convincing evidence and scientific consensus. Don’t turn your back on science, reason, and logic because you heard this one story about this one child who got autism. Understand the difference between correlation and causation. And most of all, don’t let fear and ideology cloud your ability to see the truth.