Scientists and public diverge on GMOs, vaccines, global warming

The Disneyland measles outbreak has something in common with fear of genetically modified foods and global warming: Rejection of science.

Scientists agree: Vaccination is a good idea / Photo: Sanofi Pasteur, used under Flickr Creative Commons license
Scientists agree: Vaccination is a good idea / Photo: Sanofi Pasteur, used under Flickr Creative Commons license

WASHINGTON, January 31, 2015 – The recent outbreak of measles in California has emphasized a dangerous belief among some parents: Vaccinations are unnecessary or more dangerous than the diseases they protect against.

A fraudulent paper in the medical journal Lancet, in 1998, ignited fears about vaccines and autism, and social networks and blogs have fanned the flames ever since. Yet study after study shows no evidence that the mumps, measles and rubella vaccine causes autism.

Dr. Andrew Wakefield, the physician who published the study, was found by the U.K.’s General Medical Council to have behaved “dishonestly and irresponsibly” in conducting his research, which he did while serving as a paid consultant to attorneys suing vaccine manufacturers.

Lancet withdrew the article, and Wakefield, who now lives in the U.S. and continues to claim a link between vaccines and autism, was finally stripped of his medical license.

Why do Wakefield’s claims continue to persuade parents that vaccines are dangerous?

The distrust and outright rejection of science and scientists is not restricted to the topic of vaccinations. Evolution, GMOs (genetically modified organisms), global climate change, and nuclear power are among the other issues where scientific opinion and public opinion widely diverge.

The Pew Research Center, in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) recently conducted surveys to look at how scientists and the public see a variety of issues. They reported significant gaps between the perceptions of the public and scientists on 13 science-related topics.

  • 88 percent of scientists consider genetically modified foods safe to eat; only 37 percent of the public agree;
  • 68 percent of scientists believe that it is safe to eat foods treated with pesticides; 28 percent of the public agree;
  • 87 percent of scientists believe that humans are responsible for a significant portion of climate change; 50 percent of the public agree;
  • 98 percent of scientists believe that humans have evolved; 50 percent of the public agree.

The gap on vaccinations is smaller, but still significant; 86 percent of scientists believe that childhood vaccinations should be mandatory; 68 percent of the public agree.

There is no clear political pattern to this. While some liberals claim that conservatives are anti-science or scientifically illiterate because of their stance on evolution and global warming – conservatives are more likely to disagree with scientists on these issues – liberals likewise diverge from scientific consensus when it contradicts ideology. Liberals are more likely to disagree with scientists on the dangers of GMOs and pesticides, and less likely than scientists to favor building more nuclear power plants.

The fear of vaccines crosses the lines of political ideology.

The quality of a scientific theory is not determined by polls, nor is scientific consensus always correct. But it is the case that scientific consensus coalesces around the existing state of experimental evidence and data. If the fact that scientists believe that vaccinations are important does not make it so, it is at least motivated by an approach that treats an open-minded examination of data as important. Opposition to vaccinations requires people to ignore the preponderance of evidence in favor of claims that are at best held by a tiny minority of scientists, and that at worst have no grounding in science at all.

If we should not trust the scientific consensus on scientific matters, that begs the question, why should we trust the opposition?

Not even scientists have the time or ability to master every scientific discipline, or even every field of their own discipline. The average layperson has no chance of penetrating the thicket of mathematics and technical jargon that surrounds science.

Yet we have our beliefs. It is human tendency to look for patterns – in fact our brains seem to be highly developed to pull patterns out of noise, even when there are no patterns – and to be especially sensitive to patterns that support our prior beliefs. Confirmation bias is common not just when we look at scientific matters, but when we look at politics, personal relationships, and just about everything else.

Consider, for instance, this bit of information: After the announcement of the beheading of an American photojournalist by ISIS, President Obama headed for the golf course.

If you dislike Obama, you are likely to see in that fact confirmation of your belief that he is undisciplined, self-centered, narcissistic, or indifferent to the demands of governing. If you are a fan of Obama, you are likely to see in that fact confirmation of your belief that he is cool, unwilling to be bullied by public opinion, or taking some necessary down time while he prepares an appropriate response.

The facts never speak for themselves. We interpret them, always, and through the lens of our prior beliefs. We achieve the level of ideologue or fanatic when our beliefs and the evidence clearly contradict and we disregard the evidence in favor of our beliefs, but most of the time the contradiction is not so severe that we can’t bend the evidence to match our beliefs.

According to the Pew results, there is public consensus that science and technology have made our lives better, that our primary and secondary schools are not doing well at teaching science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) courses, and that lack of understanding of STEM subjects is a serious problem. Our admiration of science, though, does not translate into trust when the science contradicts our beliefs, but only when it confirms them.

This has serious consequences. The public comments to articles on the measles outbreak, which started at Disneyland and has spread to other states, has often focused on immigration rather than vaccination. While physicians see the story as evidence that not enough parents are getting their kids vaccinated, others see it as confirmation that Obama’s immigration policies are a disaster. And parents who oppose vaccination see in the fact that some of the measles sufferers had been vaccinated vindication for their belief that vaccinations are ineffective.

If Ebola were to come to the U.S. and an effective vaccine against it were developed, it would be interesting to see how many vaccination opponents would maintain the courage of their convictions. Likewise, when they get cancer, they are less likely to decide that physicians don’t know their business in favor of Clorox and coffee enemas. Their objection is to vaccines, not to medicine or science, yet they pick and choose their science.

Scientists are not God. Science is not an idol. It isn’t even any specific set of knowledge; there’s nothing more common in science than obsolete and incorrect knowledge. What science is, is a way of looking at the world, making order of a never-ending stream of information, and finding ways to weed out error. It is an approach that is fundamentally skeptical, unwilling to accept anything simply on authority, and that ruthlessly and unsentimentally drops even cherished notions if they contradict more finely measured reality.

I received the MMR vaccine and never caught measles or became autistic. That proves nothing about the relationship between vaccines and disease or vaccines and autism. Yet we are often quick to jump from a single observation to a generality: “My sister’s son got the MMR vaccine, and a week later he got convulsions and was diagnosed as autistic. Post hoc ergo propter hoc. QED.”

QE your doctor’s rear end. Believe what you will, but recognize your belief for what it is. And what it is has nothing to do with science.


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  • gardenSalsa64

    Fact: Today’s central Pacific cyclone activity is near the lowest levels of the past 5,000 years.

    • JWPicht

      We know that how? And if it’s true, it mans what?

  • Ized Fohssil

    It is a scientific fact there has been no statistically significant global warming in about 17 years.