Inoculating Against Science-Denialism

This op-ed appeared in The Ottawa Citizen on February 10, 2015. 

There’s an illness sweeping its way across North America, one which has long-troubled the scientific community and baffled even the most seasoned medical expert.

This problem isn’t new, but was once considered primarily a threat to underdeveloped nations which have yet to fully reap the benefits of modern medical and technological advances: advances which turned once-fatal conditions into manageable, even curable, ones; advances which have saved countless lives and alleviated immeasurable suffering.

The regression, this outbreak of a highly-contagious, yet preventable, affliction, is what so troubles the medical and scientific communities alike: the ailment poses a direct risk to past public-health achievements. Though, when caught early, the condition can be treated and rectified, this particular malady is notoriously impenetrable once full-blown.

In mild cases, the afflicted are referred to as merely “vaccine-hesitant”: often new parents, genuinely interested in the health and welfare of their child, yet lacking the specific knowledge required to fully understand the importance of vaccination. Given their openness to discussion, early-intervention is key to full recovery. The combination therapy of patience and availability is often the best approach; A steady dose of evidence-based material is prescribed, and in most cases, the science-denialism will simply run its course.

Full-blown anti-vaccination sentiment, however, is one of science-denialism’s most potent manifestations. Not only is it highly contagious through typical transmission channels — fringe pseudoscientific websites; conspiratorial Facebook memes — but once airborne, this virulent ideology is nearly impossible to contain.

Television and radio tend to be the incurably-afflicted’s host of choice. Knowing media are under great pressure to avoid the appearance of bias, the stricken demand equal airtime, insist on presenting “the other side” of the argument.

Of course, there are no “two sides” in the matter of vaccinations; no “debate” to be had. There are proven, irrefutable facts regarding the safety and efficacy of vaccination, and there are lies. It’s that simple.

Still, the afflicted enthusiastically appear on-air armed with “research” acquired while earning a PhD in epidemiology from Google University. They offer “alternative” theories of disease, complete with “alternative” remedies like homeopathic nosodes. (Read: expensive placebos; snake-oil.)

Those beyond treatment, whose science-denialism hardens in the face of evidence, have, ironically, shown a developed immunity to facts. They aren’t driven by reason, but rather, by motivated reasoning — seeking only information fitting their beliefs, and when presented with details challenging those preconceived notions, they double-down on denial.

What, then, is the solution?

Though there isn’t a cure for science-denialism, there are steps which can be taken to mitigate the risk, keep the contagion in check. By refusing to give the infected a platform, be it through on-air interviews or quoting at length in print, media can prevent misinformation from benefitting the appearance of validity. Yes, every person is entitled to an opinion, but no, every opinion does not warrant equal merit.

Medical professionals and the science-minded can work to counter the pseudoscience by making themselves available to help the under-informed navigate the information minefield; providing resources to debunk anti-vaccine assertions; answering even the silliest question without judgement.

We must accept, too, that not every mind can be changed.

To quote Dr. Ben Goldacre: “You cannot reason people out of a position that they did not reason themselves into.”

But it’s always worth the shot.

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One thought on “Inoculating Against Science-Denialism

  1. Oof, that was a really tortured closing quip. It probably wasn’t worth the effort though, since this entry is so long and boring that I only skimmed it and didn’t pay attention to the setup.

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