Magazine
Feb 1, 2019

No, Anti-Vaxxers, Proven Science Isn’t Up for Debate

The fate of the human race relies on scientific progress. Those who question it compromise our future, writes Cillian Gartlan.

Cillian GartlanContributing Writer
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Ivan Rakhmanin for the University Times

Ignorance is bliss – isn’t it? Perhaps not: it must be stressful being anti-science, always having to believe that there are powerful people out to get you by trying to promote vaccines, Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and crazy ideas like the concept that the Earth is round and more than 6,000 years old? (Unbelievable).

Anti-science rhetoric drives me crazy. The whole point of science is to gather information while being as objective as possible, yet there appear to exist be many people who believe that proven science is up for debate. It’s not, and unless your counter argument references some peer-reviewed, reproducible studies with solid data, you shouldn’t really try.

I’ve seen enough questionable pseudo-science on Facebook, and been involved in enough Twitter disputes, to know all the ways people can be anti-science. From those who are anti-vaccination and anti-GMO, to homeopathy enthusiasts and “flat earthers”, there’s abundance of non-expert expertise out there, which I’d love to confront.

Firstly, flat-earthers. What an interesting bunch they are. Unlike some of the other categories of what we will term anti-science, the belief that the earth is flat appears, on first inspection at least, pretty harmless. However, although they may not cause direct harm, flat-earthers contribute to a general mistrust of science, acting as an extreme example. The evidence that the earth round is to most of us pretty irrefutable, but these people have so much distrust of the scientific community that they are reluctant to believe anything that comes from it.

Last year I took a module in foundation physics for life sciences, and one of our experiments involved determining the value of acceleration as a result of gravity. Due to some dodgy calculations, my lab partner and I arrived at a figure that was not near the correct value of 9.8m/s squared. My lab partner joked that this proved that scientists were lying and that the earth actually is flat, and even took the joke so far as to post our “evidence” in a flat earth Facebook group.

Unlike some of the other categories of what we will term anti-science, the belief that the earth is flat appears, on first inspection at least, pretty harmless

The amount of people who commented in support of our “findings” was amazing: one commenter insisted that this proved that homemade experiments yield the real data. Another commenter was clearly in the group for a laugh, and had some basic knowledge of physics. He corrected our mistake. After getting a message invite to a private Facebook group called “Christians under the dome”, my lab partner decided the joke had gone far enough.

Now, the homeopaths. The main principle of homeopathy is that diluting something makes it stronger. If you’ve ever successfully made a glass of MiWadi, you have disproven homeopathy. Homeopathy has never and will never work. The origins of homeopathy come from a time when proper medicines did not exist, and water with a tiny amount of some magnificent substance was sometimes better than nothing (thank the placebo effect for that one). A lot of the interest in homeopathy appears to come from the “all-natural” trend, which is popular among many anti-science groups. It’s a trend I find difficult to understand. Do people genuinely believe their lives would be healthier and happier if our species had never made any technological advances? Maybe in this instance homeopaths only believe this in the case of medicines, convincing themselves that the pharmaceutical companies investing billions in research are actually scamming us all with drugs that don’t work as well as water. Just because you can’t see the past with your own two eyes doesn’t mean that the old days were better. The statistics will tell you that they were not.

Anti-vaxxers are perhaps the most dangerous of the anti-science groups. Their rhetoric leads to measurable deaths and the resurgence of devastating diseases. Through vaccination, smallpox was wiped off the face of the (definitely round) Earth. Any other disease with an effective vaccine should suffer a similar fate but, due to human ignorance, they unfortunately do not. When about 95 per cent of the population is vaccinated against a disease, we gain the advantage of herd immunity. Herd immunity means that there are so many people vaccinated that a disease cannot spread because it is difficult to jump between unvaccinated hosts.

If you’ve ever successfully made a glass of MiWadi, you have disproven homeopathy

The reason herd immunity is important is because it helps the vulnerable: those, like the immunocompromised (someone, in other words, with an impaired immune system that cannot learn to fight disease through vaccination like normal immune systems can), who cannot be vaccinated. Due to irrational fears of the side-effects of vaccines, diseases like measles are taking hold again because herd immunity has been lost. It isn’t helpful to merely laugh at anti-vaxxers: their ideas thrive in an age of public distrust of science.

I thought I’d leave the GMO debate until the end, as it appears the most controversial – even among those who claim to trust the scientific process. As with the other iterations of anti-science ideologies, much anti-GMO sentiment comes down to a lack of scientific literacy. I remember seeing the results of a poll that suggested that over 80 per cent of US citizens believe that food with DNA in it should be labelled.

If the bar for scientific literacy in this area is so low, it’s no wonder fear mongering has been winning against actual science. Selective breeding, which involves mixing potentially thousands of genes at a time, has produced the modern foods we enjoy today, yet the mere mention of a regulated single-gene change to a crop is enough to have many up in arms.

If you don’t think selective breeding has powerful effects, search online for what the corn crop looked like before selective breeding. Of course the technology of genetic modification is quite new, and should be tightly regulated, but that should not get in the way of progress in this field.

With the right genes inserted, plants can become resistant to parasites or diseases, meaning less pesticides need to be sprayed onto them. Genetic modification (GM) can make foods even safer and better for the environment too. Much less land will be needed to produce the same amount of food. It baffles me that many environmental groups oppose GM technology (although many also oppose nuclear power), with some environmental activists going so far as to burn down research crops. GM technology has the potential to feed the world, and crops such as golden rice have the potential to end forms of malnutrition, such as vitamin A deficiency, experienced in the third world. The problem is that the countries that need these foods do not trust them – and why should they, when our own First World, “educated” populations don’t seem to?

If you don’t think selective breeding has powerful effects, search online for what the corn crop looked like before selective breeding

I don’t want to stand idly by while sick people are being taken advantage of by homeopaths, “faith healers” and the like, while anti-vaxxers chip away at our herd immunity, and the anti-GMO crowd slow the progress of a scientific field that could help alleviate malnutrition and world hunger.

Although education is clearly the best long-term approach for dealing with the anti-science crisis, there are other measures that have been taken by governments attempting to deal with the problem – for instance, restricting the child benefit allowances of parents who do not vaccinate their kids, and not allowing these children into public schools. At first I thought this approach was cruel, but the statistics show that it works. The fate of the human race relies on our utilisation of scientific progress, so perhaps it’s time we start using proven methods to combat its recent downfall.

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