Science Hasn’t Won Yet

“Change your opinions, keep to your principles; change your leaves, keep intact your roots.”

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Work and graduate studies regrettably caused me to miss the March for Science, a necessary political movement to combat the age of fake new, alternative facts, and post-truth. Even before legions of scientists took up placards to defend evidence and the importance of science in public and private life, science had been gradually winning over hearts and minds.

Earlier this year, a Pew Research Center survey found that 82% of Americans supported compulsory MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccination for schoolchildren, with 88% believing that the benefits outweighed the risks.

Yes, there are risks associated with the MMR vaccine. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention keeps something called Vaccine Information Statements (VIS). The name says it all; it’s a sufficiently thorough document explaining what a particular vaccine—MMR in this case—is, what disease (or diseases) it prevents, who should be inoculated and during what timeframe, who should avoid or delay vaccination, and, yes, possible complications following inoculation. To be clear, the risk of adverse outcomes are small. The CDC even goes as far to say that the risks “are so rare that it is hard to tell whether they are caused by the vaccine.” More importantly, nowhere is autism mentioned. That’s because vaccines DO NOT cause autism. QED.

Despite the encouraging statistics which showed many Americans saw the benefit of vaccinations, the Pew Research Center survey also found something particularly alarming.

People with low knowledge about science are also less likely to see high preventive health benefits from vaccines (55% compared with 91% of those high in science knowledge). In addition, they are more likely to consider the risk of side effects to be at least “medium” or worse (47% vs. 19% of those with high science knowledge.) Similarly, the 68% majority of Americans who do not correctly recognize the definition for “herd immunity” are less likely to rate the benefits of the MMR vaccine as high and comparatively more likely to see the risk of side effects as at least medium.

This underscores the importance of the March for Science and the importance of science and science education.

It becomes especially critical when charlatans like Andrew Wakefield can be invited to advise concerned parents, spreading misinformation to vulnerable people—namely a community of Somalian immigrants and their descendants who are frightened by the increasing prevalence of autism and who have poor scientific knowledge—resulting in a precipitous drop in vaccination rates. Polluting minds with spurious health claims (and propaganda) can lead to the recrudescence of once-vanquished diseases as demonstrated by the outbreak of measles in Minnesota. Since 2008, Wakefield frequented the now-beleaguered Minnesota community to give presentations and attend town-hall meetings to support his views on vaccination. It’s revolting that Wakefield is treated with deference and respect even after being exposed as a fraud. (Is my scorn for this man too obvious?) His most deplorable remark came when asked whether he felt any responsibility for the recent measles outbreak:

“I don’t feel responsible at all.”

There aren’t enough expletives…

Several days after the above survey was published, The New York Times published an op-ed called How Anti-Vaxxers Are Winning. The author lamented the high number of nonmedical vaccine exemptions granted in his home state of Texas—that number is 45,000—and that enough wasn’t being done to combat pseudoscientific bullshit. It doesn’t help that the Oval Office is occupied by an anti-science demagogue who has flagrantly attempted to cut funding to important scientific institutions, among many other things. It’s also disheartening to hear someone in the Texas House of Representatives say vaccines have no public health utility. No number of comparisons, however eloquent or true, to the Twilight Zone or Nineteen Eighty-Four or dystopian films could accurately characterize our current reality under the Trump administration.

A part of the fight in favor of the sciences was waged last month in the form of worldwide marches, precisely because Anti-Vaxxers cannot be allowed to win. The March for Science was indeed about more than just vaccinations. It was and hopefully continues to be a hearty enthusiasm for the sciences, to improve our health, our quality of life, and our environment. Science has gotten more media attention, has been featured in more films and television programs, and has collected a few hashtags broadening its social media prescence. Indeed, the popularity of science has grown in recent years, but it would be folly to become complacent.

Things are looking up, but the fight must go on.

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