Why science stands supreme in the face of so much ignorance

From vaccines to GM food, there's no shortage of contrarians who will never let the facts speakfor themselves

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 April, 2015, 7:45am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 April, 2015, 10:56am

The March issue of National Geographic raises many intriguing questions about the world we live in today. It also has a particular resonance for me as a former science reporter. Its title is: The War on Science. And the sub-headline reads:

  • Climate change does not exist
  • Evolution never happened
  • The moon landing was fake
  • Vaccinations can lead to autism
  • Genetically modified food is evil.

Over the years, I have had my share of altercations with angry people on the last two items, some even quite recently. In the early 2000s, I started writing articles casting doubt on the original paper published by Andrew Wakefield and his colleagues in the British medical journal The Lancet claiming the combined measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) childhood vaccine could cause autism.

More recently, I wrote in my daily column My Take (May 28, 2013) defending genetically modified food after millions of people marched against the biotechnology and the modified seeds giant Monsanto.

The most common criticism I got from readers and critics is that I was being completely ignorant. If you are so inclined, you are welcome to go to the reader response section of My Take:

I was initially sceptical about GM food but came around to its safety a long time ago. A confession: I bought shares in Monsanto, having been alerted to this "evil" company when Greenpeace Hong Kong launched its campaign against GM food in the 1990s. Boy, I wish I had held on to those shares!

In February 1998, Wakefield and co-researchers at the Royal Free Hospital in London published a controversial study of 12 children with autism and other developmental disorders in The Lancet. The paper claims there is a possible link between the MMR jab, autism and Crohn's disease, a type of inflammatory bowel disease.

The Lancet was criticised from the start by experts for publishing the low-quality paper with scant evidence and sloppy research. It eventually retracted it, but only after many years. Unfortunately, the now discredited link between MMR and autism caught on like wildfire in many Western countries. Today, like the denial of climate change, it is being championed by activists who considered Wakefield a martyr to a vast conspiracy by big drug companies and worldwide health authorities.

As National Geographic puts it, "doubting science has consequences".

"The people who believe vaccines cause autism - often well educated and affluent, by the way - are undermining 'herd immunity' to such diseases as whooping cough and measles.

"The anti-vaccine movement has been going strong since … The Lancet published a study in 1998 linking a common vaccine to autism. The journal later retracted the study, which was thoroughly discredited. But the notion of a vaccine-autism connection has been endorsed by celebrities and reinforced through the usual Internet filters. (Anti-vaccine activist and actress Jenny McCarthy famously said on The Oprah Winfrey Show, 'The University of Google is where I got my degree from'.)"

It's interesting McCarthy cited Google. There are many excellent papers and blogs you can easily google explaining the MMR controversy, its origin, and the terrible harm it has caused worldwide. McCarthy chose to ignore all those sources and only went with others that fit her own conviction about MMR. In other words, don't blame Google.

Meanwhile, National Geographic has this to say about the public fear of genetically altered food: "We're asked to accept, for example, that it's safe to eat food containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) because, the experts point out, there's no evidence that it isn't and no reason to believe that altering genes precisely in a lab is more dangerous than altering them wholesale through traditional breeding.

"But to some people the very idea of transferring genes between species conjures up mad scientists running amok - and so, two centuries after Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, they talk about Frankenfood."

Of course, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. They may well find something dangerous about GMOs in future. So if you are already or ideologically inclined against GMOs, no amount of evidence can convince you it's safe. As for myself, I worry far more about existing threats like salmonella and E coli food poisoning, and tainted food production.

But National Geographic is not quite right about the war on science. There is no such war because science is an awesome intellectual edifice, the greatest ever devised. It is virtually irresistible unless you are a bushman or an Amish. People may be against or disbelieve this or that part of science such as climate change or MMR vaccines. But they accept or don't question all the rest even if they don't understand the science and technology underlying their daily lives.

Science thrives on logic and consistency; we are, for the most part, neither logical nor consistent.

Alex Lo edits the science and technology page