Disparate Anti-Science Forces

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorFeb 5, 2010 7:14 PM


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In case you missed the big news about the Lancet retraction, Daniel Drezner has the best meta post. He hints at the parallels between the anti-vaccine nuts, GMO opponents and climate change skeptics (strange bedfellows, aye?). I see it too, but I believe irrationality underlies the anti-vaccine movement while ideology drives the other two. Regardless, Drezner doesn't see the forces of reason winning out anytime soon, especially with the anti-vaccine crowd. He notes the response to the Lancet retraction in a New York Times article:

the retraction may do little to tarnish Dr. Wakefield's reputation among parents' groups in the United States. Despite a wealth of scientific studies that have failed to find any link between vaccines and autism, the parents fervently believe that their children's mental problems resulted from vaccinations.... Jim Moody, a director of SafeMinds, a parents' group that advances the notion the vaccines cause autism, said the retraction would strengthen Dr. Wakefield's credibility with many parents. "Attacking scientists and attacking doctors is dangerous," he said. "This is about suppressing research, and it will fuel the controversy by bringing it all up again."

On this, here's Drezner, in a brilliant and acerbic observation:

Activists will argue that this is an example of Big Science suppressing counterintuitive research. And in a public battle between the Jenny McCarthy/Oprah media-industrial complex and a bunch of science nerds, I'm putting my money on Mustard Girl. In my prior research, I've seen this kind of dynamic play out in the debates over genetically modified foods, and we're still seeing it play out in the debate over climate change. Furthermore, because scientists are not perfect, it's becoming easier to point out flaws that don't necessarily compromise the basic science but do tarnish the image of scientists as neutral arbiters of fact.

In a separate vein, Orac thrashes the broadcast media for its coverage of the Lancet retraction. Climate advocates will surely feel his pain. I'd be curious to hear what Science Journalism Tracker and CJR's The Observatory think of the press coverage of this huge story. So far, neither outlet has weighed in. UPDATE: Drezner's post concludes with another trenchant observation and a provocative question that deserves equal attention:

To be fair, it's true that individual scientists aren't really completely neutral -- especially when it comes to politicized debates. The scientific method, on the other hand, is about as neutral as you can get. But that's not as sexy a sell to the public. Question to readers: is there a way to make scientific consensus more acceptable to a public that doesn't want to hear the results?

That's really worth mulling over. But the problem is that no amount of sexing up of science will work with subcultures that are religiously, ideologically, or irrationally predisposed to disregard scientific consensus on certain issues of importance to them. That means that creationists, anti-vaccine activists, GMO opponents, and hardcore climate change skeptics, to name just a few groups that have fixed, unalterable views, cannot be persuaded by reason, no matter how it's packaged. UPDATE 2: Charlie Petit over at Science Journalism Tracker acknowledges my prod and puts up a real nice round-up of press coverage. Definitely worth checking out. It's fair to speculate that this story will one day take on very tragic proportions, given how many thousands of parents have not vaccinated their children since that 1998 Lancet study was published. Now, if Curtis Brainard over at CJR's The Observatory also takes my prod, he might write a post similar to the excellent one he recently did on the recent IPCC media coverage (or lack thereof) in the U.S. He thus would sniff out all the potential autism/science angles just waiting to be covered, such as this one, from a parent of an autistic child, who commented on the Lancet retraction news at a blog site:

Because of my firm belief in the science of vaccines not causing ASD I am ostracized and treated with pity, like I am just too naive to know the truth.

At the same blog, another commenter writes:

I know what you mean--I went through some of this with my youngest child's health issues and was completely ostracized by my new-agey community for taking the "pharma" path with my child. Many of the people who post here are scientists and have not faced this in the same way an average mother might.

Damn, I hope this wasn't Boulder.

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