The New Yorker
Originally posted 01 June 2016
Here is an excerpt:
The scientific orientation has proved immensely powerful. It has allowed us to nearly double our lifespan during the past century, to increase our global abundance, and to deepen our understanding of the nature of the universe. Yet scientific knowledge is not necessarily trusted. Partly, that’s because it is incomplete. But even where the knowledge provided by science is overwhelming, people often resist it—sometimes outright deny it. Many people continue to believe, for instance, despite massive evidence to the contrary, that childhood vaccines cause autism (they do not); that people are safer owning a gun (they are not); that genetically modified crops are harmful (on balance, they have been beneficial); that climate change is not happening (it is).
Vaccine fears, for example, have persisted despite decades of research showing them to be unfounded. Some twenty-five years ago, a statistical analysis suggested a possible association between autism and thimerosal, a preservative used in vaccines to prevent bacterial contamination. The analysis turned out to be flawed, but fears took hold. Scientists then carried out hundreds of studies, and found no link. Still, fears persisted. Countries removed the preservative but experienced no reduction in autism—yet fears grew. A British study claimed a connection between the onset of autism in eight children and the timing of their vaccinations for measles, mumps, and rubella. That paper was retracted due to findings of fraud: the lead author had falsified and misrepresented the data on the children. Repeated efforts to confirm the findings were unsuccessful. Nonetheless, vaccine rates plunged, leading to outbreaks of measles and mumps that, last year, sickened tens of thousands of children across the U.S., Canada, and Europe, and resulted in deaths.
People are prone to resist scientific claims when they clash with intuitive beliefs. They don’t see measles or mumps around anymore. They do see children with autism. And they see a mom who says, “My child was perfectly fine until he got a vaccine and became autistic.”
Now, you can tell them that correlation is not causation. You can say that children get a vaccine every two to three months for the first couple years of their life, so the onset of any illness is bound to follow vaccination for many kids. You can say that the science shows no connection. But once an idea has got embedded and become widespread, it becomes very difficult to dig it out of people’s brains—especially when they do not trust scientific authorities. And we are experiencing a significant decline in trust in scientific authorities.
5 years old, and still relevant.