In a college class I was asked to summarize an issue by giving a one-sentence statement of the problem. The topic being discussed was the public controversy surrounding parents choosing not to vaccinate their children.
“Parents are deciding not to vaccinate their children based on pseudoscience.” The best I could come up with on short notice.
Crickets. A couple laughs.
“Uh.. I’m gonna leave out the pejorative portion of that statement,” said the professor before scribbling the statement onto the board without the word pseudoscience. He carried on with his lesson and I wondered about that label, “pejorative.”
Pejorative: noun. A word expressing contempt or disapproval.
Parents opting their children out of vaccinations cannot be based on science, because the science shows vaccinations to be safe. Despite the lack of science, these parents often point to things like autism, which they believe can be caused by certain vaccines. Therefore “pseudoscience” is a functional part of an accurate description of the problem.
Perhaps it is a provocative description, but isn’t that effective communication? When you articulate a problem, is there an implicit tone of contempt or disapproval? Could one make a statement about global warming, for example, without contempt or disapproval?
Pseudoscience is the absolute crux of the matter when it comes to so-called “anti-vaxxers.” (Now there’s a pejorative for you.) An article I read recently, about outbreaks of the measles in Germany, really highlights that fact. Apparently the re-emergence of the disease has sparked a national debate about whether or not vaccinations for it should be mandatory.
A man named Stefan Lanka, a biologist of all things, had gone so far as to claim that the measles aren’t even real. He insisted it was some sort of psychosomatic condition. In other words, not the sort of thing to address with vaccination. He offered a $100,000 reward on his website to anyone who could prove otherwise.
Pseudoscience: noun. A collection of beliefs or practices mistakenly regarded as being based on scientific method.
The offer stood for 4 years as a proud beacon of pseudoscience. Finally a doctor took the time to submit peer-reviewed articles rife with scientific evidence proving Lanka wrong. What happened next took everybody by surprise.
A German biologist who offered €100,000 (£71,350; $106,300) to anyone who could prove that measles is a virus has been ordered by a court to pay up.
The reward was later claimed by German doctor David Barden, who gathered evidence from various medical studies. Mr Lanka dismissed the findings. But the court in the town of Ravensburg ruled that the proof was sufficient.
Could there be a more flagrant example of science VS pseudoscience or a more appropriate microcosm for the entire anti-vaccine movement?
Famous science spokesman Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson was asked recently about measles outbreaks in the United States, and the problem of “anti-vaxxers.” He responded in an email to the Huffington Post which precisely described the problem of pseudoscience.
Not enough of our society is trained how to understand and interpret quantitative information. This activity is a centerpiece of science literacy to which we should all strive — the future health, wealth, and security of our democracy depend on it. Until that is achieved, we are at risk of making under-informed decisions that affect ourselves, our communities, our country, and even the world.
Perhaps dismissing plain statements of fact as somehow incorrectly derogatory, inappropriate or wrongfully pejorative is itself part of the problem. Can the desire to avoid offending people contribute to their willingness to base decisions on bad evidence?
Access to the wide array of data on the internet can be dangerous without a strategy for interpreting it. Many parents lack such a strategy. As a global community, we must not be afraid to embrace science, and at the same point out those who endanger us all by rejecting its findings.