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Are we turning our backs on science?


Are we as a society turning our backs on science? Have we decided to just throw up our hands and go back to the first half of the Twentieth Century or earlier? It certainly seems like it sometimes.



A few days ago we heard that Chili’s, the popular restaurant chain, had cancelled its plans to raise funds for the National Autism Association. Why? Isn’t everyone against autism? Surely we can all get behind fundraising for such a worthy cause.

Except, as it turns out, the misleadingly named NAA is an antivax group. They believe vaccines cause autism, and the funds raised would have supported their unscientific, utterly unfounded belief. Chili’s, after hearing from the public, wisely decided to cancel their sponsorship.

Vaccines, after all, are one of the greatest accomplishments of modern science. They are responsible for the virtual obliteration of some diseases. They keep billions of people safe from the ravages of many diseases. They protect our children from measles, mumps, whooping cough, tetanus, and polio. They protect adults from influenza, pneumonia, HPV, shingles, and more. The science is indisputable. And yet there are people in this country who choose pseudoscience over decades of scientific research and evidence from organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization, and believe vaccinations cause autism. They do not vaccinate their children, leaving them and those around them at risk for diseases that had been contained or eliminated. Case in point: current measles outbreaks around the U.S. and Canada. Proof enough that we cannot drop our guard. We must vaccinate to ensure such diseases do not recur in epidemic proportions.



Then there’s the complex issue of women’s reproductive health, abortion, contraception, and sex education in this country. We know that providing sex education and contraception greatly reduces the occurrence of unwanted pregnancies and resulting abortions, not to mention sexually transmitted diseases. We have more than forty years’ worth of statistics to prove it. And yet there is a segment of our population that has risen up to reject everything science and medicine have taught us and pass laws turning back the clock to the days of back-alley, coat-hanger abortions. There won’t be fewer abortions but there will be thousands more women facing the complications of botched abortions — infection, mutilation, and loss of the ability to bear children in the future. Much of this stems from a more active, vocal ultraconservative religious right and their seeming desire to reject science and strip women of the right to decide what happens to their bodies if they become pregnant. It’s a complete rejection of modern science and medicine in favor of religious teachings about the beginning of life and the place of women in society. It’s fine to believe what you want to believe about these things, but it’s not okay to impose those beliefs on others. Other people are just as entitled to their rights and beliefs.



What about the global warming issue, aka climate change? No matter what you call it, the science is solid. The earth is getting warmer. The polar ice caps and glaciers are melting, and sea levels are gradually rising. The issue seems to be whether the warming is a natural fluctuation in the earth’s temperature or a warming caused in a number of ways by humans. Knowing humans are at least partly at fault means we can and should do something to offset the human contribution, yet rather than seek effective ways to counter the warming, there’s a segment of the population that prefers to deny that warming is occurring at all (scientists lie, you know). They reject all the evidence, all the science and research. They are in the minority (3%, to be exact), but they are vocal. And they will continue to deny the existence of global warming even when the rising seas sweep across their beachfront properties.



Then there are the creationists who keep trying to interject “intelligent design,” a religious and philosophical concept, into our biology classrooms, to be taught along with evolution as though it were a comparable science — which of course it is not. In the past it has been generally accepted that science would be taught in schools and religion would be taught in churches. But creationism was rebranded as “intelligent design” and advocates began pushing to get it included in science classes.

These same people are apoplectic over the television show “Cosmos” and host Neil deGrasse Tyson’s failure to include intelligent design in his discussions of the universe and the origin of life. Inexplicably, they think this science program should allot equal time to creationism. Tyson does give it some time — just enough to resoundingly refute it.

He explained in the Huffington Post:

“I think the media has to sort of come out of this ethos that I think was in principle a good one, but doesn’t really apply in science. The ethos was, whatever story you give, you have to give the opposing view, and then you can be viewed as balanced,” Tyson said, adding, “you don’t talk about the spherical earth with NASA and then say let’s give equal time to the flat-earthers.”



Why there is such a resurgence of religiosity is unclear. Perhaps it’s a reaction to an increasingly troubled nation and world. Perhaps it has been provoked by the rise of the New Atheists, a rather outspoken group of atheists, agnostics, and humanists who aren’t content to sit on the sidelines anymore with their nonbelief. Perhaps the 9/11 attacks by Muslim extremists spurred a strong Christian backlash. Maybe it was President Obama’s remark about people clinging to their guns and their Bibles. Maybe it’s just a side effect of the rise of the tea party, which started as a group concerned about taxes but which happened also to be composed mostly of conservative Christians.

However it came about, it appears that a significant segment of the population, predominantly conservative Christians, has become much more active in its efforts to promote religion over science, to deny that life rose from the sea and humans evolved from apes, that diseases can be controlled and even eradicated with modern medicine, that women’s liberation and modern science can free women to pursue productive lives of their own choosing, and that mankind is causing global warming.

Is there a fear that their religion is under siege, that it will somehow cease to exist? No one is trying to take it from them, close their churches, deny them their right to believe. The Constitution protects their right to worship as they please, to believe whatever they want to believe. The government even gives their churches special tax breaks to help ensure their continued existence.

Perhaps it’s simply the passage of time, the maturation of younger generations who didn’t experience the polio epidemic, the desperate women seeking desperate measures to end unwanted pregnancies, the rise of environmental awareness, and the darkness before Hubble’s views of the expanse and beauty of the universe around us. Perhaps it’s just the coming of age of a generation that did not experience and therefore cannot understand or appreciate what the world was like … before.

Or maybe it’s all a case of misperception and, in this case, distorted reality, thanks to journalists who think “balanced” means presenting all sides equally, whether or not they are of equal validity, importance, or relevance. Science is out there, but so are those who for whatever reason reject it, and though the true balance might be 90% science  / 10% anti-science, the media, in their effort to appear balanced, give the two equal time and/or space. Maybe the creationists, the climate change deniers, etc., really constitute only 5%-10% of the population, and “balanced” media coverage only makes it appear science is being rejected and the clock turned back. Let’s hope that’s the case, because with the rise of advocacy journalism and the manipulation of our media by a small number of wealthy individuals and special interests, the truth is becoming more and more elusive.




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