The Happiest Place on Earth has become the Spottiest Place on Earth.
Early last December, one person with measles visited a Disneyland park in California. Maybe they sneezed. That’s probably all it took. Measles is so contagious that if someone has it, 90% (!) of the people close to that person will get infected if they are not immune.
It was a perfect storm: measles exposure in a very public place in a hot-bed of anti-vaccination-ism.
There were 644 new cases of measles in 2014 – the largest number in the U.S. in nearly one-quarter of a century – and dozens of those cases were linked back to the December Disneyland exposure.
The science is conclusive – measles is a highly contagious, very serious disease that can cause severe complications and death. Before 1963 (when vaccination began), 400-500 people in the US died every year from the measles and another 4,000 developed encephalitis.
Also conclusive – the reappearance of previously-defeated diseases like measles and whooping cough is linked to increasing numbers of parents who refuse to vaccinate their kids.
There Must Be a Misunderstanding…
“We just aren’t sending the right message to parents!” – or so thought the American Academy of Pediatrics.
In a study published last year, almost 2000 parents were given specific information from the Centers for Disease Control regarding the measles vaccine, the MMR. The parents were divided into groups:
- Group 1 received information explaining that the measles vaccine (MMR) does not cause autism.
- Group 2 received information about the dangers of measles that can be prevented by the MMR vaccine.
- Group 3 saw photos of children with measles that could have been prevented by the MMR vaccine.
- Group 4 read a dramatic narrative about an infant who almost died from measles.
So what do you think? Which approach was most effective in convincing parents to vaccinate their children?
None. Not one of the approaches worked.
Although information that debunked the autism/vaccine myth successfully reduced misconceptions about an autism link, parents who were already unlikely to vaccinate doubled down and expressed even stronger feelings against vaccinations.
In the group of parents who saw images of sick children, belief in the autism link rose. The narrative about the infant who almost died from measles increased the number of parent-reported stories about vaccine side-effects.
Similar results were found with the flu vaccine. People who were fearful that the flu shot could actually cause the flu were given solid evidence debunking this myth. And after the evidence – the flu fearful were even less likely to get a flu shot.
When Knowledge is Not Enough
In 2008 the Texas State School Board was embroiled in controversy over public school science curriculum. Front and center of the controversy, of course, was evolution. Southern Methodist University anthropologist, Dr. Ron Wetherington, served as an expert reviewer during the process.
At the time, the Texas State School Board was packed with staunch creationists, including the staunchest of all, president Don McLeroy.
Dr. Wetherington and his colleagues believed that education was the key to correcting misinformation. Denial of the evidence supporting evolution is largely due to ignorance, they reasoned. But Dr. Wetherington and his colleagues found that the facts of evolution were irrelevant in the debate. The Revisionaries, an award-winning film that documents the standards and textbook battles between the scientists and the Texas State School Board, features Dr. Wetherington.
Most states include evolution in their science curriculum and approximately 70 percent of students entering college say they were taught about evolution. Yet, more than one-third of young Americans (18-29 years) do not believe in human evolution or are not sure. Even fewer Americans accept human evolution in the 30 years and older demographics.
Everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not to his own facts.
(Daniel Patrick Moynihan)
Apparently this truism does not apply to science. Throwing facts at the problem is not helping.
The Science of Big Foot and Haunted Houses
Sometimes reasonable people doubt science, but doubting science has consequences. Vaccines save lives and anti-vaxers are decreasing the herd immunity that keeps the weakest among us safe. Fluoridation conspiracy theorists argue against a safe, cheap, and effective practice that promotes dental health across socioeconomic lines.
Evolution is real and is a fact and is the very foundation of modern biology and medicine. Rejecting evolution on religious grounds is driving people away from their faith and their churches in droves.
Americans, champions of public schooling and education for all, often flounder in their understanding of scientific knowledge.
Fifty-one percent of Americans are confident in the safety of vaccines, but roughly the same percentage of Americans believe in haunted houses.
The number of Americans who believe that the universe began with a big bang is equal to the number who believe in Bigfoot.
It’s one thing to know a bunch of science facts, it’s another thing to know what to do with them. More important than the ability to spout lists of science facts is science thinking.
Science is not a body of facts. Science is a method for deciding whether what we choose to believe has a basis in the laws of nature or not. (Marcia McNutt, editor of Science)
Science is facts, but not just the facts – it’s also how we decide what is true and consistent with natural laws and what isn’t. Science thinking is equally important: What is evidence? What is a theory? How do scientists work?
Tight With Our Peeps
Our beliefs about science are largely motivated by our emotions. In that regard, we never left high school – we want to stay tight with our peers.
So, if my brain understands the evidence for evolution but my faith community denies it, most often my need to “fit in” will triumph. I will “doubt” or “deny” evolution because to allow myself to believe otherwise comes at an emotional cost.
I don’t really care about hurting science’s feelings, so there is not an emotional downside in ignoring science.
That’s the reason anti-vaxers are often found in hot pockets of uniform communities and not spread randomly across all demographics.
That’s the reason why political party affiliation usually predicts a person’s opinion on the validity of climate change data.
Scientists themselves are not immune to self-imposed bias. We all favor evidence that confirms what we already believe.
But science evidence isn’t considered legit until it has been put up on the hot seat before the scientific community. If evidence cannot be confirmed AND replicated by multiple other scientists, it fails.
In science it’s not a sin to change your mind when the evidence demands it. For some people, the tribe is more important than the truth; for the best scientists, the truth is more important than the tribe.
Science tells us the truth, not what we’d like the truth to be.
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.