The Great Science Conspiracy

Not so long ago, I was attending a Bible study session with a bunch of guys, (at my age one tends to become more interested in that afterlife thing) when I happened to mention the role of evolution in human development.  One of the members whom I considered to be quite intelligent, and especially well read when it came to biblical issues objected to my opinion.  He felt that The Theory of Evolution was an “insult to God.“ He was of course an adherent to the myth of creationism, and seemed little interested in my explanation of why I felt the opposite was true.  My mini-sermon about the awesome nature of a system so well organized and intertwined resulting in that miracle we call life should result in honor and praise of its designer, did little to impress him.   To his credit, he did not suggest that all was lost, and said he would pray for me.

His vow to pray for me was quite sincere, evidence that his belief was unassailable, and that he was concerned for me.  If I had indeed insulted God, then I would need prayer from somewhere.  I was hopeful that there might be some overlap so that his prayers could be applied to some of my more grievous sins. This is not to say that I have anything against prayer, for I have derived comfort when people have said they were praying for me.  The big question is which one of us was insulting God, or does he care which way we think it all happened?

Why How are we here?

This question as to how it all, including us humans, came to be has undoubtedly puzzled mankind ever since his brain had become sufficiently developed to contemplate such things. Primitive man must have been in awe of all that he witnessed in his environment.  He was totally immersed and dependent upon those miracles of life which we now often take for granted.  It is little wonder that he would look for plausible explanations for how he had come to be.  Since these questions were unfathomable, it is not surprising that he would look for a spiritual solution.  In recent centuries there has been considerable progress in answering the question as to how some of these things happened, but what or who initiated them remains as much a mystery as it was to our Stone Age ancestors.

Nevertheless, we have learned much about such issues during the past several centuries, but the rejection of scientific discoveries on religious grounds is not a new phenomenon.   In the past, scientists have faced not only derision, but even persecution for their pronouncements.  One famous example is Galileo, one of the most brilliant scientists of all time, who was twice convicted of heresy and spent the last few years of his life on house arrest.  Five hundred years later, there are still those who see scientists as Godless or even satanic in nature.  The truth is, according to a survey taken several years ago, it was determined that over half were believers.

Fortunately, we no longer put people in jail for their pursuit of truth, but there are some who reject outright those findings which they think conflict with their beliefs.  A good contemporary example is the insistence of some zealots that creationism be given equal time with evolution in school curricula.  This, in spite of overwhelming evidence proving that such an idea is false.  The question we must answer is: do we want to teach science, or should it be replaced by religious dogma as they do in the madrassas of the Middle East?

However, it is not only religious fundamentalists who are skeptical of science.  In the March issue of National Geographic magazine, it is said that “one third of Americans believe humans have existed in their present form since time began.”  The article continues to say that 60% do not believe that human activity is the cause of global warming, thus negating the opinions of 97 percent of climatologists worldwide.  The conflict between believers and naysayers tends to line up with their political views, further evidence that truth is no match for strongly held beliefs regardless of their origins.

The internet can be a source of a great deal of misinformation.  Many times I have challenged someone whom I feel has been misinformed, and ask them for evidence, and they have responded: “I saw it on the internet” which implied that it must true.  Of course conspiracy theories abound on the internet and the scientific community is not immune.

The Vaccine Conspiracy

Since I am a physician, I tend to note the anti-science rants which concern the field of medicine. The myth that immunizations are the cause of autism is one of those issues that appears to have been widely propagated on the internet.  One prominent example is a website called VaxTruth.org.  After reading some of their literature, I strongly suggest that title is inappropriate as I found little there that was truthful.  This is an issue that has caused serious harm and has the potential to affect the population as a whole.  I find it difficult to understand how such an organization could achieve not for profit status.

The Measles

Recently there have been sporadic outbreaks of measles in communities where well meaning parents refused to have their children vaccinated.  Measles is probably the most communicable disease known to man.  It is communicable five days before the appearance of a rash.  When I first started practicing medicine measles was a fact of life, and it was expected that all children would become infected.  If one child developed the rash, you could expect that everyone in his family or classroom, who had not already had the disease, would be sick in one to three weeks.  It was extremely rare for anyone to reach adulthood without having experienced the illness, but after recovery they had lifelong immunity.

It is not difficult to find information on the internet written by opponents of vaccination.  They tend to minimize the seriousness of measles, and suggest the recommendations to vaccinate are largely due to vested financial interests on the part of physicians and drug companies.  The truth is that the vaccination business is not very lucrative, and the complications of measles can be very serious, especially for children under five and young adults.  The Center for Disease Control reports the incidence of ear infections, which can lead to hearing impairment to be one in ten, pneumonia one in twenty, and encephalitis one in one thousand.  There also exists the possibility of the development of subacute sclerosing panencephalitis, a very serious brain disease, which may develop seven to ten years after recovery from measles.

Polio

I am old enough to recall days when my parents were terrified that I or my brother might develop the illness that had left President Roosevelt crippled.  I also remember seeing a newsreel at the movies which showed a room full of people in so 1280px-Iron_lungs

called iron lungs. Polio patients were entombed in these large cylindrical structures with only their heads protruding.  The paralysis usually occurred in the lower body, but could ascent until breathing was impaired in the more serious cases.  I heard that FDR contracted the disease after swimming.  After watching that news reel, I lost all interest in swimming for that year.

SalkIn 1955, a breakthrough occurred in the treatment of this previously incurable disease when a vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk was made available.  Prior to that time there were between 13,000 and 58,000 cases of polio reported annually in the United States.  In 1952, a record year, there were 3,145 deaths and untold survivors with residual disabilities.  If that weren’t enough, a condition called post polio syndrome with muscle weakness and pain could reappear years after the original onslaught.  The Salk vaccine virtually eliminated polio in the United States and throughout much of the world.  There are still pockets at risk, the most recent in the U.S. was in 1979 when there was an outbreak among an Amish population in the Midwest who had refused the vaccine on religious grounds.  Needless to say, Dr. Salk became an instant hero.  He refused to patent the vaccine as he wanted to keep the price down in order that it could be available to as many people as possible.  You might think this would give the Vaxtruth and likeminded people pause to reconsider their theory that this vaccination business was simply a con game to extort money from the masses. However, it’s been my experience that believers rarely allow facts to get in the way of a good conspiracy.

There appears to be general agreement among epidemiologists that what is called “herd immunity” is an important factor in preventing major epidemics.  When the percentage of those vaccinated reaches a critical mass, the risk for the entire population is lessened. Of course, the anti-vaccination groups vehemently deny the validity of the concept of herd immunity or community immunity as it is sometimes called.  This disbelief appears to have been a factor in the measles epidemic in southern California a while back where a group of parents became convinced that vaccinations were dangerous.   All 50 states require immunizations to enter schools, but 48 allow religious exceptions, and 19 make exceptions on philosophical grounds which would seem to make those laws toothless.

The phrase “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is one I heard many times in my childhood, and is all one should need to justify immunizations.  The development of vaccines is one of the major factors contributing to the lengthening of our lifespans, and must rank among the greatest achievements of mankind.  I read somewhere that an Egyptian mummy was found to have probably died of smallpox, and some historians think that a smallpox epidemic in the ranks of Roman soldiers was a major contributor to the country’s demise.  Indigenous populations throughout the world have been virtually destroyed by its ravages.  Jenner’s research in 1796 resulted in a means to vaccinate against this dread disease, and now it has been virtually eradicated from the face of the earth.

Diphtheria

Many years ago, I accompanied my Grandmother to the village graveyard, and was surprised to see a small marker in the family plot with a name inscribed that I had never heard before.  At my prodding she told me of how he had died of diphtheria as she held him in her arms.  She talked of her feelings of helplessness as she heard the “death rattle” and finally that last desperate gasp.  She was a strong woman and went on to focus on the rest of her family.  Sadly this had not been the case with Mary Todd Lincoln whose son had died in the same way, for it is said she was never able to resolve her grief.

In 1920 one year prior to the introduction of diphtheria toxoid there were over 15,000 diphtheria deaths reported in the United States. It was referred to as the “plague for children.” There have been no reports of diphtheria in the US since 1975 when there was a minor outbreak in Seattle.  Similar statistics could be found for other diseases, such as whooping cough and tetanus.  Can there be any doubt about the effectiveness of these vaccines, or will the conspiracy theorists insist these numbers are also fabricated? One could go on with a list of reasons to promote and even require immunizations for the populace, but I am sure there will be others who prefer that we go back to those good old days of one hundred years ago when life was shorter and more painful.

As is well described in that National Geographic article, The Age of Discontent, there is now rampant skepticism of many things scientific.  In previous blogs, I have also expressed concern over the relationships between the pharmaceutical industry and medical science.  I believe that it is possible for studies to be contaminated by poor study design and for researchers to thus being used to promote a particular product with too little focus on the common good.  I also have some concerns over the dependency of Universities on corporate funding for research as our politicians cut back on academic budgets.

In spite of the occasional intrusion of financial or political interests which have on occasion blemished scientific endeavors, one only needs to look around in his own small part of the world to appreciate the benefits that have accrued to mankind by those who have committed their lives to the scientific method in search of truth.  They explore the wonders of our universe and even things we cannot see or hear.  New questions usually arise from every one answered, and we begin to understand how little we know.  It has always seemed to me that such knowledge should confirm religious beliefs rather than threaten them.

Bending My Brain

However it is not only the Biblical literalists who question scientific findings.  Many reasonable people are reluctant to embrace some discoveries.  First of all, there never has been a time when we have been deluged with such massive amounts of information, some of which is difficult to understand, and some so fantastic that it strains credibility.  For example whenever I read something supposedly written for lay people about astrophysics, I come away with my head spinning. In addition, I was taught that the atom was the smallest particle of which all matter was made.  Now I read about all kinds of particles which reside in the atom and the forces that hold it all together.  On reading further, I am told that some of these particles are not matter but some other form of stuff, while others theorize that particles are actually strings.  At this point I often give up and accept that either I am stupid or this stuff is confusing.

Now I am no “Bill Nye the science guy”, but I have had some background in many of the sciences, and remained interested in them all of my life.  It would seem logical that if I can’t understand what these guys/girls are talking about, that Joe Sixpack would probably walk away from it convinced that it was a bunch of double talk, it had no relevance to him, and that scientists are all weird.

Media in Need of Education Regarding Science and How the Process of Discovery Works.

The inconsistencies delivered to the public by the news media also contributes to a general mistrust of the scientific community.  The explosion of data in recent years has led to the birth of fulltime positions as science reporters.  These people not only look to interview those investigators who are doing work the reporters deem interesting, they also peruse various scientific journals in order to get the jump on their competitors.  Therein lies a significant problem: many of these studies may be flawed, and subject to revision or outright rejection.

The scientific method was first adopted 500 years ago, and has changed little.  In its simplest form it involves formulating an hypothesis or theory then setting about to prove or disprove it by whatever means is appropriate.  This may be done by experimentation or other means of developing evidence for or against the hypothesis.  In most studies there is much opportunity for error not only in data collection, but study design, interpretation, outside influences, and even the unconscious biases of the investigator.  Therefore; most all important studies are subjected to intense review and usually are not accepted as gospel until their studies have been replicated by others.  The validity of the study conclusions are highly dependent upon these checks and balances, and there is often a great deal of back and forth as these scientists are just as competitive as any athlete.

With this in mind it is always wise not to endorse any scientific conclusions until the dust settles and there has been time for some study of the study. Indeed, this is how science is supposed to work!  However, the media is apt to report the results of a study before the process of checks and balances (replication) is actually finished.  Subsequently, it may be determined that the previous conclusions were wrong and the opposite of what was previously reported is true.  Therefore, one day the media reports caffeine will kill you. Next month, you hear the same reporter tell you caffeine is good for the brain and prevents dementia.

It is little wonder that Mrs. Sixpack loses faith in these “experts” on whom she depends, to tell her what is good for her kids, and Joe thinks this global warming thing is a joke. Is it surprising that they would cling to their previously held beliefs and give more credence to a politician than someone who has devoted his entire life to study of a particular subject?

The more we learn, the more wondrous the world becomes.

There also seems to be a great deal of misunderstanding as to how this science stuff is done.  Most discoveries are the result of painstaking efforts carried out over considerable lengths of times, sometimes years or even decades.  There are few “eureka moments” as most discoveries occur incrementally.  In my opinion the pursuit of knowledge is a noble endeavor, and curiosity is part of the human condition.  The sciences have provided a method to satisfy that need, and in the process have not only enhanced our quality of life, but left us in awe of the magnitude and complexity of our environment.  The more we learn, the more wondrous it becomes.  Of course we humans have not always used that knowledge sensibly, and may even have used it to put our very existence at risk, but that is another story for another time.

One thought on “The Great Science Conspiracy

  1. I am catching up on emails and my reading.  Want to say again how much I appreciate your blogs. In the Science Conspiracy, as usual, you are a great analyst about issues.  You bring in so many perspectives, reinforce for me again and again how, as much as I would like to see the world as black and white, it rarely, if ever is.   Most issues are very complicated. Dennis always brings many perspectives into our conversations about varying subjects , something I really resented for too many years in our marriage! Black and white is easier, doesn’t make my brain hurt!

    In the Science Conspiracy, I especially liked your comments about the media playing a part in skepticism about even good science.  I am more careful in reading certain articles these days.  Very frustrating to read something that sounds like a conclusion from the headline, only to find out in the article, that it is only a theory.  I appreciate the caution the scientists in the Human Microbiome Project have taken in prematurely reporting their findings. “My first reaction to learning all this was to want to do something about it immediately, something to nurture the health of my microbiome. But most of the scientists I interviewed were reluctant to make practical recommendations; it’s too soon, they told me, we don’t know enough yet. Some of this hesitance reflects an understandable abundance of caution. The microbiome researchers don’t want to make the mistake of overpromising, as the genome researchers did. They are also concerned about feeding a gigantic bloom of prebiotic and probiotic quackery and rightly so: probiotics are already being hyped as the new panacea, even though it isn’t at all clear what these supposedly beneficial bacteria do for us or how they do what they do. ”

    (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/19/magazine/say-hello-to-the-100-trillion-bacteria-that-make-up-your-microbiome.html)

    I mentioned some of this to you in church, so it may sound familiar.

    Appreciated your presence in the book discussion today.

    Like

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