Baby Boomers, who were spared leg braces and iron lungs thanks to polio
vaccines, were the first to eschew immunizations for their own children as part
of a misguided back-to-nature movement.
Today, sons and daughters of the Boomers are following a similar road.
by the admonitions of celebrities like Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy, they
subscribe to the theory that childhood vaccinations can lead to autism, despite
scientists’ adamant repudiation of the only study to ever link the two and the
recent finding that the study was a fraud.
pseudoscience has gained credibility via Internet websites and interactive
media, with pollsters now reporting that four in ten parents believe
vaccinations cause childhood autism and other illnesses.
beliefs have led many parents to forego immunizing their children, directly
contributing to California’s worst whooping cough epidemic in 63 years and
other outbreaks of preventable diseases. Distrust of science and scientists
threatens more than the health of our children; it poses a serious threat to the
future health and wellbeing of our nation.
dilemma lies in the fact that vast segments of the population lack scientific
literacy, not fully understanding scientific principles and methodology. Rather than consult scientific professionals
for expert medical advice, they increasingly place their faith in pseudoscience
with its unsupported and un-testable claims. Today, outright distrust of
science is common.
of us who have devoted our lives to scientific discovery and medical progress have
been shouted down by vocal critics of everything from evolution to animal models
of human biology. This backlash against science threatens to bring the march of
progress in fighting disease to a standstill and undermines public support for
research that has been on the rise since the end of World War II.
a substantial increase of new discoveries, technologies and medical
breakthroughs, scientific illiteracy is on a parallel trajectory. In regularly conducted interviews over the
past decade, a number of surveys have established some shocking trends.
50% of Americans polled believe the earth is less than 10,000 years old. Scientists put its age at more than 4.5
billion years. Forty percent of those surveyed believe that dinosaurs and
humans co-existed on earth, despite the 65 million year gap shown by the fossil
record. When asked to name a living
scientist, 46% were unable to name even one. Of those who did, the top three were
Bill Gates, Al Gore and Albert Einstein, who died in 1955.
of researchers and clinicians has been used as a vehicle for political
advantage, contributing to public denigration of science and medicine.
the 2008 presidential election, Sarah Palin criticized federal funding for
research using fruit flies as having "little to do with the public good." She
may or may not have been aware that research using fruit flies has yielded huge
conceptual breakthroughs in biology and medicine and five Nobel Prizes.
on the distrust of science has been a convenient approach for promoting
fundamentalist agendas. Whereas in the
past scientists were heavily involved in writing textbooks, school boards from
Texas to Pennsylvania are making concerted efforts to keep scientists out and
turn over the process to religiously-motivated, politically powerful movements.
only adds to the problem. There is only
one minute’s worth of coverage of science and technology for every five hours
of cable news, compared to ten minutes for celebrities and entertainment, 12
minutes for accidents and disasters and 26 minutes of crime reporting.
citizens, we must therefore take it upon ourselves to increase our own knowledge
of science and technology in order to make the best choices for our families
and our society. We have to understand science to assess the safety of genetically
modified foods or to evaluate the existence and consequences of global
must renew and reinvigorate our science education to ensure our children are
fully educated in scientific methodology, are able to understand new
discoveries and, ultimately, have the wherewithal to make educated decisions
based on what can be substantiated and what cannot.
of us engaged in science, medicine and technology have to take our message to
the people in every way possible and with the volume turned way up.
has to be made clear that science has molded and will continue to shape the
world in which we live to everyone’s benefit. Failing to do so will enable the
popular will – fueled by pseudoscience and vague, exaggerated and unverifiable
claims – to strangle the financial support for the research and development
that will lead to an improved quality of life for us all.
David I. Meyer, PhD, is
the president and CEO of Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute at
Harbor-UCLA Medical Center (LA BioMed), one of the nation’s leading nonprofit
independent biomedical research institutes.