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Why understanding science matters (again)

by John Krehbiel on 8 February 2009

It turns out that the original article linking autism and other developmental abnormalities with the MMR vaccine was outright fraud. That’s a strong statement, but justified given tidbits like this:

In six cases, [of twelve] evidence of developmental difficulties was present prior to the first administration of the vaccine.

That makes the death of unvaccinated children, and of those exposed to disease because of other children who are not vaccinated, murder. Perhaps not legally, but morally.

-- 2009-02-08  »  John Krehbiel

Talkback x 11

  1. Greg Krehbiel
    8 February 2009 @ 1:27 pm

    Understanding science isn’t going to help the mom who wants to know if she should vaccinate her kid or not. She needs to know if she can trust her doctor and the medical community in general.

    A large number of people don’t trust doctors or scientists. The medical and scientific communities need to ask themselves why.

    Part of the answer is that science and medicine have been politicized.

  2. DSM
    8 February 2009 @ 3:54 pm

    Disagreeing as often as I do with JK, it’s only fair to stand up for him when I agree!

    I think that understanding science *will* help the mom in question. It should help her recognize that the autism-vaccine connection was always manifestly implausible. This is not the same as saying it was necessarily false, of course: all sorts of unlikely things have been proven to be true in the past. Plausibility is always relative to your prior beliefs (this can even be quantified using Bayes’ theorem), but some priors are, frankly, silly, and some reasoning is poor.

    Science education can however help people recognize that “some group says these chemicals in vaccines causes autism; doctors took the chemical out; autism rates didn’t decrease” is a syllogism that should be taken seriously. It will help them realize that “how is autism detected? has that definition changed?” isn’t a weasel-word question by defensive experts but a natural question to ask.

    I do think it’s fair for doctors and scientists to ask why they’re not trusted, and I agree that much of science that has a political consequence has been politicized. You notice the difference working in a field without much impact. I went to the European Geophysical Union meeting last year, and how the climate types acted was very different from how I’m used to my colleagues acting.

    But some of it is due to a poor grasp of the public on how science works, which results in the public both being dubious of claims which are quite probable, and in other case giving extraordinary deference to experts who are pretty clearly throwing darts.

  3. Jane
    8 February 2009 @ 5:57 pm

    “But some of it is due to a poor grasp of the public on how science works, which results in the public both being dubious of claims which are quite probable, and in other case giving extraordinary deference to experts who are pretty clearly throwing darts.”

    And scientifically ignorant journalists writing about scientific matters only exacerbate the situation. Just about every time I read any article in general media about the conclusions of a new study, I find that either the study didn’t establish what the reported conclusions are, or the journalist didn’t write the article in a way that demonstrates it, but wrote up some invalid syllogism and claimed that the study’s conclusions were based on that syllogism. The journalist apparently neither understand the study, nor understands that what he wrote about the study doesn’t make sense.

    The ignorance is pre-existing and not the fault of journalists, but if the journalists partake of it and reinforce it, it only makes people more certain of what isn’t so.

  4. Jane
    8 February 2009 @ 5:59 pm

    But while I agree with DSM and JK, Greg’s point is part of the equation as well.

  5. Herr Doktor
    8 February 2009 @ 6:10 pm

    While you can always say that it would be good for the public to be aware of this or that domain of science or “how science works” in the domain in question, it is asking too much of the layman and even from the sceintist to have a grasp of science as such. It seems to have become Too Big for us all.

  6. John Krehbiel John Krehbiel
    8 February 2009 @ 9:21 pm

    ISTM that the worst damage done by the press is this idiotic idea that there are always 2 sides to a story. Sometimes, one side is right and the other side is full of it. When the press acts like people who don’t know what they are talking about have something valuable to say, they make science just another opinion.

    People can’t understand every scientific idea presented to them. But they should understand why scientist are confident in their knowledge.

    It would also be nice if scientists, for their part, could stay “above the fray” on politicized questions, but science is first and foremost a human endeavor.

  7. Jane
    9 February 2009 @ 12:49 am

    I am not sure that it is too much to ask the proportion of the public that is deemed to be educated to understand “how science works” — not the details of all the information, but the logic of the process. That’s basic (not advanced) high school level stuff, at most, were it properly taught. And if you could expect at least a reasonable proportion of the reading public to be educated enough to understand the thought processes of science, then a small amount of accurate explanation and detail in any ordinary article should provide an accurate, if incomplete, picture of what is going on, and not be so misleading as such reporting usually is currently.

  8. Herr Doktor
    9 February 2009 @ 1:38 am

    The big question is whether is one single way in which science works. This is a disputed matter in philosophy of science. But since I have not made a systematic study thereof, I must refrain from commenting further. :)

  9. Greg Krehbiel
    9 February 2009 @ 10:56 am

    By all means let’s try to have a public that understands the basics of how science works, but I still say that the larger issue here is one of trust.

    People don’t trust doctors and scientists. There’s a long history of that. Read Ben Franklin!

    And it’s not just a matter of being uneducated — although that’s a large part of it. There are educated people who think scientists have an ideological bias, or some other problem (e.g., racism) that makes their opinions suspect.

    And, as I said before, science and medicine are often politicized.

    Do you remember how insane it was right after AIDS became big news? Rather than following standard procedure for sexually transmitted diseases (e.g., contact tracing), AIDS became a civil rights issue, and the medical community was right on board with it. Lots of people died because AIDS became a political issue rather than a medical issue.

    Or consider the change in the psychological classification of homosexuality. That wasn’t because of any new science, but because of a sea change in attitude — and politics.

    Large groups of doctors and scientists are just as liable to group think and herd mentality as large groups of anybody else, but they act as if their group think is objective and fact-based.

    Yes, let’s teach people how science works, but let’s also teach doctors and scientists to quit being such arrogant asses.

  10. Jane
    9 February 2009 @ 12:38 pm

    Absolutely. I can think of both personal experience and memories of the kind of thing you illustrate with the AIDS situation as backup for your point.

  11. Mystagogue
    9 February 2009 @ 12:51 pm

    John: You said “People should understand why scientists are confident in their knowledge”. It often seems like they seldom *are* confident of their knowledge.
    For example, scientists are divided regarding man’s contribution to global warming.

    Greg: You said “There are educated people who think scientists have an ideological bias.” Yes indeed, I think it would be “uneducated” to believe bias and ideology does not affect a significant portion of “scientists.” Put differently, to eliminate bias you practically must eliminate humans. Ultimately there is no way for the average citizen to know if bias has been eliminated (at least not on a day to day basis).

    As for this article on autism and vaccination, I’m not sure what to think. The article was very impressive, but none of the counter-evidence in the article was backed by any references. But more importantly, the original Wakefield accusation is said to focus on MMR viruses. Interesting. When Pacific Gas trumpeted their innocense, they made very clear statements that chromium V is harmless. But of course, it was a smoke-screen. The accusation was regarding chromium VI, not V. So my point is this: why should I believe Wakefield’s discredited study was actually the basis for the vaccination scare? Perhaps his study is another “chromium V” smoke screen. As Greg pointed out, science mixed with commercial interests is a breeding ground for bias.

    As for deaths related to non-vaccination of kids being “morally murder,” before we can make that observation I think we first must conclude that abortion is “morally murder.” Yet there are key differences. Abortion intends to kill a child. Non-vaccination intends to save a child. Well, unless of course science tells us that the unborn are not “children,” nor “babies,” and “not a life.”
    But that would bring us full circle regarding science and bias, because science is incapable of making such claims about the unborn (and scientists will always be found divided on the matter). And yet despite all these difficulties on the abortion side of the equation, I imagine a significant part of the population would still assert “abortion is not moral murder” but “death from non-vaccinate is moral murder” – even despite the backwardness of that proposition.

    Put differently, the beloved (pseudo-)science defense of abortion ethics is a testimony to just how unreliable “science” is. On a daily basis we see human bias prevail in science more often than not.