Wednesday 16 January 2019

John Crown: We need to inoculate ourselves against scientific ignorance

The Enlightenment was our greatest achievement -- let's not undo it, writes John Crown

There was something faintly medieval about the story last week that six Italian scientists had been found guilty of manslaughter for failing to predict a 2009 earthquake which killed 300 people in the city of l'Aquila.

The problem, of course, is that scientists can't predict earthquakes.

The influence of scientific ignorance on public policy is not new. Perhaps the most celebrated case in history was that of Galileo Galilei, who was found guilty of heresy by the Catholic Inquisition for the crime of teaching that the Earth revolved around the Sun, and not vice versa. Luckily for him, Galileo escaped a fiery execution, but was sentenced to a lifetime of house arrest.

Nearly 400 years after his death, Pope John Paul II rehabilitated Galileo, although his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, under the name of Cardinal Ratzinger, once cautioned against doing so.

Nearly one half of Americans believe that our 4 billion-year-old earth is actually 6,000 years old, and that dinosaurs and humans co-existed, even though the former became extinct millions of years before the latter appeared. One leading US congressman recently stated that pregnancy could not result from rape, another that science was a collection of lies from the pit of hell. A state senator told constituents HIV was not spread by heterosexual sex.

Many believe that a gay teacher might turn you into a homosexual, or that your overprotective mother might make you schizophrenic. Others believe that an increase in congenital malformations resulted from Chernobyl (it didn't) and that vaccines cause autism (they don't).

Ronald Reagan believed that trees cause pollution. Incredibly, Muslim children in northern Nigeria are being denied polio vaccines because vaccination is "a Western plot".

Popular movements from fad diets to homeopathy to other forms of quack medicine depend on the consumer either being ignorant of, or willing to suspend belief in, the laws of nature.

It is easy for self-satisfied sophisticates to scoff, seeing such ignorance as affirmation of their own intellectual superiority, but such complacency is misplaced, as critical decisions which might affect our future as a species will be made by often scientifically illiterate leaders and, in the democracies anyway, by the citizens who elect them.

In this regard it is important to acknowledge that crimes against scientific truth occur in all sorts of societies under all sorts of governments, but they do seem to be facilitated by despotism, whether it be clerical, communist or fascist.

Under Stalin, an absurd pseudo-scientific theory of genetics advanced by the crack-pot Lysenko was adopted by the Communist Party. Dissenting scientists were imprisoned and executed. Lysenkoist agricultural policies led to disastrous crop failures and contributed to the famines which killed millions of Soviet citizens.

The widespread belief in the appaling eugenic garbage science advanced by the Nazis led to the extermination of the allegedly biologically inferior Jews and Gypsies, and to the murder and sterilisation of thousands of disabled Germans.

The recent ex-president of South Africa Thabo Mbeki believed that HIV didn't cause AIDS, and his successor Jacob Zuma that a good shower after "having it off" would afford protection against the disease. South Africa was dreadfully slow in adopting appropriate anti-HIV measures.

Even the slightest possibility that global warming is real and caused by human activities is vigorously denied by mainly right-wing political ideologues, while the great majority of climate scientists at least consider it sufficiently plausible and potentially apocalyptic enough to be taken seriously. The deniers may win the US election.

It is not just governments. For years, Big Tobacco conducted a systematic campaign of disinformation against the overwhelming scientific evidence that smoking was harmful.

How do we inoculate ourselves against the potentially dire societal consequences of widespread scientific ignorance? A first step is to acknowledge that science is not just for egg-heads in white coats. An understanding of science is a fundamental requirement of living.

We all learn just enough about the laws of nature to protect us against major threats. We know that fire burns, that you can't walk on water and that you fall down not up. Now we need to increase the general scientific knowledge base, so that citizens understand more about their bodies and their environment. We insist that children learn English and mathematics throughout their school lives not because we want them all to grow up to become literati or mathematicians but because society realises that literacy and numeracy are essential survival skills.

I believe that we need to adopt a similar approach to science. By all means, have advanced courses in physics, chemistry and biology which challenge those who wish to pursue careers in medicine, science and technology, but also have a compulsory foundation course until school leaving age, one which is not exam-orientated, but is taught like civics or religion.

The Enlightenment was mankind's greatest achievement. Let's keep it going.

Senator John Crown is a consultant oncologist

Sunday Independent

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