On Rejecting Anti-Science | Vol. 3 / No. 21.4

Rice: regular, and golden | Photo: International Rice Research Association, CC BY 2.0

This is an expansion of a miniature facebook rant I went off on this morning, so feel free to read on or not. I just need to get this off my chest.

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This morning I encountered this story about a woman in Melbourne who bled to death during a home birth because her midwife wouldn’t call an ambulance, and it reminded me of why I’m so vocal about anti-science quackery and why it needs to be fought, tooth and nail, every single damn step of the way.

Irrational aversion to science kills people. Whether we’re talking about refusing to vaccinate children, selling people on ineffective “alternative” therapies, or, as in this extreme case, telling a dying woman it’ll be fine without an ambulance as she bleeds to death, it is patently obvious that magical thinking supplants scientifically-proven intervention and in doing so leads to death.

What’s the harm in homeopathy? People take it instead of medicine that works. What’s the harm in refusing vaccination? You weaken herd immunity and put people who can’t be vaccinated at often deadly risk. What’s the harm in rejecting the scientific consensus on global warming? You condemn millions and millions of mostly poor people to lives of migration, starvation, and illness as sea levels rise and they’re forced to flee their homes. What’s the harm in rejecting the scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs? You condemn millions (even billions) to blindness, famine, and death, as the population grows without effective means of feeding them and providing them with proper nutrition.

Do we think that we’re blameless? That believing GMOs are bad for us is just a personal issue? That not accepting the scientific consensus on global warming or the decades of evidence of the safety of vaccines is just about us? It’s not. We have voices, we have votes, we have the ability to change minds.

When activists burned fields of golden rice — that rice that’s going to stop millions of children going blind and dying in parts of the world where there isn’t enough Vitamin A in their diet — they didn’t do so in a vacuum. They did it with the full support of millions of people who, through facebook shares of scare-tactic lunatics like Vani Hari and the reblogging of nature-fallacy nutjobs like David Avocado Wolfe, give rise to a community of disbelief. Those activists were giving physical form to the voices of a movement that says GMOs are dangerous, harmful, scary.

The same is true of anti-vaxxers, of climate change deniers, of proponents of homeopathy and other medical quackery.

I’m a proponent of skepticism. Stay skeptical, by all means. But base your skepticism on evidence, and make sure you understand that evidence. Be prepared to counter your own ignorance. Talk to climate scientists if you don’t think climate change is real. Talk to medical doctors if you’re worried about vaccines. Don’t assume an internet search will make you more qualified to gauge the evidence than people who’ve spent decades developing expertise in a field.

To the point of the original story — the tragedy of the insane midwife, let’s call it — the use of midwifery is often supported by scientific evidence. When a pregnancy is determined by medical testing to be likely to be uncomplicated, and when a trained medical professional is available on short notice, it can be relatively safe, psychologically rewarding, and less resource-intensive for the medical system (among other things). But beware the lack of regulation of the practice in some parts of the world (America, Australia, I’m looking at both of you), and look for a midwife that believes in modern medicine.

I don’t have much more to add. I’m just tired of seeing humans get hurt by the willful ignorance of other humans. So I’ve chosen to give my voice to a community of vocal support for evidence-based choices. To a community that values experimentation and expertise. To a community always trying to prove itself wrong as a way of increasing the knowledge of the world.

When you see anti-science spreading, speak up. Reject it. Be vocal. Otherwise we all deal with the consequences.

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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.

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