As a nation we often lament the lack of a scientific temperament. Belief in astrology and the supernatural flourishes and even today the papers off and on report child sacrifice, sometimes even of one’s own child, to propitiate the Gods!
The lack of a scientific temperament is attributed to lack of education and it seems obvious to many that there is some kind of loose correlation between superstition and educational status. But, even education does not ensure that logic and rationality will be incorporated into the thinking process. This is best illustrated by the experience from the United States. By every criteria, the US is the most technically advanced society in the world with the highest investment in science. It is way ahead of most nations, including most developed ones, in scientific achievements. American scientists have won about 40% of the science Nobels and this would be much larger figure if only the post-war Nobels were counted. Society holds scientists in high esteem and places them a little behind firefighters, but ahead of doctors and far ahead of priests, politicians and bankers, who are at the bottom of the list!!
So, my first reaction when I read that Robert F Kennedy Jr, of the iconic American family and hence bearing the onus of being an important opinion maker, is an active anti-vaccination conspiracy theorist, was surprise. No one can dispute the fact that millions of lives have been saved by efficient vaccines. Small-pox has been eradicated, huge advances have been made in global polio eradication, and there has been tremendous decline in many other infections such as diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, measles, mumps, rubella and hepatitis B. The overall safety of these vaccines has been overwhelmingly established.
But, the anti-vaccine lobby thrives in US and many other parts of the developed world with the premise that it is the cause of increasing incidence of autism. The fact is that there is no scientific evidence that the the incidence of autism is increasing and even less to link it to vaccines. Such ideas in the public domain leads to voluntary denial of vaccines to newborns by parents. The recent measles outbreak in England and Wales has been the fallout of such beliefs. It has been attributed to the poor vaccination rates after, now discredited, claims of a link between the MMR vaccine and autism by Andrew Wakefield in 1998. As the debate intensified, MMR uptake reached its lowest levels in 2003-04 as against a decade ago, when there were only a handful of cases.
Is this any different from those who refuse to accept polio vaccination for their children, seeing it as some right wing ruse to enforce birth control! The world is spending billions of dollars chasing the last pockets of polio endemicity – and of the 73 cases reported in 2012, 62 were in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
When I thought further about Robert Kennedy’s stand, I was not so surprised after all! US is a country where Charles Darwin is not held in high esteem by many, issues related to abortion (termed ‘right to life’) win or lose elections, stem cell research is not allowed etc… All in stark contrast to their leading place as science achievers.
I am not anywhere near being a sociologist. But methinks that if a well planned scientific study could be done, the link between low educational indices and scientific thinking would come out with less statistical significance than between religious extremism and scientific thinking. Be it the right wing of Hindus advocating astrology and the like, of Muslims opposing vaccination or of Christians opposing evolution, what is the difference? Anti-science must be opposed and science embraced, if we are to find the solutions to the urgent and pressing problems we, the human race, are facing.
To quote form an iconic American scientist-philosopher, Carl Sagan
“Not every branch of science can foretell the future – paleontology can’t – but many can and with stunning accuracy. If you want to know when the next eclipse of the Sun will be, you might try magicians or mystics, but you’ll do much better with scientists. They will tell you where on Earth to stand, when you have to be there, and whether it will be a partial eclipse, a total eclipse, or an annular eclipse. They can routinely predict a solar eclipse, to the minute, a millennium in advance. You can go to the witch doctor to lift the spell that causes your pernicious anaemia, or you can take vitamin Bl2. If you want to save your child from polio, you can pray or you can inoculate. If you’re interested in the sex of your unborn child, you can consult plumb-bob danglers all you want (left-right, a boy; forward-back, a girl – or maybe it’s the other way around), but they’ll be right, on average, only one time in two. If you want real accuracy (here, 99 per cent accuracy), try amniocentesis and sonograms. Try science.
Think of how many religions attempt to validate themselves with prophecy.Think of how many people rely on these prophecies, however vague, however unfulfilled, tosupport or prop up their beliefs. Yet has there ever been a religion with the prophetic accuracy and reliability of science? There isn’t a religion on the planet that doesn’t long for a comparable ability – precise, and repeatedly demonstrated before committed skeptics – to foretell future events. No other human institution comes close.”