Apr 25 2011


There is another major measles outbreak in Europe. The WHO reports:

The World Health Organization said Thursday that France had 4,937 reported cases of measles between January and March – compared with 5,090 cases during all of 2010. In all, more than 6,500 cases have been reported in 33 European nations.

That is four times the rate of 2010. I know – these reports are almost getting boring. The shock has worn off – we have come to accept that previously conquered diseases (at least reduced to minimal cases without outbreaks) have come back. The cause seems clear – outbreaks occur where herd immunity has been lost due to vaccine non-compliance. Fewer people are getting vaccinated, and not much fewer. But the numbers are falling below herd immunity levels in pockets. When vaccination rates fall below a certain level, then infectious organisms are able to spread and cause an outbreak.

The anti-vaccine movement has successfully spread unwarranted fear of vaccines, resulting in the compromise of herd immunity. There is a toll of morbidity and mortality associated with this movement.

Part of the challenge in raising public awareness about the dangers of pseudoscience and denialism is that the public rapidly become inured to the consequences, even complacent. When I saw this latest report about another measles outbreak, I had to think carefully before deciding to blog about it. I have blogged about outbreaks before, and there is nothing new with yet another measles outbreak. Will my readers be bored? It is hard to sustain outrage – things like unnecessary measles outbreaks become old news with a waning grasp on our collective attention.

So it is useful, from time to time, to remind ourselves and the public that there are consequences to nonsensical and irrational beliefs, and to placing ideology above science and evidence. We live in an increasingly complex civilization, with vexing problems that require more and more clever and elaborate solutions. It’s not easing supporting over 6 billion people (and growing) on this world, while feeding them all and avoiding the endemic problems of a large population – minimizing infectious diseases, limiting our footprint on the natural world, providing enough energy and other resources, and not killing each other over access to limited resources.

Our best tool in achieving our goals and solving the difficult problems of civilization is science – taking an objective, evidence-based approach to our problems so that we can work out the most effective solutions. Pseudoscience, denialism, and ideology are the enemies of science and reason, and therefore frustrate our attempts to find optimal solutions.

Think about the billions that are being wasted on useless or even harmful medical interventions because the science of medicine is being compromised, by clever marketing, corporate greed, by rank pseudoscience, by the infiltration of sectarian belief systems into what should be a science-based endeavor. I see this every day – and yes, my outrage is blunted. I almost chuckle to myself when I see someone become aware of the extent and nature of the problem for the first time – their fresh outrage strikes me as naive. But it is preferable to the “shruggies” who are not even aware of the problem.

Our most precious resource, arguably, is the human intellect. And that is being dulled by organized and well-funded movements to water down the teaching of science and critical thinking, because it conflicts with personal belief systems like creationism. It is impossible to tease out all the cultural effects that conspire together to hamper the intellect – anti-scientific ideology, anti-intellectual culture, politics, low standards in the educational system, and simple apathy. They all work together and reinforce each other.

Despite the strides the skeptical movement has made in the last decade, I am still frequently asked why I waste my time with the whole skepticism thing. There are many reasons, but perhaps chief among them is the understanding that pseudoscience and quackery have consequences – increasingly dire consequences, for the individual, for any society, and for human civilization. Measles outbreaks are only the tip of the iceberg. The skeptical movement endeavors to be a force in the other direction – to make the world a more rational place, to increase the level of critical thinking , and to keep science in its rightful place as the best method for understanding the world and finding practical solutions to our many problems.

There is also a certain love and respect for truth and intellectual honesty for its own sake. But knowing that beliefs have consequences is a huge motivating force.

Like Sagan, I would rather know the truth than believe in a comforting delusion. And I also recognize that as a civilization, we can no longer afford the comforting delusions. They have consequences.

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