Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Science and anti-science

As part of my current research I have been reading about the popular working class campaign against compulsory vaccination for smallpox in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Today we would see it as a moral panic of the kind stirred up over MMR. It would be easy to see the campaign as little more than an historical curiosity and a reflection of popular ignorance, especially given the successful eradication of this fatal and disfiguring disease. But we have to beware of anachronism; in the nineteenth century there were rational grounds for opposition. True there were propagandistic scare stories and the tendency of campaigners to claim that most infant mortality was down to vaccination. However, the practice of vaccination was different, consisting of the insertion of lymph in a wound created with a lancet and using arm-to-arm vaccination, both of which had the potential for cross infection and carried risks in their own right. With no understanding of the working of the immune system, the procedure was based on observation rather than explanation, it was open to objection and criticism in the light the of common, though wrong, medical assumptions of the day.

But this was not all. There were political reasons for resistance as well. This was mainly due to opposition to compulsion. Libertarian sentiment was strong in Victorian Britain, the state was mistrusted as a hostile instrument class rule, the accumulation of fines for non compliance was crippling and the campaign eventually wrung a conscientious objection provision out of the government that began to defuse the opposition. If the campaign was to show one thing, it was that co-option rather than compulsion was necessary for an effective public health policy.

The other main reason for opposition was a distrust of the medical profession as a vested interest that gained financially from the state enforcement of vaccination. Victorian and Edwardian attitudes to the medical profession were profoundly suspicious. Not only were doctors seen as the partners of an oppressive state, they were thought to be malevolent practitioners of dubious remedies and gruesome practices. Popular preference was for folk medicine and quack cures, again not as irrational a choice given the state of medical knowledge of the time, though still ineffective. Reading on, I was struck by how this attitude has persisted, even today when medical knowledge has been transformed. And this same Victorian sentiment is at the heart of a modern, and politically potent, anti-science movement that is growing, paradoxically, at a time when scientific knowledge is securely empirically grounded after more than a century of research and technological progress.

At the heart of anti-science is distrust, particularly of experts (the word is frequently enclosed within scare quotes), with all the the nineteenth century prejudices manifesting themselves. History is repeating itself as farce, certainly, but one tinged with tragedy.

Though this sentiment has persisted in relatively harmless, if exasperating, ways with New Age lunacies and those depressing promoters of 'ancient wisdoms' on the fringes of the Green movement, it is now being used with increasing success by wealthy and powerful interests. It is one of the extraordinary phenomena of our times that people who become multi-millionaires by selling bogus 'therapies' that are not only completely ineffective, but can also be positively dangerous, are more trusted by some than the modern medical profession. As this superb report makes clear, pseudo-science, like HIV denial, kills.

The same happens with climate change denial where the result of sixty years of careful scientific research is being challenged by an elaborate fiction. As is well documented, even more so since the story about leaked documents from the Heartlands Institute broke, this fiction is being maintained by lavish funding from major corporations. This is not surprising. What is frankly astonishing is that they are getting away with pretending that modestly paid academics are the vested interest that have to be challenged, not big business. This campaign is so successful that climate scientists now regularly receive hate mail, personal threats and attacks on their professional standing. Fear is seeping in and, unless this is vigorously challenged, may begin to close down free discussion.

At the same time, religious fundamentalism is not content with its increasingly violent culture wars and profession of offence, it is following the same tactics as the climate deniers to spread doubt about evolution. Creationism is on the march and trying to gain a place within school curricula, though thankfully the resistance to this is strong.

Part of the problem is that anti-science has appropriated the language of radicals. Yet, this time, whilst portraying themselves as courageous iconoclasts speaking truth to power in a determined attempt to advance human knowledge, we have wealthy and powerful interests speaking lies to an increasingly bewildered truth in pursuit of their own profits. This is not popular resistance, it is the manipulation of sentiment by wealthy, powerful and power seeking interests. Posing as sceptics, they seek to replace the open debate of science with dogma. They speak with an authoritarian voice.

Of course they know what they are doing, this is a highly professional campaign. In a world built on the division of labour, the main thing that binds us together is trust, trust in the expertise of others. The exercise that is being carried out by anti-science is an attempt to transfer trust from one group of people to another in the pursuit of profit and power.

The quack healer, the climate change denier, the creationist are all like the cowboy builder who comes round to your house, sucks air between his teeth and then shakes his head sadly whilst criticising everyone else for not knowing what they were doing. Flattering you for your wisdom in finding him, he gives you a lower quote though always seems to find a way to say that because of unforeseen difficulties it will cost a little bit more than he first thought. Of course he will be found out when the work begins to fall apart, but by then he has your money. And when you try and chase him up, he can't be found. Although your trust has gone, so has he.

This coalition exploits our fears, promotes doubt where there is none and pretends to champion the ordinary person against 'the system' that, in reality, is not their enemy. It works by undermining trust and promoting ignorance. A sentiment that was the reflection of popular concerns in the nineteenth century has been transformed in the twenty-first into an instrument to persuade people to support causes that will enrich others at their expense.

So aids patients die, thinking that they have done something clever by coming off their medication, global warming continues, whilst climate scientists are harried by obsessives, and reason dies a little until we have to face reality. And genuine alternatives, the ones that we need so desperately, are sidelined as Victorian fears, rational enough in their day, are resurrected as profitable wishful thinking in a world that needs truth. We should not abandon genuine scepticism or questioning, after all that is the cornerstone of science itself, but there are times that we need to remember that 'experts' are called experts simply because they are.

1 comment:

Will said...

just watched Contagion fillum tonight. v good. covers ground you mention in yer post