Sunday, April 28, 2013

Ignorance is not bliss

The measles outbreak in South Wales continues, with one death possibly attributed to the disease. It is the inevitable outcome of the dip in vaccination caused by the MMR scare. Much has been made of the role of the right-wing press, most notably the Daily Mail, in feeding the anxiety engendered by the claims of Andrew Wakefield that led him to be struck off the medical register. (The whole saga is explained simply in a graphic here). Yet, I was also taken by surprise recently when anti-vaccination sentiments were raised in another, more radical, setting. This shows that suspicion of science goes well beyond the hypochondriacs of the Mail.

Part of the reason why MMR gained such prominence is that a good controversy sells papers and part is that the default position of the populist press is distrust of what they see as the 'vested interests' of aloof experts on the make. They are driven by anti-intellectualism, see themselves as champions of 'common sense', popular wisdom, or, as it is also known, ignorance. This is where the radical left, especially in its counter-cultural moments, also steps in with its healthy scepticism of the powerful. This can be highly rational and understandable, though it sometimes leads to overreactions with unintended consequences. Yet, it can become a blanket judgement and when it comes to alternative health, this very scepticism of 'big pharma', again held with good reason, leaves people wide open to exploitation by the multi-millionaire retailers of quack remedies who pose as their champions. At one extreme scepticism becomes cynicism, and at the other, gullibility.

So who are we to trust? How can we be sure that we are being told the truth? The answer is actually quite simple. It lies in method. For scientists this is straightforward, there is a scientific method of research and evaluation that is integral to good science. One of its great champions in the blogosphere is David Colquhoun, the subject of an excellent profile here. But for those of us who work in the humanities and social sciences, it does not seem so straightforward. Yet we too have methods of inquiry, rules of logic, a critique of rhetorical tricks and the tools to think clearly about causality and correlation. Subject the claims of quacks and conspiracists to proper empirical examination and logical analysis, and they crumble before your eyes. This is one of the main reasons why their propagators try and draw adherents into what effectively becomes a cult, part of a circle of "truth tellers', resistent to reality.

Critical thinking, just like scientific method, does not happen spontaneously. It has to be learnt. This is why I have always argued, not always successfully, for the teaching of study skills as a discrete, accredited unit as part of any course. Much of what passes for skills development is about how to write an essay to a set formula, whereas what I have advocated is that it should be, amongst other things, about clear thinking; giving the students the basis they need to spot self-serving bullshit a mile off. And Colquhoun's best throwaway remark in the Observer profile gives us a pretty good indication of why it is desperately needed.
... the lack of scientific education among politicians is scary. Can you imagine a minister of education referring to "Newton's laws of thermodynamics", or giving taxpayers' money to schools that believe in karma and gnomes? Michael Gove has done both.

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