Other People’s Children – How Scientific Illiteracy and Political Maneuvering are Hurting the Globe, Public Health, and You

by Andrew Maynard on December 24, 2011

This past semester, I set my second year Masters of Public Health students a deceptively simple task: Write an opinion piece for a lay audience on a topic related to environmental health sciences and public health.  Deceptive, as anyone who has attempted to write an op ed will tell you, it’s fiendishly difficult to find that balance between making an evidence-informed point and keeping your readers engaged.  The class rose to the occasion though – so much so that I thought I would post some of my favorite pieces here (with the authors’ permission).  So over the next few days, keep an eye out for a flurry of pointed, poignant and entertaining pieces on public health.  While reading them though, please remember that these were not originally written to be published, and the students were encouraged to express their opinions – some of which I am sure will be controversial!

This piece comes from Lindsay Ward

In all the glitz and drama of the recent, frequent Republican presidential debates, discussions of job creation, taxes, and what poor inner-city kids should do in their spare time have monopolized the attentions of the American public. Of course it makes sense, in the now four-year-old recession, that economic issues would take precedence. As usual in the political realm, however, no one is seeing the (barren, soil-eroded) forest for the trees: when we discuss health and science issues subjectively, prioritizing poll numbers over precision, we ensure that countering climate change and enhancing the health of the nation’s citizens will never rise above the status of niche issues for partisan bickering. With a representative democracy as we have, the fact that the USA is on the short lists for most energy used per capita, greatest food consumption per capita, and most garbage generated per capita and yet educates merely the seventeenth most scientifically literate high school students (according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD) indicates that there is something very wrong with the way we are running our country. Until we begin empowering our citizens to understand scientific information without pre-interpretation by politicians or the media, we cannot expect that the populace is capable of making electoral decisions based on reality rather than spectacle.

Scientific illiteracy cuts deep and cuts often. Jon Huntsman made waves in the Republican race by Tweeting in August that he “believes in evolution.” He is now little more than a footnote to the theatrics being enacted by the real candidates. Just this week, Mitt Romney’s campaign ran an ad in New Hampshire smearing Newt Gingrich for having worked with Nancy Pelosi and Al Gore to increase awareness of and urge swift corrective action to combat climate change and rising global CO2 levels. “When Al Gore needed support for his liberal global warming agenda, he turned to his friend Nancy Pelosi…When Pelosi wasn’t enough, Newt Gingrich gave his support,” a voice intones. Though not a Gingrich fan myself, I am a huge supporter of bipartisan cooperation in the face of pressing, dangerous issues. Unfortunately, the demotion of climate change to an agenda bullet-point, useful only for demonizing counter-campaigns against the vaguest semblance of liberalism, will surely have disastrous consequences if maintained much longer.

Ignoring and denying climate change are not the only anti-science attitudes championed by publicity-seekers recently: politicians and movie stars alike have joined forces to convince the American populace that vaccination, one of the greatest public health successes of the past two centuries, is actually an ill-conceived plot to administer “government injections,” enable sexual promiscuity among children as young as six, and pad the pockets of pharmaceutical companies regardless of the number of developmentally disabled children left in its wake. This is patently untrue, yet such silly stumbling blocks as “information” or “fact-checking” never stymied Michele Bachmann in her quest to convince the USA that human papilloma virus vaccinations induce mental disabilities and early sexual activity. Cancer preventative properties aside, there is absolutely zero scientific evidence linking HPV vaccines to “mental retardation,” and even Ms. Bachmann pulled back from her initially harsh stance. She eventually admitted that the story had been conveyed to her by a distraught but mysteriously never-seen-again constituent at a political rally, and that she actually “had no idea” whether mental disabilities were associated with the HPV vaccine. Anti-vaccine advocates ignore the actual studies that address their concerns, choosing instead to take social and political advantage of parents’ near-universally respected choice to want the best for their children.

I am saddened at having to continue discussing the disregard certain segments of the American population hold for scientific reality. In July of 2010 the New York Times published an editorial decrying the disconnect between wimpy energy policy and the globe’s obvious need for significant change; Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” was released in 2007; in 2010 The Lancet both retracted and publicly denounced the paper linking MMR vaccines to autism. Despite all of these public representations of scientific responsibility and truth-telling, candidates continue spouting the “no scientific consensus” line about climate change; preventable clustered outbreaks of pertussis and measles among “personal exemption” claimants have sickened hundreds of children. Though I am not well-schooled in education policy, it seems to me that a paradigm shift is necessary to counter this depressing trend of anti-intellectualism: rather than breeding a dependency on secondary and tertiary sources such as newspapers, textbooks, and encyclopedias, American children should be steeped in real science at an early age. Having recently been asked by a medical professional who has worked over a decade in the field “how to subscribe to the magazine” in which my first co-author journal paper had been published, I am thoroughly convinced that scientific primary literature is too far removed from the public consciousness.

Sources (in order of appearance):

OECD info: http://www.ed.gov/blog/2010/12/international-education-rankings-suggest-reform-can-lift-u-s/

Huntsman twitter: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/2011/08/19/gop-candidate-jon-huntsman-makes-waves-with-tweet-on-evolution-and-climate-change/

Romney-Gingrich-Pelosi ad: http://thehill.com/blogs/e2-wire/e2-wire/199289-romney-unveils-newt-and-nancy-ad-hitting-gingrich-on-climate

Bachman “has no idea” about vaccines: http://www.thenation.com/article/163514/michele-bachmanns-anti-vaccination-rhetoric-not-only-bad-science-its-bad-history; http://minnesota.publicradio.org/collections/special/columns/polinaut/archive/2011/09/bachmann_on_whe.shtml

NY Times editorial on climate: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/11/opinion/11sun2.html

Lancet retraction: http://articles.cnn.com/2010-02-02/health/lancet.retraction.autism_1_andrew-wakefield-mmr-vaccine-and-autism-general-medical-council?_s=PM:HEALTH

Related posts:

  1. The World Economic Forum Global Risks Report and Public Health
  2. Contagion, plausible reality and public health: In conversation with Larry Brilliant
  3. Public Health Needs Humility to Address Vaccination Fears
  4. Tackling Risks from a public health law approach: one risk at a time
  5. Sick People Are So Inconsiderate

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Cort.as February 9, 2014 at 10:23 am

Yet, it is so cool to have a show like this when they are at the age
where they would watch it and really love it. The question, which I have wrestled with for months, is what to write about
in the future.


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