At last, science finally comes out swinging
A few years ago the second man to walk on the moon, octogenarian scientist and astronaut Buzz Aldrin, was confronted by a man who believes the moon landing was a hoax.
Conspiracy theorist Bart Sibrel called Aldrin a “coward and a liar” and demanded he explain why he was complicit in duping the planet about the apparent fiction of the Apollo 11 mission. Aldrin didn’t say anything. He just stood there and sized up Sibrel, some thirty years his junior, and punched him square in the face.
While I would not usually condone violence there was something delightful about seeing Aldrin, one of the few hard men of science, going in to bat so passionately for the forces of reason.
Science has had a tough time of it over the past decade. Despite the vast body of mainstream evidence in support of climate change, commentators whose scientific knowledge could be condensed on the head of a pin have done a successful job claiming that global warming is some vast conspiracy. The word scientist has even become something of an insult in the hands of some, such as those flat-earthers who rallied on the lawns outside Parliament declaring the carbon tax was a United Nations plot, that the CSIRO was complicit in the creation of a one world government, and that Julia Gillard was a witch who should be burned at the stake.
The parallel with witch-burning was a fitting one. The anti-scientific forces owe much in terms of their hysteria and their hostility to research to those Middle Ages folks who liked to run around with flaming torches rounding up heretics.
Science has generally done a poor job of sticking up for itself, possibly because of the personality types science attracts. Scientists are generally withdrawn, they often work in a solitary fashion, they are averse to overstatement or sweeping conclusions. On the rare occasions they defend themselves, they often do so with such caution and with so many caveats as to sound like they are obfuscating. They cannot provide the black and white answers which their unscientific critics demand and as such they are often reticent to get involved in the big debates of our times. No such problems if you are a broadcaster such as Alan Jones, who clearly knows more about what’s going on with the planet than the CSIRO, or Cardinal George Pell, who despite believing in the Immaculate Conception in his day job is yet to be convinced of the science on climate change.
To this end it is extremely heartening (if overdue) to see science taking a stand against one of the most dangerous and absurd trends of the modern era, the anti-vaccination lobby.
What was once regarded as a very marginal fad, fuelled by a couple of fringe scientists whose work has since been repeatedly discredited, has now taken off with alarming force. The number of parents registering a conscientious objection to having their children vaccinated has gone from just 4271 in 1999 to more than 30,000 today.
This week, 12 of the nation’s leading medical researchers, two of them former Australians of the Year, have joined to present a dispassionate and united front in defence of science and in opposition to the reckless fiction that immunisation does more harm than good.
Men of the calibre of Sir Gus Nossal and Professor Ian Frazer have written and released an informative 20-page booklet for parents which dispels the myths surrounding vaccination and points out the health benefits not just to individual children but the broader community.
The anti-vaccination movement is much more of a worry than climate scepticism, or the battiness of the moon landing hoax brigade or 9-11 “truther” movement, because it exposes the overwhelming majority of immunised kids to a real-time danger.
Take whooping cough. As Ian Frazer argued at the launch of the campaign, the diagnosis of whooping cough has risen considerably in Australia, with more than 7000 cases recorded in the first three months of this year.
Although 92 per cent of babies have been immunised against whooping cough, Professor Frazer says the disease spreads more rapidly when the rate of immunisation falls below 95 per cent.
I can see why parents of children who have been born with autism might look for answers as to how they child ended up with such a condition, even though the solitary “academic” paper linking vaccinations to autism has now been dispelled by nine different independent studies.
For the other parents, I would say they have rushed headlong into the worst kind of faddish nonsense.
It is nonsense which has the added negative quality of being deeply impertinent. Not only does it suggest that these parents know more about science than an Ian Frazer or a Gus Nossal, it wilfully exposes the majority of other children to an increased risk of measles, mumps, diphtheria and whooping cough.
One of the factors which has driven the spread of this rubbish is the internet. There are no barriers to entry online, no checks and balances, as evidenced by the farrago of errors known otherwise as Wikipedia, which distressingly enough is regarded by many as a reliable research tool. There is nothing stopping anyone from hanging out their shingle and cobbling together an official-looking website which distorts mainstream scientific opinion and scares parents into thinking they are risking their child when they are in fact protecting it. Like that great line in Spinal Tap, where the dopey guitarist David St Hubbins declares himself “one of those people who believes virtually everything I read”, the fact that something is published online is no reason to believe it to be true.
Talking to your GP is a much better option. So too is reading the excellent column yesterday by Sir Gus Nossal, who described the collapse in vaccinations in England as “a tragedy triggered by ignorance” which led to outbreaks of measles, mumps and rubella, something which we can still avoid here if parents are prepared to pay attention to common sense rather than alarmist twaddle.
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