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Science Denialism Has Consequences

A measles outbreak began at Disneyland in California and has since traveled to other parts of the country. i

A measles outbreak began at Disneyland in California and has since traveled to other parts of the country. Jae C. Hong/AP hide caption

toggle caption Jae C. Hong/AP
A measles outbreak began at Disneyland in California and has since traveled to other parts of the country.

A measles outbreak began at Disneyland in California and has since traveled to other parts of the country.

Jae C. Hong/AP

When I was kid, there was this commercial that became a 1970s version of a meme. In it, Mother Nature is seen in a forest with a gathering of animals telling fairytales about Goldilocks eating porridge covered with sweet butter. When informed that her porridge is, in fact, slathered in Chiffon margarine and not butter, Mother Nature becomes enraged. As the sky darkens and the clouds rumble, she snarls, "It's not nice to fool Mother Nature!"

That's also a fitting response to news of a measles outbreak that began recently at Disneyland — and has been spreading ever since. As The New York Times reported, "The outbreak has increased concerns that a longstanding movement against childhood vaccinations has created a surge in a disease that was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000."

In the wake of this measles outbreak, attention has turned to the so-called "anti-vax" movement, in which parents opt out of vaccinations for "personal beliefs." These beliefs often center on a now entirely repudiated link between vaccines and autism.

The important thing to know here is that immunization rates need to be at least 95 percent to prevent outbreaks. In some parts of California (and elsewhere, like Oregon), the population of unprotected children is rising close to (or has gone over) the dangerous 5 percent level. It's a "teachable moment" for everyone as the anti-vax movement is suddenly thrown into the spotlight. Collectively, we can see the Disneyland outbreak for what it is — a wake up call.

We live in a strange moment of human history. We have this thing called science. Through its fruits (medicines, technology, etc.), many of us live lives fundamentally different from the tens of thousands of generations preceding us. At the same time, through science's unintended consequences, we have also changed the "natural" world in ways likely to pose daunting challenges to our ongoing "project of civilization." But strangest of all, in the midst of these profound changes, one growing response to the tough questions science raises in our lives has been to act as if it doesn't exist.

I am, of course, talking about denial. The anti-vax movement, like climate change denialism, rests on the assumption that if you disagree with certain established scientific results you can just ignore them. You call the science lies — or claim the scientists have a political bias.

To be clear I'm not talking about stuff that spills out of the latest scientific journal (coffee good vs. coffee bad). I'm talking about results that have become staples of our understanding of the world. I'm talking about basics of disease progression or climate physics that have been the subject of thousands of studies by thousands of scientists across decades of work. It's in this domain that the really bad news for denialists (and the rest of us) lies.

You really can't fool Mother Nature.

Infections spread with well-understood mathematical patterns. Planets respond to changes in atmospheric composition via the laws of physics and chemistry. They do this in spite of who we vote for. They do this in spite of our political or social beliefs about right and wrong, good and bad.

The world, in other words, has its own ways. Denial can't change that. But what the Disneyland outbreak makes clear is that science denial has consequences. That is the real news here. The anti-vax and climate "skeptic" strains of science denial have been with us for more than a decade. Until now, however, it's all seemed a bit theoretical, like just another forum for Internet hate-festing (which we shall all see soon in the comment sections of this post). But now along comes an outbreak of a once-beaten disease and — surprise — we suddenly see that science denial has actual real-world consequences, because it's about the actual real world (the one we humans invented science to describe).

As I have written before, the problem of science and society — as well as science and politics — is a problem like no other. Without doubt, there are real concerns about how technologies get deployed in the world when huge sums of money or power can be gained through that deployment. And there are real concerns about how to deal fairly with the politics of shifting away from a carbon-based economy when so many people will be affected by that shift.

But these concerns only tell us that the problems of science and culture are complicated. There are not going to be quick answers. There are not going to be easy answers. But if we don't deal effectively with the rising tide of science denialism, the one thing we can be sure of is that there will be consequences.


Adam Frank is a co-founder of the 13.7 blog, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester, a book author and a self-described "evangelist of science." You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @adamfrank4.

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