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Why science denial is so very dangerous

April 14, 2010 - Posted in Science , Science and Society Posted by:

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I heart TED – something to which I’m sure I’ve confessed in past.

ted

This morning, I got a fantastic email with some of the latest talks to be posted on TED.

michael specterWhile they’re all (of course) brilliant, I’ll make special mention of a talk, entitled ‘The danger of science denial‘, by New Yorker writer Michael Specter.  Not himself someone with a science background, he talks about how researching stories led him to be at first bemused, and then appalled, at the growing tide of anti-science feeling both in the US and beyond its borders.

He speaks movingly about the herbal, anti-vaccine and the anti-GM movements, amongst other things, and opines (I believe correctly) that believing in ‘magic’ – including unproven herbal remedies – rather than evidence can lead people down a path they don’t want to go.  The perfect example of this path is, perhaps, the behaviour shown by South Africa’s previous president Thabo Mbeki.

[Our dearly beloved president at the time decided to fly in the face of all evidence (sound familiar, anyone), and denied that HIV was the cause of AIDS.  Brilliant move.  He then, (in conjunction with the country's health minister) refused to promote the use of antiretrovirals, instead promoting the benefits of garlic, beetroot, and one or two other veggies.  I'm sure you can imagine the horror of my lecturer  at the time Ed Rybicki* and fellow students at this behaviour - it's estimated to have led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of South Africans.]

Another example?  Not using GM to improve crops which the third world could use to feed itself.

Michael’s very much of the opinion that, if we’re not careful, not only could science denialism lead to problems such as a resurgence of diseases such as measles** and, terrifyingly, polio, but it could also prevent humanity carrying out some of the science we’ll need to in the future.  And, given the future we’re currently facing, I’m very much of the opinion that the more useful science we can do, the better.

I see hope for us, as does he, but it’s conditional hope…

Other brilliant talks out this week on TED:

Pollen grains are fascinating – many of us have seen extreme close-up photos of pollen grains, but Jonathan Drori expands on the topic, showing just how diverse they are under the lens of a microscope.

Robots are doing it for themselves – Dennis Hong tells us about seven very different all-terrain robots, all of whom however are unified by being award-winning.

Photographs which shaped history – photographs do more than just document history, as Jonathan Klein shows in a presentation demonstrating the effect a truly powerful image can have.

And, for the more artily-inclined – Natalie Merchant combines ‘near-forgotten 19th century poetry’ with, well, an almost old-fashioned voice, to do something quite melodic, and definitely worth listening to.

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* Ed’s a well-known expert on HIV, and blogs at ViroBlogy and Retroid Raving.

** The anti-vaccine movement in New Zealand is already having an effect, with measles – a disease which is seldom fatal but can cause disfigurement and even blindness – on the rise.