On Vaccines, Guns and Good Science

Atul Gawande, the surgeon, writer, and public health expert (and author of a couple of my favorite books: The Checklist Manifesto and Better), delivered a commencement speech to CalTech recently, here’s an excerpt:

“The scientific orientation has proved immensely powerful… But even where the knowledge provided by science is overwhelming, people often resist it—sometimes outright deny it. Many people continue to believe, for instance, despite massive evidence to the contrary, that childhood vaccines cause autism (they do not); that people are safer owning a gun (they are not); that genetically modified crops are harmful (on balance, they have been beneficial); that climate change is not happening (it is).”

He goes on to describe how pseudoscience “experts” propagate these types of common sense misinformation while simultaneously dismissing scientifically established facts.  If you haven’t read the speech, I highly recommend it.

Beyond what the speech has to say, I want to emphasize two important points about good science and good explanations.  Science does not equal truth; it is incomplete, sometimes out right wrong, but that’s a feature not a bug.  The big reason science works is because you can show that these hypotheses are wrong.  Once you do, you can learn from it, and form a new hypothesis or model that describes the world a bit more accurately.  The established scientific knowledge that we take as “facts” have withstood every attempt we throw at it to prove it wrong; the ones that show cracks have either been discarded or corrected, what could be more rational?  On the whole, science moves forward by explaining the world with increasingly more accurate approximations — never complete but always self-correcting.  Contrast this to common sense and pseudoscience which never seem to move until contradictory scientific knowledge becomes so pervasive that it is forced to change.

The complementary point to this is about good explanations.  It’s natural for people to cling to their seemingly plausible pseudo-scientific beliefs even when faced with overwhelming evidence to the contrary (e.g. vaccines).  Despite this overwhelming evidence that science provides, it is hard for someone to change their world view and part with their intuitive beliefs — it’s not natural.  The scientific community has recently been doing a poor job of explaining science to the masses.  This is probably because many “intellectuals” find it necessary to attack the bad science instead of focusing on the good science.  What these “intellectuals” forget is that attacking bad science is the same thing as attacking a person’s world view — a very personal thing!  It’s no wonder that people don’t respond well to it.  Instead of rebutting bad science, a better approach is to explain the good science.  For example, instead of berating someone for thinking vaccines cause autism, explain how they can save their child’s life and the lives of many other children (who doesn’t want to save children?).  It’s not enough to tell them their wrong (besides being ineffective), instead it’s important to help them understand how the evidence is right.  This is how things change, not with scientific discoveries but with people.

It’s important for all of us to realize that rational thinking and cold hard facts aren’t the end of an argument but rather its beginning.  What comes after is what we scientists and intellectuals often forget: the human component.  Ironically, it’s all too human to think like this.  So next time you’re trying to educate someone on good science, don’t forget that the most important part: good (human) explanations.