Natalie Keir examines the damage caused by those who oppose scientific progress.

A nurse at Merawi health centre in northern Ethiopia prepares a measles vaccine for delivery

A nurse at Merawi health centre in northern Ethiopia prepares a measles vaccine for delivery

With any development in the world of science, there will be many who rejoice at the advancement but there will also always be those who disregard or deny the new findings. This same group of people could look upon our current situation and assert that despite all of our endeavours, 1 billion people still go to bed hungry and on top of this, we just so happened to have ravaged the earth. While this is a rather cynical point of view, it is possible that everyone, not just this small group of stubborn thinkers, have started to take science for granted. A kid born in New Delhi today can expect to live as long as the richest man in the world did 100 years ago. 100 years is not a long time; perhaps 3 or 4 generations, so what on earth could have happened to have caused such a shift? One factor has been the almost total eradication of small pox in the ‘rich’ world. Small pox killed billions of people, distorted the demographic of the entire world, was wiped out and then was promptly forgotten. This has happened to so many major diseases. Remember diphtheria and polio? Vaguely.

These major scientific breakthroughs were due to vaccines. Through lengthy processes of trial and error, billions of lives have been saved. Despite this, they have become somewhat demonised by those who have been blinded by their determination to believe a certain thing and to live a certain way. 12 years ago, a story was published that linked autism to the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. Dozens of studies were done to see if it was true. Data came back unanimously stating no connection at all. However, as is so often the case, the story had spread so far that there was no going back. Disturbingly, the USA vaccine rate for measles is decreasing every year. In a country that is constantly becoming more educated, how can this be? Is it because nobody is dying of measles anymore in the USA? Globally 160,000 people died of measles last year – that is 20 people an hour, but because it isn’t ‘here’ people forget about it. Polio and measles could come back at any time. Diseases travel… the USA is not impenetrable. Somebody infected with measles could be stepping off of a plane at LAX this very second.

People still insist on defending their fantasies stating: ‘We have the right to our own opinions’. Well no, not when it comes to facts. There is no such thing as an opinion that opposes a fact – that’s called being wrong. So why should we care? Because people who wrap themselves in these beliefs can be very influential. A recent example examines South Africa’s Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. In 2006 she actively endorsed positive living and good nutrition as the best strategy to fight the spread of HIV and AIDS. She is actually quoted as saying “Shall I repeat garlic, shall I talk about beetroot, shall I talk about lemon… these delay the development of HIV to AIDS-defining conditions, and that’s the truth,” She was influential enough that people trusted her and her methods. At the time, a third of pregnant women were HIV-positive, yet only 15% received medication to prevent transmission to their children.

It seems that we are at a point where we don’t look on scientific progress with such determination and passion. We have lost faith in authority and in science. Events such as Chernobyl, and the absolute shambles with the Iraqi ‘WMDs’ have shown the people we once trusted in a new, and much harsher, light. We are right to question things that supposed experts state to be true. Real science is all about critiquing other peoples’ findings and this is a valuable tool. Authority doesn’t give you knowledge, and a prime example of this is Dr Gillian Mckeith PhD. She hosted a 5 series long, prime time health advice show, gracing people with some really handy nuggets of knowledge such as ‘eat lots of dark green leaves because they contain chlorophyll which will reoxygynate your blood’. Anyone who has done GCSE biology will know that chlorophyll only produces oxygen in sunlight, which sure as hell does not shine in your bowels. Her PhD, unsurprisingly, turned out to be from a non-accredited course form somewhere in America, yet millions tuned in to listen to her lavish advice.

The trick is, to separate the Gillian Mckeiths of the world from the scientists who are producing real and valuable data. The trick isn’t really too hard, yet the media distorts the information that reaches the average member of the public so much that the public no longer knows what comes from a real source. To emphasise this, let’s take a look at the ever-reliable Daily Mail. In recent years the Daily mail has claimed that the following things cause cancer: divorce, Wi-Fi, Toiletries and Coffee. This seems vaguely feasibly until you take a look at things that they have stated prevent cancer: crusts, red pepper, liquorice and again, coffee. Another thing to note might be the strange sexism wrapped up in the Daily Mail’s stories. For women, housework is best as it prevents breast cancer and for men, going shopping can make you impotent.

Sometimes, media driven scientific stories really pick up and cause a mainstream myth. There is no better case for this than the demand for organic food. It is disturbing to think that so many people believe that moving molecules around in a specific way rather than haphazard, accidental way is so wrong. Our own government has openly stated that there is no proven health advantage of eating organic food, yet there is still enough of a demand that supermarkets stock whole organic section at inflated prices, and people still buy them. The most frustrating part is that so many everyday items are genetically modified. Everything from Christmas trees to tangerines. They may grow from the ground but this does not mean that they are natural – we made them, they have been bred that way. Why do we object? Some reasons that are commonly argued are: so many chemicals, too many hormones, we don’t want the pesticides, it would create a monoculture. It is true that there is still a huge amount of research and development that needs to be taken out in this field, but the fact that people are opposed the very development of GM food is restricting the expansion of science. What do those who are such avid fans of organic food think we will do when we need 70% more food in 50 year’s time? Investment in agriculture in Africa has declined massively in recent years, because people don’t want to invest in GM food. Cassava is a potato-like vegetable that half a billion people eat daily. It tastes horrible and it has no nutrients. Scientists are genetically engineering it right now so that it contains the nutrients that people need so that they can eat it and not go blind. It seems like a miracle, and I am sure those people whose eyesight and lives are saved by this development would agree, so why are people fighting it? Because people don’t want to rearrange some molecules?

There is a bigger picture.


Natalie Keir

Image by Pete Lewis / DFID