Where is public confidence in science?

July 17th, 2007

Posted by: admin

Coming in a little late to this one, but on 30-June the WSJ ran an op-ed by Roy Grinker of George Washington University on the vaccines-autism circus. The article is moneywalled, of course, so you’ll need special access to see it, but a couple of snippets should give a good idea of his arguments.

I base my opinion on scientific literature and no court decision is going to change it. Neither will a court decision change the minds of the antivaccine advocates. Two distinct communities have emerged, and though they both employ the language of science, their ideas are simply incommensurable. The two groups co-exist, like creationism and evolutionary biology, but they operate on such different premises that a true dialogue is nearly impossible.

The real problem here, as we have pointed out a few thousand times, is Dan Sarewitz’s excess of objectivity. There is enough ammunition for both sides to keep firing.

We should not expect too much out of this trial, or the next eight. The scientific community and antivaccine parent groups will each continue to look for clues under their own lampposts, because that is where the light is. But we should pay careful attention to this conflict. The antivaccine movement may be evidence that public confidence in science is eroding, which means that public health is at risk too.

Grinker may be right here, but I think something else is important that he misses. The vaccines debate is not and has never been about the science, and it will continue to not be about the science. It is about whether it is reasonable for the government to mandate (whether it does so explicitly or implicitly) that all children receive vaccines. This is a social liberty and public health policy question, not a science question. The antivaccine movement has been forced to debate in the world of science when they want to be debating in the world of social policy. But science as a machine is a hard thing to stand up to, and the antivaccine movement must have sensed that they would get more traction making arguments about bad science than about social liberty. Clearly the argument “I don’t want the government to force my kid to get a shot” is a lot less compelling than “the government is poisoning our kids and covering it up with bad science.”

2 Responses to “Where is public confidence in science?”

  1. Markk Says:

    Yes it is especially tough to make the extended argument: I don’t want to get my kids vaccinated, and if I can find enough people like me, a lot of YOUR kids are going to get sick and maybe die when they wouldn’t have before… anti-vaccers won’t win that fight, so they have to attack the basis of that point.

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  3. Joseph O'Sullivan Says:

    This post brings up an excellent point. Arguments about the science are not about the science. Some sides in a controversy find that its to their advantage to switch the focus from the actual problem.

    Its a common tactic in lawsuits. Regulated groups will challenge regulations in court by saying the science is too uncertain to support an agency decision, but the real issue is if the group should be regulated at all.

    In my own naive way I think that science should only be argued if a real controversy exists, but I’m jaded enough to know that the real world doesn’t work that way.