When Science Becomes A Religion

There are two debates that make me very uncomfortable. The vaccine debate, and the GM debate. The reason they make me uncomfortable is that both sides seem to be adamant that they’re right and anyone disagreeing is stupid or criminal. That means it’s very hard to get the facts about the issue.

Let me tell you my position, so that you don’t have to worry about whether I have a hidden agenda. Personally, I’m pro-science. Which means that I’m very strongly in favour of approaching any question with an open mind, and making a decision based on the evidence. Where there’s not enough evidence, then I use what evidence I have to make a risk-based decision – what’s the benefit? what’s the worst that could happen? what are the odds each way?

The trouble I’m increasingly having is that some of the people arguing on the “science” side of these debates don’t follow these rules at all. They start from the position that they alone have the whole truth, and they denigrate the opposition rather than proving their case. Proponents of GM (genetically modified foods) say that there’s no evidence that they cause any health issues and that anyone opposing them is “anti-science” and irrational. Doctors arguing that we must vaccinate our children say that the vaccines are known to be safe and parents are reckless or negligent if they don’t vaccinate their children.

Unfortunately, the “no evidence of harm” argument has been devalued over many years by the tobacco lobby, and is still being devalued further by the “global warming doesn’t exist” lobbying groups. Who in turn are denounced as unscientific for using that argument by “scientists”. Is it any wonder the public are confused? The actual evidence, meanwhile, is “too complicated” or “not interesting enough” to be reported to us. So we can’t make up our own minds based on the facts. The result? Assuming there’s no truth without fire, that the truth must be somewhere in the middle, that the person who has most supporters is probably most right. Sceptical parents, confused consumers, worried people making bad decisions.

So what are the specific concerns? With vaccines, many are known to be safe – they’ve been used for years. Some are a bit newer, but have been widely studied and seem to be safe (MMR – yes, it looks like it IS safe. IMO). But there are valid questions. As we increase the number of vaccinations and give multiple vaccines at once, can that cause harm? There were concerns about MMR because it combined three vaccines in one, but my son was given the first MMR dose at the same time as the Meningitis C, Hib, and Pneumococcal vaccines. How has this been tested for safety? What is the evidence?

With GM, the question is what the subtle impacts of genetic modification are over the longer term. Will it poison me now? No. Will it cause me cancer or illness when I’m older, or damage existing plants that we rely on? This is a complex area. More and more, we’re finding health impacts from changes we make – like transfats, or the increasing number of people getting ill eating modern wheat. Or we find impacts from eating things in combination – sugar, fat and salt – that are far, far worse for us together than when eaten separately. And yet, with little or no evidence, we’re assured that GM is safe. How do they know?

In both cases, vaccines and GM, the arguments are pushed by powerful companies that stand to make a lot of money if we use their product. That, of course, is always a good sign that we should be suspicious of what we’re being told. Those companies are invoking science to support their arguments – but decline to provide the full evidence and have the debate in terms of the facts. They may provide some evidence but suppress other evidence – and we can’t tell. If anyone does try to argue on the facts, the newspapers mostly don’t want to print all the details because they think it’ll bore their readers. They go for the dramatic headline that may misrepresent the story completely.

So what can we do?

Well, right now, I have just taken a view based on the risks. It’s not ideal, but it’s the best I can do. My son had all his vaccinations because the risk of the diseases seemed quite high. I won’t eat GM food, as it’s a risk without much benefit. If the companies want me to eat it, they need to convince me it’s safe. Are they trying? No, they’re trying to remove the laws that give me information about which foods contain GM, so I have no choice. The problem with making this sort of decision is that it’s easy to manipulate. Unsafe vaccines can be pushed through because of the fear of the alternatives. Is that happening? I have to try to make a decision case-by-case, as best I can.

What would I like to happen? I’d like mandated publication of the evidence – ALL the evidence, not selected evidence – so that I can make an informed decision. I’d like to be able to make the best decisions I can, not the decisions I have to make for lack of evidence. I’d like all experts to be able to see the evidence, as well, and give me their opinions and arguments, as they may think of something that wouldn’t occur to me. And I’d like them to reference all their arguments back to the evidence rather than just make assertions.

I’d like, in short, for us to put the evidence back into science. And get rid of “science” without evidence for good.

The links that prompted this – make up your own minds which you believe:

P.S. If you’re worried about this stuff, it’s worth following Ben Goldacre. He spends a lot of his time calling out people who lie using “science”.