Purity of blood FUD

Susan Pedersen teaches history at Columbia. Anti-Condescensionism
illustrates some points on the public controversy about vaccinations providing an historical perspective.

Scholars always rejoice to find evidence of human beings’ infinite capacity for holding fantastic beliefs, but I can’t be alone in hoping that those beliefs don’t become the foundation for public health policy. Of course, following Agent Orange, Love Canal, Sellafield, the Tuskegee studies, and the host of other crimes or bad decisions inflicted by officials and scientists on a captive or unsuspecting public, scepticism is in order. Still, the eradication of smallpox happened not only because 18th-century inoculation had begun a process of protection, not only because viral strains had become less virulent, but also because doctors and officials in many countries and then in the World Health Organisation insisted – over parental objections and doubtless to some individual children’s cost – that the health of humanity would best be protected through mandatory vaccination. The last case of smallpox – a disease that had been with humans for two thousand years – occurred in 1977.

How much independance should an individual give for the benefits of social life? How can the individual tell what is FUD, what is an appropriate precaution, and what is a risk to accept? The media column – Peter Wilby gives a science lesson provides a caution about where he thinks an appropriate skepticism is needed.

I do not envy editors and specialist correspondents who have to decide which scientific scares to take seriously. Some critics argue that those who deny global warming are as isolated and as undeserving of a hearing as the creationists who deny Darwin. Yet the collective wisdom of scientists has sometimes proved wrong, as anybody who follows advice about what we should or shouldn’t eat will know.

Another take on the same issue is that stimulated by the ID/Darwin frakas. John Derbyshire discusses a point in Teaching Science: The president is wrong on Intelligent Design

I think intelligent teenagers should also be given some acquaintance with pseudoscience, just so that they might learn to spot it when they see it. A copy of that excellent magazine Skeptical Inquirer ought to be available in any good high school library, along with books like Gardner’s. I am not sure that either pseudoscience or its refutation has any place in the science classroom, though. These things properly belong in social studies, if anywhere outside the library.

Wilby suggests a route that can easily tip from skepticism to cynicism and that is why Derbyshire’s approach is also needed. Individuals need to be able to make rational decisions about risk. This means understanding the difference between what one wants to be and what most likely really is. Then the relative risks can be properly assessed. This can lead to better social decisions and help reduce the FUD mongering as seen in the history of vacinations or other fantastic beliefs.

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