The Role of Doubt in Science - Pacific Standard

The Role of Doubt in Science

Doubt is inherently human and it has a useful purpose, but that doesn’t mean it’s OK to keep questioning climate change, evolution, and the power of vaccines.
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Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland. (Photo: Christopher Halloran/Shutterstock)

Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland. (Photo: Christopher Halloran/Shutterstock)

Rand Paul, the libertarian senator from Kentucky and son of former presidential candidate Ron Paul, has himself officially announced that he will run for president. Paul obtained his Bachelor's degree from Baylor and medical degree from Duke, and worked as an eye surgeon prior to becoming a senator. As a senator, Paul leveraged his education and experience to gain credibility to speak out on many issues, including gay marriage, abortion, and gun rights. Yet Paul consistently rejects scientifically supported findings on climate change and often makes incorrect statements on other important issues such as vaccines. During an interview with CNBC Paul stated “I’ve heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.”

But Paul is not alone in his science skepticism. A recent poll by the Associated Press-GfK showed that while most Americans believe smoking causes cancer (94 percent), at least 15 percent question the safety of vaccines and up to 40 percent don’t believe in evolution or that man contributed to climate change. Skepticism is healthy, but choosing not to accept scientific evidence can have long-term consequences, and, in some instances, the consequences can be far-reaching and lethal.

Doubt allows us to question the world around us, and promotes healthy debate about controversial issues, but we must be open to new information as it comes along.

Over the past few months, several young lives were lost to vaccine-preventable diseases including a four-week-old Australian who died of whooping cough and an 18-month-old in Germany who died of measles. Although there are effective vaccines for both diseases, the babies were too young to receive them and depended on high vaccine rates in the community to form an immunologic border of protection (community, or herd, immunity). Since not enough children were vaccinated to form a strong border, these babies were left vulnerable to infection, contracted preventable diseases, and died. Some parents still refuse vaccines despite strong scientific support for their safety and effectiveness; one recent study with 95,727 children demonstrated no association between the MMR vaccine and autism. Maybe it’s because they heard that vaccines were potentially harmful from educated and influential sources like Senator Paul.

Doubt is inherently human and it has a useful purpose. It often forces more rigorous scientific analysis, which can sometimes lead to amazing new ideas and discoveries. When Galileo first claimed that the Earth revolves around the sun few believed him. But because he thought he could prove his hypothesis with evidence, Galileo was compelled to spend his life observing, documenting, and calculating.

When Christopher Columbus wanted to sail from Spain to Asia in the 1400s he faced opposition over the size and roundness of the Earth and whether he would succeed. This was despite the fact that Pythagoras proposed the Earth was round over 1,000 years before. Even until 1956, just before the Soviets launched Sputnik, there was a flat Earth society that promoted skepticism about Earth’s roundness.

Few people today would question whether the Earth is round or that it rotates around the sun. What were once unproven hypotheses are now undeniable fact because of scientific advancements and new technologies.

Florida Governor Rick Scott gives a speech in July 2014. (Photo: Public Domain)

Florida Governor Rick Scott gives a speech in July 2014. (Photo: Public Domain)

Disbelief in the theory of evolution does not have such immediate impacts on young lives like vaccine refusal; however, refusal to accept and teach scientific concepts to children can still have devastating consequences. “If evolution is not taught, students will not achieve the level of scientific literacy needed to be well-informed citizens,” according to the National Science Teachers Association. They will lack the curiosity and skills to contribute to scientific progress. Worse, they will not be informed enough to understand new developments and the potential those developments may have to improve their lives, like vaccines.

Climate change denial also may not have immediate impacts on society, but it is irresponsible to fail to prepare for the eventual effects. “Sea level rise is an inevitable consequence of the warming of the ocean,” according to the 2014 Miami-Dade Sea Level Rise Task Force, and “without innovative adaptive capital planning it will threaten trillions of dollars of the region’s built environment.”

Although it is progress that such falsified studies are quickly debunked, some studies take longer to disprove and can leave deep scars in the scientific community, and in the population at large, that are hard to repair.

Florida Governor Rick Scott responded to these dire Task Force warnings by maintaining a ban he purportedly enacted in 2011 that muzzles officials from mentioning the terms “climate change” or “global warming” in any “communications, e-mails, or reports,” according to the Miami Herald. Scott even went so far as to suspend state land management coordinator Barton Bibler and tell him to get a medical evaluation because Bibler refused to purge mentions of climate change from the state records. Such actions threaten the environment and the life and health of future Americans.

To be sure, some doubt of science is well founded. There are unethical scientists who knowingly publish and promote incorrect information. In 2014, for example, Japanese scientists published a rapid method for producing stem cells that had the potential to revolutionize the field. In just over six months, a scientific misconduct investigation revealed data falsification. Although it is progress that such falsified studies are quickly debunked, some studies take longer to disprove and can leave deep scars in the scientific community, and in the population at large, that are hard to repair. In the case of Andrew Wakefield, who proposed the connection between vaccines and autism, it took 12 years to retract the study, and for the lead author to lose his medical license. Still, vaccine opponents like Rand Paul and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. continue to use the Wakefield study as evidence that children should not be vaccinated.

Doubt allows us to question the world around us, and promotes healthy debate about controversial issues, but we must be open to new information as it comes along.

We circle satellites around the Earth to relay information so you can read this article on your cell phone. An image from the International Space Station shows the Earth’s undeniable roundness. These advances were unfathomable to Columbus, but surely would have reduced any fear about sailing off the end of the Earth.

What people deny today based on belief may be undeniable tomorrow. It is best to keep a doubtful, yet open, mind.

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