Breakthroughs in science and technology make the world a better place for a large part of humanity. We are within an information and scientific age that provides us with information and sophisticated technology that only an elite educated few had access to twenty years ago. Better quality of life and life expectancy are a result of improvements in medicine, sanitation, air quality, public health and safety. Sixty years of medical history has witnessed the eradication of smallpox. The discovery of DNA allows us to map genomes that help us diagnose and treat disease. The relatively new sciences of molecular and cell biology led to the creation of the biotech industry that continues to develop drugs and vaccinations that fight and control disease. The reduction in infant mortality and morbidity rates are due in part to the development of vaccines that protect children from childhood diseases that once maimed and, or killed. Despite an endless list of scientific progress, there is another endless list of pseudoscience, junk science and superstitions that extend beyond the boundaries of mainstream religion and in turn discredit science leading to harmful ramifications.
The likes of TV shows such as The Oprah Winfrey Show have served as platforms to help, albeit perhaps unwittingly, to propagate quack remedies and other types of misinformation. According to a recent article in Newsweek, in 2007, Playboy model and actress Jenny McCarthy appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s show to tell of her experience with autism. Jenny went on to explain how she was convinced that the MMR (Measles Mumps and Rubella) vaccine caused her son’s autism. This is one example in a long line of unfounded claims regarding the link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Pediatrician Paul A. Offit, author of Autism’s False Prophets that featured in a January article, in the New York Times discusses the scientific evidence in favor of the vaccines. The vaccine provides protection against these diseases to millions of children. However, Measles is now endemic within the population and it is increasing. The June issue of Skeptic magazine features an article by Harriet Hall, MD who discusses the history of how the “manufactroversy”, evolved. Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence that shows no link between autism and the MMR vaccine, the “manufactroversy” continues highlighting a general distrust in medical science. As a result, measles is now endemic and we’re losing the herd immunity we once achieved through mass vaccination.
More recently, the UK Guardian reported that British Scientists called upon the World Health Organization to condemn homeopathic remedies for treating serious diseases such as HIV, malaria and influenza in poor developing countries. Homeopathic remedies have served as cheaper ineffective substitutes for effective medicines. The promotion of homeopathic alternatives to conventional medicine compromises the health of others, undermines science-based medicines and propagates misinformation and ultimately results in more untimely deaths.
Despite huge advances in scientific progress, why are the vast majority of people in the richest nations of the world walking around with their minds in the 12th or 13th century? People reject the boundaries of religious doctrine in exchange for not reason and science, but a different kind of faith such as psychic powers, astrology, faith healing, alternative medicine and other new age nonsense. Michael Shermer, the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine and author illustrates the extent of these beliefs and attempts to answer in his book, “Why People Believe Weird Things.” Shermer cites a 1990 Gallup poll that shows a staggering two-thirds of the 1,236 adults surveyed believe that they have, “Actually had a psychic experience.” 42% believe in “communication with the dead.” A similar 2001 Gallop poll shows significant increases in belief in every category of the paranormal over a decade. So, shroud some scientific terms in mysticism and you have a perfect recipe for nonsense that fits most people’s psyche like a glove. Quack medicine uses the language of science lending it more credence to the claims that its proponents make.
Shermer speculates that belief in weird things stems from a need for instant gratification. For example, seeing a psychic offers instant comfort in the face of grief or other life stressors such as faulty relationships or jobs. People seeking psychic guidance hear things that make them feel good and they return for more reassurance. The reassurance is the reinforcement which prompts them to return for more readings. It’s a similar effect of playing slot machines. Slot machines are designed to reward enough times to keep people playing. This psychological process is a form of learning called operant conditioning. The behavioral psychologist BF Skinner’s Skinner box experiments with rats demonstrated the behavior of reward and punishment with positive and negative reinforcement. Reinforcement is the reward that keeps people coming back for more of what provides them with comfort. It is why people continue to seek quack medicine, psychics and astrologers. Skinner demonstrated that “organisms tend to repeat those responses that are followed by favorable consequences.” All this may be an over simplified answer to a complex question. What does seem clear is how simple explanations to complex problems are more comforting to people because they’re easier to understand and offer definitive answers. Science offers no definitive answers. The complexity of the science behind natural phenomena requires more effort to understand and requires people to think.
The vast majority of peoples’ beliefs stem from their place of birth and the religious doctrines of their parents. Unfortunately, it appears that loss of mainstream religious faith is not synonymous with more reasoned thinking but replaced with a new age of comfort found within pseudoscience, astrology, psychics and probably the most dangerous of all, quack medicine.
What is more troubling with the new age of comfort is the concept that all ideas are equal and that science is just another alternative. Science is not an alternative and alternative medicine is not science. Science is based on empirical evidence and is apt to change based on new evidence. Pseudoscientific “evidence” is generally testimonial evidence and does not change. Testimonies do not constitute evidence because they are not the result of the scientific method of experimentation.
It is hard to imagine a solution to combat the proliferation of medieval remedies and other superstitious nonsense when the power base lies in a whole industry geared to play on people’s desires and needs. It is self-evident to see what sells. Go to any bookstore and look at the books that sell, self-help, astrology, special diets, peoples’ testimonies to their battle with [insert name of disease here]. The list is endless and unfortunately so is the road leading to reason, healthy skepticism and science. We should not be content with a new age that promotes comfort without reason.