Though now dated, Isaac Asimov’s 1940s “Foundation” stories remain a cornerstone of golden-era science fiction. At the center of the early tales was the “Encyclopedia Galactica,” a vast compendium of all human knowledge intended to jump-start civilization in the event of a collapse of galactic civilization.
Asimov died in 1992, before the exponential expansion of our turbocharged “Encyclopedia Galactica,” the Internet. He would have loved it. But surely he would have groaned at the irony that such a monumental achievement and storehouse of knowledge is not only a breeding ground of bad ideas, but has encouraged doubt in the validity of science and reason.
Take vaccination of children, an enormous leap forward in public health. Increasing numbers of American parents refuse to vaccinate their children, batting away the data and insisting it can cause health problems, primarily autism. They even have their own celebrity spokespeople.
Their fear is rooted in a single, 12-subject study published in the British medical journal The Lancet in 1998. Andrew Wakefield, M.D., concluded there were links between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and intestinal problems he asserted were precursors to autism. He and others suspected that thimerosol, a mercury-containing preservative in the vaccine, could be the culprit.
Seven large studies subsequently blew away Wakefield’s conclusions and The Lancet eventually retracted the paper. Demographic analyses have shown that autism rates continued to rise even after thimerosol was removed from vaccines.
But in 2007, celebrity Jenny McCarthy jump-started the “anti-vaxxer” movement when she went on Oprah and weepily pronounced that vaccines caused her son’s autism. The notion really caught fire on the Internet and is now accepted on faith by thousands of parents, whose choice not to vaccinate selfishly puts other people’s children at risk.
So it comes as no surprise that measles is making a comeback. The 644 cases reported in the U.S. in 2014 were the most since 1994; so far this year, more than 102 cases have been reported, putting 2015 on track to surpass the previous year.
But as one Boulder parent told the Daily Camera recently, she had “educated herself” and determined that vaccinating her children is too dangerous. And frankly, she’s offended that anyone doubts her expertise.
But let’s not just pick on the anti-vaxxers, who are only one example of the ignorant armies clashing with science on the Internet.
For example, 40 percent of Americans don’t “believe” in evolution, a fringe position just a decade ago. Darwin’s elegant theory has a virtually perfect scientific record, having been repeatedly confirmed, both empirically and experimentally. Yet thanks to the Internet, millions now embrace insipid — and easily refuted — arguments and strategies once deployed only by backwoods fundamentalists: “If we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?”; “Darwin repudiated evolution on his deathbed!”
Climate-change science is extremely well established. Yes, there are contrary views, but virtually no scientist actually engaged in climate research disputes the data, methodologies or cumulative evidence for anthropogenic warming. But true believers (prodded by cynical vested interests; read “Merchants of Doubt” by Naomi Orkeskes) now damn science as just another “special interest.”
So-called 9/11 “truthers” tend to come from the other end of the political spectrum. But for all their fierce certainty and obsessive sleuthing, they can never overcome one huge problem: It’s all but impossible that such a vast conspiracy could be kept quiet.
But facts, logic and methodology hardly matter to millions of people who can find “facts” of their own on the Internet and blithely claim that “other ways of knowing” — faith, wishful thinking, logical fallacies— are equal to the scientific method. But science is not a belief. It’s a system of discovery — observation, hypothesis, prediction, experimentation, conclusion and critically, replication — whose fruits are the foundations of modern society. Unlike faith and true belief, science doesn’t reject inconvenient data. Challenging old ideas and conclusions is, in fact, the engine that drives new discoveries.
The Internet is also a great exposer of nonsense and destroyer of dogma; it’s hard to keep people in the dark any more.
Yet it’s stunning how many of us eschew skepticism and can’t be bothered to check anything out. Look no further than that vast playground of distraction and gullibility, Facebook, where millions of smart people routinely embrace and pass on absurd memes, false “statistics” and those oh-so-satisfying — and bogus — smackdowns of those with whom they disagree.
Perhaps Asimov was right when he said, “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.”