As I’ve noted before in this blog, I’m a big fan of Dr Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science blog and Guardian column. His latest piece on the myths of homeopathy is certainly worth a read. In it he raises an interesting point: why is there such a broad distrust of ‘mainstream medicine’ and science in general?
It’s a big issue, and getting to the root of it could be the work of a PhD thesis or three. Whatever the root cause, there’s certainly some people, groups, and organisations who can be accused of promoting the view that science isn’t to be trusted.
J’accuse just about every religious group for a start. I don’t like to cause offence to the religious — in part because I am related to a large number of them and it could make family gatherings a little awkward. But accepting the tenets of just about any mainstream religion is a fairly fundamental rejection of science.
Dr Goldacre has covered homeopaths, and I think it is safe to roll most of the rest of the alternative medicine movement in there. I have relations who have been convinced that they can test for intolerance to a specific food by putting some of it in their mouth and trying to lift a heavy weight. They claim that they can lift the weight under normal circumstances, but it becomes impossible with milk/wheat/whatever under their tongue. I’ll stop there to maximise my chances of still getting a Christmas present, but you get the picture.
Politicians have to take some of the blame. In this country for their equivocation about supporting the sciences; elsewhere for more serious charges. Like promoting herbal remedies to AIDS over safe sex and real medicine, while millions die. A number of religious figures are on the charge sheet for the same offence.
Finally — at least for my list — the media’s up there too. Falling for every entertaining quack (Gillian McKeith) or sciency-sounding press release promoting fish oil, herbal remedies, and wacky diets. Or indeed pieces of dodgy research, like that linking MMR and autism. Step forward Daily Mail.
I could talk about many more groups, and give many more examples, but this would become an essay rather than a blog post. The fact is that when you look at the constant abuse and misuse of science, it is hardly surprising that the general public seems sceptical. The legitimisation that is given to alternatives to reality — often alternatives that are more palatable than reality — means it is no great surprise that people choose to believe them.
My worry is that society begins to regress towards an Age of Disenlightenment (a word?). Unless the world of science gets better PR, we might return to the days of shamans and faith healing. We need an army of Johnny Balls touring the country, expounding on the wonders of modern science to the nations schoolchildren. Might be a good use for cloning at least…