When lawmakers doubt vaccination and throw snowballs on the Senate floor, it’s a sign of a worrisome trend in America to put blind faith before the hard facts of science.
In Georgia, Rep. Barry Loudermilk, ironically a member of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, told a town hall meeting that he did not vaccinate his home-schooled children, adding proudly that “they’re healthy.”
On the Senate floor, Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma threw a snowball to pooh-pooh the dangers of climate change.
Thankfully for Loudermilk there’s still sufficient herd immunity in Georgia — 93.9% for MMR in 2013 — to protect his children, and Oklahoma will likely be behind California in facing the impact of global warming. But these are high-profile examples of faith before facts.
And it’s not just right-wing Republicans. Ardent environmentalists accept global warming but denounce genetically modified foods and hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas. A global warming trend is confirmed by the scientific data, but danger from GMO foods and fracking is not.
The problem arises because science and its sophisticated tools like statistics simply provide carefully measured facts. Science doesn’t say whether something is good or bad, just that it is.
Facts often collide with our belief systems, so we pick and choose. That’s why an environmentalist can believe in global warming yet oppose GMO foods, and a creationist can ignore evolution but still fear the evolving flu virus.
Adding to the problem is science’s careful qualification of facts. Terms like “theory” and “confidence interval” suggest a lack of certainty, when in fact they reflect scientists’ desire for precision. This often puts science at odds with the legal system, which prefers simple yes/no or right/wrong answers without qualification.
The challenge to science hits home in San Diego, where the Scripps Intitution of Oceanography first sounded the alarm on global warning, and the developer of the first polio vaccine built the world-class Salk Institute. San Diego universities and companies receive hundreds of millions in dollars annually from the National Science Foundation to pursue research in these areas.
There’s hope, however, in two developments last month. First, the measles outbreak at Disneyland prompted two California lawmakers to introduce a bill to toughen vaccination requirements, and starting in 2017 students entering the University of California system must have all recommended vaccinations, though both efforts unfortunately leave a loophole for religious beliefs.
Second, after a 14-year-wait, a Scripps-inspired satellite designed to map global warming finally made it into space. Derided as “Goresat” after former Vice President Al Gore, it sat in storage for a decade, a victim of belief over facts. Now the Deep-Space Climate Observatory is headed to a special orbit almost a million miles above the earth, where it can continuously monitor our planet.
Maybe soon facts will begin to trump beliefs, the vaccination rate will begin increasing and opposition to global warming won’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell.
Chris Jennewein is editor and publisher of Times of San Diego.