The recent outbreak of measles in California and the ensuing debate over vaccines has got me thinking about how we as a society interact with science. As you’ve probably read by now, the fact that an outbreak of measles — a disease that was declared eradicated in the US in 2000 — is even possible is attributable to a low vaccination rate among some communities of parents, many of whom blame vaccines for a variety of diseases and other maladies. Those beliefs have always stood on shaky scientific ground, but were dealt a major blow in particular when a 1998 study purporting to find a link between the measles/mumps/rubella vaccine and autism was found to have been fabricated (after years in which other researchers were unable to reproduce the results). Nonetheless, as the current outbreak reveals, the consensus of the scientific community that vaccines are safe — and, importantly, do not cause or precipitate autism — has, for some parents, fallen on deaf ears.
Even as anti-vaccine parents are at the root of the recent measles outbreak, I still don’t believe they deserve the full measure of vitriol that’s been aimed at them by some in the media in recent weeks. People who elect not to vaccinate their kids are neither dumb nor crazy, even if some of their beliefs are based on flimsy-at-best science. For one, vaccines can in rare cases cause adverse reactions, even though it doesn’t appear that autism is one of them. And plenty of smart people are anti-vaxers. One of them is the birth instructor whose classes my wife and I attended when we were expecting our first child, a woman who was once a university professor and enjoyed a great deal of success in the corporate world before her second career. Those who hold views on vaccine that fall outside of mainstream science, in other words, are often otherwise educated and sensible people.
But never mind that. The main reason I think we need to take it easy on these people is that they are not alone in rejecting the findings of the scientific community. The reality is that the case of vaccines is just one example of our society’s collective lack of respect for science.
An even more vivid illustration of this phenomenon, if you ask me, is the case of global warming. Climate scientists are nearly unanimous in concluding that the earth is getting hotter and that human activity is to blame. Nonetheless, the overwhelming body of evidence pointing to anthropogenic climate change has failed, at least here in the US, to convince most of us non-scientists; in a recent Pew poll, just 50% of respondents agreed that “climate change is due mostly to human activity”. (Also, if you’re interested, only 65% agreed that “humans have evolved over time”.)
Now, I would sense that a major reason why acceptance of global warming is so low here in America is that there’s a lot of money, originating from industries and individuals who stand to gain from our consumption of fossil fuels, aimed at confusing the American populace about the issue. That’s super depressing, but it doesn’t change the broader point: there’s a large chunk of us out there who are comfortable ignoring the voices of experts when it comes to the climate. Once again, this is not an issue of smart versus dumb. Years ago while working at an insurance company I was out at lunch with some coworker friends, and as the subject of or conversation (for some reason) turned to climate change, I found I was the only one at the table who believed in it. One particular colleague, who was on the company’s prestigious internal consulting and strategy team and had an impressive academic and professional background, felt the climate change issue was mostly a trumped up story meant to bolster the post-White House career of Al Gore.
We could find countless other examples where one particular scientific community’s consensus goes largely ignored by the rest of us. Economics is another good one. For instance, a couple of renowned economists, Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart, famously came to the conclusion that countries with debt equaling more than 90% of GDP tended to perform worse economically. This finding was later disproved when a graduate student pored through their calculations and found some key spreadsheet errors, after which the authors themselves retracted their own conclusions. Yet, the 90% debt “rule of thumb” is still referenced by plenty of well-educated people, especially on Wall Street and in Washington.
What is religion’s role in all of this? Religion has shamefully blocked and disparaged science at many points in history. It was the Church, after all, that burned Bruno and banished Galileo. Now, my personal feeling is that these historical episodes are more reflective of the superstitious and narrow-minded orientations of the people behind them, not an inherent conflict between religion and science. Islamic societies today, for instance, might seem especially intolerant of science from the viewpoint of the Western observer. But the religion itself is arguably quite the opposite; one of Muhammad’s commonly cited teachings to his followers was to “seek knowledge even unto China”.
In any case, there need not be a conflict between religious belief and respect for science. Just because one prays in front of a Ganesha statue, for instance, doesn’t mean that individual must believe literally that somewhere in the cosmos is an elephant-headed man mysteriously influencing the affairs of human beings. There is plenty of room for sensibility, nuance, and metaphorical thinking in religion. As Abdul-Baha once remarked, “If religious belief and doctrine is at variance with reason, it proceeds from the limited mind of man and not from God.”
But I’d say religion must do more than just get out of science’s way. It should be a leading advocate of scientific thinking and should actively encourage people to respect scientists and their findings. How else are we going to get people to believe in the safety of vaccines or in the veracity of man-made global warming? When so many people reject the findings of the scientific community, the problem lies not with the scientists but with those whose emotions and ego prevent them from accepting what these scientists have to say.
People of faith should seek to change the prevailing narrative of religion as inherently unscientific, towards one in which religion is an evangelical champion of reasoned thinking and an opponent of pseudoscience and superstition. Some non-theists might scoff at this idea, and argue that religion and superstition go hand in hand. But I’d say that argument is relevant only for a now-defunct definition of “religion”, one based on visions of long-bearded men with thunderbolts and other fantasies, which surely had relevance in an ancient time but no longer apply to modern day.
On the subject of the need for science and religion to coexist, ‘Abdu’l-Baha went so far as to say the following:
When religion, shorn of its superstitions, traditions, and unintelligent dogmas, shows its conformity with science, then will there be a great unifying, cleansing force in the world which will sweep before it all wars, disagreements, discords and struggles — and then will mankind be united in the power of the Love of God.
Religion and science must get on the same page, and quick, not just for religion to maintain its relevance in this day and age, but for science to achieve its full potential and receive the elevated level of deference and respect it so deserves.