Between 2010 and 2011 there were more than 1,500 cases of whooping cough in San Diego, a life-threatening childhood disease that can be effectively prevented by vaccination. Before the panic of that epidemic becomes just another page in San Diego’s history book, perhaps it is a good moment to draw some lessons for our future. Beyond the obvious need for things like public health awareness, effective communication and robust vaccination campaigns, our frightening memories may reveal an even more fundamental problem. The truth is that, historically, we do have a robust vaccination campaign in this country. But, as most of us know, in the last 10 years many have become skeptical of vaccines, concerned that they cause autism, or that they are simply a scam, designed by Big Pharma to increase sales.
And this sort of ungrounded skepticism (the link between vaccination and autism has been demonstrated to be non-existent many times over) is not specific to this issue. Many do not believe that global warming is real because they trust non-scientist, political opinions more than scientists. And a quick search on the internet will uncover robust communities of conspiracy theorists on topics ranging from so-called “chem-trails” to genetic cloning.
We are a population out of touch with science, and this is becoming an increasingly dangerous position. So, how has this happened? And, more importantly, how do we fix this problem? Of course, the answers to each of these questions are many and complex. Still, that should not be an excuse for not beginning to unravel them.
Science is more complicated now than ever before. Scientific knowledge has become increasingly specialized. Progress has been coming at breakneck speed. Meanwhile, science education in this country has been languishing. In some scientific fields, at the top of the educational curve we have become less and less able to produce enough scientists qualified to meet the demands of cutting edge science. And, for the rest of us, the vast majority who have taken only the minimum required science courses, our knowledge lags so far behind the curve that we find ourselves lost, confused, frustrated and defeated. To the extent that we have not experienced these feelings, it is increasingly because we have not even tried and we are largely uninterested. The options are equally unproductive.