DISCLAIMER: Billy Riggs does not speak on (or even address) the topic below in any of his public presentations, but his interests are wide and varied, so he sometimes uses this blog to express views he finds interesting or noteworthy.
The unfolding Disneyland™ measles outbreak has reignited the simmering public debate over governmental immunization policy and inadvertently opened up another reminder of the power of urban mythology, not to mention the human brain’s insatiable hunger to believe. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie may have doomed his 2016 Presidential chances by making the (not ridiculous, in my view) statement that parents should have some say in what vaccinations their children receive. (I believe every kid should get all the vaccines, but I’m not comfortable ramming my views – no matter how scientifically sound I think them to be – down your throat.) The libertarian Republican Rand Paul (an M.D., by the way) went further than Christie by stating on Feb. 2, “I have heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking, normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccinations.” But lest you think this is exclusively a Republican problem, note that in 2005 liberal activist Robert Kennedy Jr. transgressed much farther than Christie or Paul, averring that science had “proven” the connection between vaccines and autism, though Salon.com has since retracted the error-filled article upon which Kennedy based his claims. Nevertheless, the Kennedy scion has invested enormous amounts of energy and time over the past decade preaching (quite inaccurately) that the link between vaccinations and autism is indisputable. During the 2008 presidential race, both Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama pledged to support research to determine if vaccines do, in fact, cause or contribute to autism. Obama pronounced that the science was “inconclusive,” though the reputed link had already been roundly debunked. (Like Christie, I suspect they were just trying to avoid alienating voters. Paul was probably the only one expressing a sincere belief, in my opinion.) The View’s Jenny McCarthy (a Democrat, judging by her one-sided history of political donations) continues to be the nation’s most visible spokesperson for the vaccines-cause-autism canard. In truth, no one knows what causes autism, but it’s almost certainly not vaccines. The tendency to deny science and believe what one wants cuts across all party lines. To believe is the default tendency of the human brain, and is apolitical. In the end, the undisciplined mind believes what it chooses to believe.
THE MOTE IN THE OTHER PARTY’S EYE
A study cited in a 2002 article in Skeptic Magazine concluded that there is no correlation between one’s knowledge of science and one’s acceptance or rejection of pseudoscience. In other words, one can know many scientific facts without ever feeling personally constrained by the scientific method that produced those irrefutable and consistently-reproducible bits of memorized data. Students who major in science, upon graduation, are only slightly less likely to believe in psychic power, astrology, ancient astronauts, the Bermuda Triangle, subliminal advertising, UFOs, etc.) than when they matriculated. Shockingly, their belief in alternative medicine (magnet therapy, reflexology, attachment therapy, primal therapy, applied kinesiology, crystal healing, colon cleansing, etc.) actually increases slightly during the college years. While political Liberals rail against Conservatives for rejecting evolution and doubting manmade global warming, they often do so while simultaneously clutching their crystals, hyperventilating over the evils of “Frankenfoods,” fracking and nuclear power and muttering something about Mother Earth and Gaia. Those who believe that Michael Brown was on his knees in Ferguson holding his hands above his head in surrender, begging, “Don’t shoot!” – just before being executed by a white police officer simply because he had a different skin color – somehow feel intellectually superior to those who believe that Barak Obama was born in Kenya. Both beliefs are equally and demonstrably false. Rosie O’Donnell regularly issues her screeds against Christians (whom she apparently views as idiots) while simultaneously holding the insane view that the Twin Towers were brought down by George W. Bush and his nefarious Republican minions in a sly plot to frame Al Qaeda, thus creating a pretext for launching a preplanned war. We all are susceptible to believing nutty things, and the knowledge of this fact should bestow on all of us a bit of humility.
GLOBAL WARMING AND THE POLITICS OF HYSTERIA
I find it interesting that those who dare to wonder aloud if alarmist global warming predictions might be overblown are not referred to as “dissenters,” the term normally applied to those with a different interpretation of the data, but are instead assailed as “deniers,” which is a religious term synonymous with “infidel.” If the Big Bang is no longer “settled science” and is now in question (it is; see article here), shouldn’t it also be deemed reasonable (and downright scientific) to probe and question computer models that project cataclysms decades in our future? Will the authors of this new “Quantum Potential” theory of origins be pilloried as “Big Bang Deniers?” And if the theory of relativity stands in diametric opposition to quantum physics theory (it does; see John Gribbin’s book, The Search for Superstrings, Symmetry and the Theory of Everything), is it so unreasonable to suggest that manmade global warming science may not be quite as “settled” as some claim? Fascinatingly, the aforementioned Dr. Gribbin, a Cambridge astrophysicist who is an ardent believer in manmade global warming (he has written at least 17 books on the topic), also co-wrote the little-remembered The Jupiter Effect in 1974, predicting Biblical-proportion catastrophes when the nine planets (Pluto was still considered a planet at the time) aligned on March 10, 1982. Earthquakes might cause Los Angeles to completely disappear and a rising tide would devastate low-lying land, he predicted. So dire were his predictions that Christians around the world (myself included, as an impressionable teenager) could not help but assume that the Rapture might occur that very day. Needless to say it didn’t, and 1982 passed much as any other year. Instead of an apocalypse, the only observable effect that year was that the tides rose 15 thousandths of an inch. Is it really then so risible to suggest that his (and others’) apocalyptic predictions regarding the consequences of greenhouse gas emissions might also be exaggerated? Or possibly even wildly off the mark? Besides, aren’t these the intellectual children of the environmental alarmists (or, in Gribbin’s and others’ cases, the very same people), many of them credentialed scientists, who warned us four decades ago that the earth was cooling with shocking rapidity (cover story, Time Magazine, June 24, 1975, “Another Ice Age?”) and who told us in 1972 that the world would run out of gold by 1981, mercury and silver by 1985, tin by 1987, zinc by 1990, petroleum by 1992, and copper, lead and natural gas by 1993? And who warned us that hundreds of millions would starve to death by the end of the 80s, and that by 1985 air pollution would prevent half of the sun’s light from reaching the earth, and that by 1980 “all important sea life” would be extinct, and that the Arctic ice cap would melt away completely by 2000? Or that airplanes would fall from the sky at the stroke of midnight January 1, 2000 due to the Y2K glitch? I’m perfectly willing to be convinced of the dangers of climate change, but I think it prudent to wait a few more years before buying into yet another chicken-little-style “apocalypse du jour.” I have no problem believing the warming part, but I remain unconvinced of impending cataclysm. Clinging to unproven beliefs and irrational fears are not exclusive to one party or another, or one religion or another. They are intensely human and are the norm, not the exception.