Friday 25 January 2013

Why pseudo-science threatens Liberal values

Hardly a day goes by without a report in the media claiming that some activity or other harms your health. Being smug liberal types, we assume these scare stories are the province of the Daily Mail (the subject of well-deserved satire here, here and here).

Actually, you are just as likely to find such health scares in the Guardian or the BBC. On the Spiked website, Dr Michael Fitzpatrick tackles the pseudo-scientific links lobby that produces these stories. The ‘science’ is usually an epidemiological study whose tentative findings or dubious claims enter straight into conventional wisdom without being subject to serious scrutiny.

Fitzpatrick observes that these scares often relate to an activity that is already the subject of social disapproval, such as drinking alcohol or eating fast food. This should make us immediately suspicious that science is being abused to support fashionable prejudices.

Once an allegation of risk enters the public realm via the media, it alters behaviour, but not necessarily in a good way. Irrespective of whether a scientific claim is valid, people react by seeking compensation or quack remedies. Worse, these scare stories can kill. For example, the claim (subsequently exposed as fraudulent) that the MMR vaccine causes autism led to the deaths of several children from measles.

Quite apart from the unnecessary distress and physical harm, Liberals should be concerned about pseudo-science for two important reasons.

First, the roots of Liberalism can be traced to the eighteenth century Age of Enlightenment, when free thought and scientific discovery replaced superstition enforced by despots. Accordingly, we should reject the trendy sentimental belief that emotions and feelings trump rationality and logic, otherwise we are fostering a climate that allows superstition to resume its historical role.

Second, the depiction of the world as a place full of risks diminishes us as human beings. It says we are all helpless victims and denies our capacity to take responsibility for our actions. It even promotes victimhood as something to embrace as part of our identities. As a result, there is a thriving industry in quack remedies and quack therapists.

Yes, there are risks and dangers out there. But that is no excuse for confusing correlation with causation. Before we start to panic, any claim of causation should be subject to rigorous scientific enquiry. Stringent scientific standards should not be set aside just to satisfy a fashionable prejudice. Let’s reserve our disapproval for genuinely proven dangers.

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