Guest blogs

The Freeline Blog Swap: Robert Pepper on anti-vaccination, pseudoscience and the anti-anti-science movement

Freeline is a group for Australian freelance journalists. And this is a blog swap started over email where journalists somehow try to write guest posts for each other’s blogs despite the difference in specialisations, niches and beats. This is Robert Pepper’s swap with me – 4WD for science and he owns this material. You can also read my post on my love affair with the Jeep Wrangler on Robert’s blog: ‘Life’s Too Short For Boring Cars’

Freelance journalists are paradoxical people.  We love the freedom and independence that defines freelancing, yet our chosen profession is often lonely, interacting with the likes of editors only by fleeting email or hasty phone call.  That’s why freelancers form groups, for that inter-human interaction we all need, so we can share stories and build camaraderie.  As a side benefit we then find that despite a nominally shared profession we’re not actually competitors, and instead we can learn from each other.  For example I’m an automotive journalist and photographer, so I’m not going to be competing with Marisa who knows things about science, environment and health, but we both know about deadlines, word counts, blogging, dealing with publishers and freelancer fuel, otherwise known as coffee.

Yet despite a lack of subject matter knowledge, here I am, on her blog.  How’d that happen?

Well, after a rambling series of posts on a freelancer’s mailing list about collaboration I offered a blog swap.  I’d do my best to blog for anyone else, if they had a crack at my specialty of cars and 4WDs.  And Marisa was up for the challenge, so here I am.

Anyway, enough prevarication and introduction.  On with the blog, and out of Marisa’s many areas of specialty I’m going to pick science and popular culture because I think there’s an apparently  worthwhile crusade that is actually very dangerous because it is counter-productive.

Some background.  I don’t know if it’s just me, but there seems to be a general increase in the number of people believing in, or at least sympathetic to pseudoscience.  I speak of anti-vaxxers, chem-trail believers, homeopathy converts and the 1001 irrational beliefs that seem to be growing in popularity.  There is also, I detect, an equally increasing tendency to actually mock science to the point where “academic” is actually a term of contempt, as is “intellectual”, and an average person in the street is deemed to be possessed of a quiet, earthy common sense which somehow trumps years of diligent learning.  Remember Julia Gillard’s panel of normal Australians who were to decide policy?  I also think it’s fair to say that the current Government does not appear to put science at the top of its priority list.

And that’s just the passive side of the problem.  The active side is where anything science-y is deemed to have ulterior motives, the classic being pro-vax people obviously in the pay of Big Pharma.  Pick your science, pick your shadowy global power behind it, join the dots and repeat “ah, but they would say that, wouldn’t they!” with a knowing wink.  Wake up, sheeple!

If this trend continues we’ll have scientists meeting in secret underground lairs, swapping contraband textbooks, and burning their qualifications in case of discovery.  Ultimately, it is dangerous because we could lose knowledge, and before that point discourage the best and brightest from careers that could further mankind, or at least stop us sliding backwards.  I’m no historian, but I’m pretty sure I’ve read that in many cases humans have invented things and then slipped back into the dark ages.  Is this what’s happening now?

Maybe it is.  That would be why there’s an increase in anti-anti-science social media and websites, devoted to attacking those that attack science.

Which brings me to the point, finally.

Those sites have got it wrong, and they’re making the problem worse.

The average anti-anti site is nothing more than an echo chamber of like-minded individuals poking fun at those that don’t believe for their own amusement.  Look at the number of memes dedicated to explaining to anti-vaxxers how wrong they are.  But those memes serve only to provide a self-satisfied laugh for those that already agree with the sentiment.  OK, it’s possible one or two fence-sitters may be swayed, but for each one of those I’d bet there’ll be plenty more who just become even more rusted on, because that’s what happens when you attack people’s sincerely held beliefs.

Think about it.  If you believe something, then is mockery really going to change your mind?  If your belief is not founded on logic, how will appealing to reason help?  If all your friends do something, there appears to be evidence for it, and there’s doubt cast on other options, what would you think of some high and mighty unknown person telling you that it’s all wrong?  People that believe in this stuff aren’t necessarily willful, it’s very often an honest belief with roots that make sense to them, if not you who haven’t lived their life.

 

People that believe in this stuff aren’t necessarily willful, it’s very often an honest belief with roots that make sense to them, if not you who haven’t lived their life.
How many times have you heard someone yell in an argument  “You’re being unreasonable!” and the other party say “Well, yes.  You’re right.  I am being unreasonable, now you mention it.  I’ll change my mind.”.  Never, unless served with a helping of sarcasm.  Read any negotiation textbook – and being a rational science-y type person you would, wouldn’t you – and see what it says on the subject of persuasion.  I bet “create a funny meme” or “make fun of your opponent” isn’t in Chapter One.
So here’s the challenge.  We face a threat from the increasing number of people that are turning against science and learning.  The counter-backlash is only making it worse.  How can we create an movement so that logic, facts and true science are prized by society, and we don’t move backwards into the dark ages of no vaccines, everyone scared of naturally explainable phenomena and the like?  Save the world, discuss below!

Robert Pepper is a freelance journalist, author, photographer and driver trainer who enjoys most things with wings, wheels or sails. He has a website at www.l2sfbc.com and a Facebook page at facebook.com/4WDHandbook.

Marisa is a globetrotting freelance writer, journalist and editor with cat for hire (her, not the cat). She is currently based in Melbourne.

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