No faith in science? Why some people put fiction before fact

Photo: Viarami / Pixabay

Scroll down your social media feed and you are sure to see doubt cast on immunisation, climate change and even 5G radiation. Frequently too, you’ll see suggestions that they are all related, whether by causation or conspiracy.

Tim Mendham, executive officer of Australian Skeptics, said that as times have changed the group’s investigations have largely moved from paranormal phenomena to serious pseudoscientific rebuttals.

“You’re seeing strange things over the last few years,” Mendham said. “Not just the traditional quack medicine, but alternative stuff, the anti-vax movement, fear of technology, fear of 5G, that sort of thing.”

You do not have to look far to see this. Online, there is no shortage of complaints about mask mandates, vaccination schedules and the sudden installation of new infrastructure near suburban backyards.

The Uniting for Australian Freedom group claims to have 20,000 members and Australians for Safe Technology up to 50,000.

A July 2019 study by RWTH Aachen University in Germany found that a majority of climate change-related videos on YouTube disputed the scientific consensus.

An October 2019 survey by the Royal Society for Public Health in Britain reported that one in every two parents with young children has been exposed to messages on social media expressing anti-vaccination or vaccine hesitancy views.

The anti-science wave did not start with the COVID-19 pandemic, but the virus has certainly helped its case.

Isaac Golden, founder of the Health Australia Party, disagrees with the scientific establishment about the pandemic. His ideas about homeopathic immunisation and natural therapies have even found an audience with celebrity chef Pete Evans.

“The information they’re being taught, from university studies upwards, is affected by incorrect and invalid studies, which have given a totally incorrect picture about natural medicine, as well as orthodox, pharmaceutical based medicine,” Golden said.

Golden, who has a doctorate in Integrative Medicine, has spent decades collecting data to support his claims about homeopathy successfully treating diseases.

Golden’s homeoprophylaxis program would have Australians saying goodbye to lockdowns and masks for good.

But regardless of how much science there is in his treatments, Golden’s criticism of “pharmaceutical drug cartels” and the “mainstream media” rings true.

The pharmaceutical industry is heavily centralised and certainly profitable and it is no surprise that the race for a COVID-19 vaccine has the public wondering what is in it for drug manufacturers.

Without a profound shift in the way the system works and who it works for, the push for COVID-19 cures will likely continue to be plagued by doubt.

Simple explanations

Conspiracy theories are increasingly touted as a simple explanation to complex problems.

Amid a rising right-wing sentiment, science detractors and their claims about so-called globalists and other puppet-masters behind the scenes frequently include QAnon-type racist and anti-Semitic undertones.

However according to Rod Lamberts, deputy director of the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, faith in science is not falling behind.

He said the digital world offers the perfect avenue for alternative voices to amplify one another — and it’s no coincidence the most devoted non-believers are often the loudest.

“We are increasingly able to keep ourselves in our own information bubbles,” Lamberts said. “It’s much easier for us to only see the things we want to see, or agree with.”

While climate deniers and vaccine sceptics are confined to the political fringes now, there is no doubt that challenges to scientific authority are gaining momentum.

Simply turning to the experts does not necessarily change minds and the inaction of Prime Minister Scott Morrison on mitigating climate change or former US President Donald Trump on COVID-19 don’t help science’s case.

“The way universities have been excluded from JobKeeper, sends a pretty clear message and a very loud dog whistle as to how [higher education] is considered by government,” Lamberts said.

Founder of the Informed Medical Options Party (IMOP), Michael O’Neill is another critic of what he describes as “mainstream dogma”.

The party’s manifesto talks about the ills of compulsory vaccination, fluoridated tap water and 5G cellular networks. O’Neil maintains the party is not anti-science but pro-choice.

“I think that people are not satisfied with the current interpretation of the COVID situation,” he said. “They’re not satisfied or happy with the push that’s coming from government … with mandatory vaccination.”

Like others, O’Neill’s scepticism began at home.

He and his family’s doubt about vaccinations came after his eldest son suffered an adverse reaction not just once, but twice.

“We thought that [getting him vaccinated] was in our best interests and he had a terrible reaction … then he had his second one and we thought he was going to die.”

However, despite the claims by Australian Vaccine-risks Network, vaccine injuries are rare.

Of the 126 million vaccine doses administered to children in the United States over the past 12 years, only 143 cases received compensation for causing proven harm.

This does not mean we should dismiss O’Neill’s claims of government bullying.

As long as governments fail at being responsive and responsible, the disillusioned and disenfranchised will be courted by dangerous anti-science conspirators.

Democratising science would help people see its value in their everyday lives.

Dr Judy Wilyman, an IMOP Senate candidate in 2019, stirred controversy when the University of Wollongong awarded her a PhD in 2015 for her thesis in which she claimed government immunisation mandates like the No Jab No Play legislation do more harm than good.

Today, she sells copies online as a $39.95 book and charges big bucks to testify in court cases.

Wilyman’s thesis faced criticism from medical experts over its errors and her response echoed anti-science colleagues.

“The only studies used in government policy for vaccine safety efficacy are funded by the pharmaceutical companies; they’re designed by the pharmaceutical companies and there is no truly independent government board that addresses the science that is presented to them,” she said.

Peter Ellerton, curriculum director of the University of Queensland’s Critical Thinking Project, said that bridging the gap to disaffected families will likely take more than a simple setting the record straight.

Facts, opinions

Ellerton said that, for better or worse, facts and opinions go hand in hand. The best approach is equal parts emotion and reason — changing someone’s mind shouldn’t be an interrogation but a genuine attempt at understanding their “meaningful lived experiences”.

“It’s the idea of just talking to people about why they think what they do and not trying to always preach at them or try to stamp in facts about the world on their forehead.”

For Mendham and the Australian Skeptics, the anti-science camp is not much more than a paper tiger. As long as they keep up the fight, faith in science is not going to go away, he said.

“[Anti-science scepticism] seems bigger than it might be. Social media has allowed people who would not normally have a voice to have one.”

Mendham said there was no point wasting time trying to convince fanatics or zealots. Rather, we should focus efforts on changing the minds of fence-sitters before they get to too deep into conspiracy territory.

“Don’t look at them as a faulted human being, because everyone’s a faulted human being. Look at the arguments, at the evidence and discuss it.”

For those who feel left out by the health system, anti-science and “truther” movements provide a sense of identity and empowerment.

Good policy guided by science needs to keep on reaching out to these people.

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