Minnesota’s measles epidemic has now reached 20 confirmed cases (twice as many as occurred during all of the previous 10 years), including 13 hospitalizations.
And, as has been reported here and elsewhere, a misguided fear of vaccines — particularly the fear that they cause autism — is the main fuel behind the epidemic.
Study after study — solid empirical evidence — has shown that vaccines do not cause autism, but many parents continue to cling to that dangerous belief.
Of course, the vaccine-autism link is not the only scientific topic that has its stubborn deniers. Climate change and creationism also jump to mind.
In the current issue of Mother Jones, writer Chris Mooney (“Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future”) explores the science of why so many people don’t believe in science — and why it’s so exasperatingly difficult to change anybody’s mind with the facts:
[A]n array of new discoveries in psychology and neuroscience has … demonstrated how our preexisting beliefs, far more than any new facts, can skew our thoughts and even color what we consider our most dispassionate and logical conclusions. This tendency toward so-called “motivated reasoning” helps explain why we find groups so polarized over matters where the evidence is so unequivocal: climate change, vaccines, “death panels,” the birthplace and religion of the president, and much else. It would seem that expecting people to be convinced by the facts flies in the face of, you know, the facts.
The theory of motivated reasoning builds on a key insight of modern neuroscience: Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion (or what researchers often call “affect”). Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, in a matter of milliseconds — fast enough to detect with an EEG device, but long before we’re aware of it. That shouldn’t be surprising: Evolution required us to react very quickly to stimuli in our environment. It’s a “basic human survival skill,” explains political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan. We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.
We’re not driven only by emotions, of course — we also reason, deliberate. But reasoning comes later, works slower — and even then, it doesn’t take place in an emotional vacuum. Rather, our quick-fire emotions can set us on a course of thinking that’s highly biased, especially on topics we care a great deal about.
Most science deniers tend to come from the right end of the political spectrum, says Mooney. In fact, “one key predictor of whether you accept the science of global warming is whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat,” he points out. “The two groups have been growing more divided in their views about the topic, even as the science becomes more unequivocal.”
But the left also has its science deniers, says Mooney, especially around “the claim that childhood vaccines are causing an epidemic of autism”:
Its most famous proponents are an environmentalist (Robert F. Kennedy Jr.) and numerous Hollywood celebrities (most notably Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey). The Huffington Post gives a very large megaphone to denialists. And Seth Mnookin, author of the new book “The Panic Virus,” notes that if you want to find vaccine deniers, all you need to do is go hang out at Whole Foods.
You can read Mooney’s article here.