Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Enemies of science

Last night (May 9th) Prof Richard Evans gave the annual Sense About Science lecture. Prof Evans, a historian, is the first non-scientist to give this lecture.

Prof Evans told the stories of six epidemics, four of cholera plus AIDS in South Africa and BSE in the UK. The stories were fascinating and appalling. (The full lecture will be available as a Guardian podcast so you can see for yourself.) They were also relevant to H4S’s vision: "A world in which important decisions are made by applying the scientific method to evidence rather than according to superstition."

Evans showed that the first three cholera epidemics occurred because the relevant governments did not act on the best scientific advice. All occurred after Dr John Snow had stopped an epidemic by removing the handle of the Broad Street pump and after Bazalgette had built the London sewers. The science was clear. The folly of rejecting science was also apparent in South Africa’s AIDS epidemic; M’beki’s denial that HIV causes AIDS blocked both mitigation measures and the use of effective therapies.

Nothing so far will surprise any member of H4S. But the reasons for the rejection of the science were also interesting. In general the issue was not ignorance of the science but explicit rejection. Before the epidemic the rulers of Hamburg rejected the science because they did not want to invest in public health measures that might have prevented the epidemic. Once it had started they rejected the science because it implied the need to close the port and thus loose money. And they were able to reject the science because Hamburg was not a democracy, had no tradition of independent advice on public health and because they were willing to use lethal force to enforce their views. The epidemics in Russia and Naples showed similar patterns.

M’beki, by contrast, rejected the science because he saw it as a Western conspiracy based on stereotypes about black sexuality. (And also, I think, because the anti-retroviral drugs would have been very expensive.)

A similar issue, excessive respect for farmers’ financial interest, also affected the UK’s response to BSE though with less disastrous results.

What this says to me is that though superstition is an enemy of science it is far from the only one. Vested interests, authoritarian politics and belief in conspiracy theories are also potent enemies.

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