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Anti-science rhetoric has serious consequences for society

By Frank Finley, October 25 2016 —

No, big-pharma is not conspiring to sterilize you. No, the government is not trying to mind-control the populace through flu vaccines. And no, fluoride in the water will not turn your brain to porridge. And yet, at a time when peer-reviewed papers are at our fingertips, so many people still reject well-established medical practices.

From rants on social-media to the belief that vaccines cause autism, scientific ignorance takes on a variety of frustrating forms. But in reality, scientific illiteracy isn’t always as benign as the anti-vaccination memes your aunt posts on Facebook.

In 2015, the David and Collet Stephan case made international headlines. The Lethbridge couple were parents to 19-month old Ezekiel, who fell gravely ill in February 2012. A friend who was a nurse informed the Stephans that she believed Ezekiel had meningitis. However, as naturopaths the Stephans rejected contemporary medicine. Instead of taking Ezekiel to a doctor, the couple treated him with hot peppers, onions, garlic and horseradish. Despite his deteriorating condition, the Stephans didn’t call for medical assistance until Ezekiel stopped breathing. He later died in a Calgary hospital, months short of his second birthday.

In April 2016, a Lethbridge jury convicted the couple for failing to provide the necessities of life. The Crown called the parents “arrogant and selfish,” arguing that their behaviour was akin to abuse and directly responsible for Ezekiel’s death.

Even with the death of a toddler, many still supported the Stephans. Albertan anti-vaccination filmmaker Del Bigtree told the couple he was “rooting” for them. During the trial, the couple’s sympathizers filled the courtroom, dressed in white and sobbing.

Scientific illiteracy is not confined to Alberta. In  2013, the Childhood National Immunization Coverage Survey examined immunization rates among two-year-old Canadian children. Additionally, the survey examined parents’ attitudes toward immunization and found that 1.5 per cent of the children included had never received a single vaccination.

A spokesperson for the Public Health Agency of Canada said in a statement that the study underscored “the need for continued attention to issues such as vaccine hesitancy and under-immunization.” But who are these individuals, and why do they reject the norm?

Mainstreet Technologies polled Canadian parents last year and found that 20 per cent of Albertans still believe a link exists between vaccines and autism. Another poll of parents with unvaccinated children last year showed 38 per cent of them held a university degree, with 40 per cent making over $100,000 a year in household income. The top reason for not vaccinating was “health reasons,” stated by 65 per cent of respondents.

The study asserts that these individuals are not on the fringes of society, but were simply average Canadians with dangerously misled beliefs.

This isn’t tough to believe. A number of celebrities like Jenny McCarthy, are the leading faces of the anti-vaccine movement. The debate is highy publicized in the media and while this may not be the main cause for anti-science rhetoric, it helps perpetuate it into the mainstream.

But anti-science rhetoric puts us all at risk. From death of children to contagious outbreaks, it is clear scientific illiteracy has very real consequences. As students, we have the opportunity to actively learn, debunk anti-science drivel and move society forward.

Scientific literacy is important not only for students, but for the rest of society. We must take it upon ourselves to be well educated in these matters. Anything less will be dangerous.

Frank Finley is a second year Law and Society Major and Vice President External for the University of Calgary Debate Society. He writes a monthly column about student and youth affairs called Jury of Your Peers.

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