Monday, 10 December 2007

Cold Hard Science?

From a tremendous piece in The Idependent by Johann Hari;

When I first went to central Africa, I met a woman exactly the same age as myself called Marie Abawede, who had given birth to four children out in the rainforests. The first three had all died – of measles. Her last baby was sick, and she was convinced he had "the killer" too. "If he dies, I will die," she said, plainly, without tears.

In the year 2000, there were 396,000 women like this in Africa, watching their babies waste away pointlessly. Today, the figure has fallen by an incredible 90 percent. There are only 36,000 such women today, and there will be fewer next year, and the next year, and the next year.

This is because of pure science, combined with political will. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has used funds donated by governments across the world – including ours – to ramp up massively measles vaccinations across Africa, which cost just $1 a dose. It has worked. Vaccinations are perhaps the greatest achievement of humanity: using this scientific tool, we have literally eradicated smallpox – a disease that caused hundreds of millions of people to die in howling agony – from the human condition.

So whenever somebody tells you science is "cold" or "soulless", and needs the "meaning" offered in religious texts, think of Marie. All the major religious texts say explicitly that disease is caused by demons and devils. Following this mentality left her babies to die. But using science instead – sticking to empirical observation of the world, and inferences from it based on reason – is saving millions of children, and giving them a chance at life once more.
. . .

Was the Mail's campaign based on faith-based thinking, like the campaign in northern Nigeria? I think it can be shown that it was. Let's look at the figure within the newspaper who spearheaded the MMR campaign: Melanie Phillips. Despite having no scientific qualifications, and despite making the most elementary scientific howlers time and again in her articles, she feels free to announce that virtually all the world's scientists are wrong, on everything from global warming to MMR.

But why was she so certain the MMR campaign should be stopped? Phillips presented her argument as if she was simply siding with one scientist against another. But in reality, she disputes on religious grounds the very basis of vaccinations: evolution. She says that creationism should be taught in schools, and that evolution is "only a theory".

So it's no wonder she is so hostile to (and ignorant of) vaccination science. Vaccines only work because we can observe evolution, live, as it happens. Take the flu virus. It is constantly changing – you can watch it under a microscope. That's why you need a booster shot every year: because the virus has evolved. That's why a vaccine against the 1918 flu virus would be radically different to a vaccine for the 2007 flu virus: it has evolved. Yet when Professor Colin Blakemore, head of the Medical Research Council, pointed out this elementary scientific truth, she accused him of seizing any sneaky opportunity to "beat the drum for Darwin" and for claiming "there was no intelligent design in a virus, only the mindless force of natural selection".

Let me get this right: Phillips actually believes that God personally tweaks the flu virus every year, just to keep it ahead of the vaccinators? What sort of sadist-deity does she follow? Why did newspapers and the BBC mimic her anti-scientific ravings? From this species of ignorance has flowed a serious risk of children dying, according to – remember – our chief scientist.
Well worth reading the whole thing.

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