Posted tagged ‘ignorance’

GOPsters Fighting The War On Science Have Blood On Their Hands

December 21, 2012

First, consider this, from Nate Silver:

An American child grows up in a married household in the suburbs. What are the chances that his family keeps a gun in their home?

…the odds vary significantly based on the political identity of the child’s parents. If they identify as Democratic voters, the chances are only about one in four, or 25 percent, that they have a gun in their home. But the chances are more than twice that, almost 60 percent, if they are Republicans.Whether someone owns a gun is a more powerful predictor of a person’s political party than her gender, whether she identifies as gay or lesbian, whether she is Hispanic, whether she lives in the South or a number of other demographic characteristics.

Now take note of this piece by Alex Seitz-Wald, published in Salon back in July.  (h/t Maggie Koerth-Baker at BoingBoing)

Over the past two decades, the NRA has not only been able to stop gun control laws, but even debate on the subject. The Centers for Disease Control funds research into the causes of death in the United States, including firearms — or at least it used to. In 1996, after various studies funded by the agency found that guns can be dangerous, the gun lobby mobilized to punish the agency. First, Republicans tried to eliminate entirely the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, the bureau responsible for the research. When that failed, Rep. Jay Dickey, a Republican from Arkansas, successfully pushed through an amendment that stripped $2.6 million from the CDC’s budget (the amount it had spent on gun research in the previous year) and outlawed research on gun control with a provision that reads: “None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”

David Satcher, the then-director of the CDC, wrote an Op-Ed in the Washington Post in November of 1995 warning that the NRA’s “shotgun assault” on the CDC was dangerous both for public health and for our democracy:

“What ought to be of wider concern, is the second argument advanced by the NRA — that firearms research funded by the CDC is so biased against gun ownership that all such funding ought to cease. Here is a prescription for inaction on a major cause of death and disability. Here is a charge that not only casts doubt on the ability of scientists to conduct research involving controversial issues but also raises basic questions about the ability, fundamental to any democracy, to have honest, searching public discussions of such issues.”

Exactly so.

But hey, maybe the ban didn’t matter.  After all, it’s not “advocating” gun control to do simple epidemiology.  Right?

Dickey’s clause, which remains in effect today, has had a chilling effect on all scientific research into gun safety, as gun rights advocates view “advocacy” as any research that notices that guns are dangerous. Stephen Teret, who co-directs the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, told Salon: “They sent a message and the message was heard loud and clear. People [at the CDC], then and now, know that if they start going down that road, their budget is going to be vulnerable. And the way public agencies work, they know how this works and they’re not going to stick their necks out.”

In January, the New York Times reported that the CDC goes so far as to “ask researchers it finances to give it a heads-up anytime they are publishing studies that have anything to do with firearms. The agency, in turn, relays this information to the NRA as a courtesy.”

The anti-science commitment by the GOP is not a mistake.  It’s not a clash of world-views.  It’s not that faith sincerely experienced renders the conclusions of science irrelevant.  Rather, the GOP, at least at the level where power can be wielded, is all about the ability to assert authority regardless of knowledge that contradicts belief.

Ghent_Altarpiece_D_-_Popes_-_detail

We know how this song goes.  Anti-science is an old strand in human experience.  The determination to block independent assessments of reality you see here is the same thing the Church asserted when it confronted Galileo.    When  Galileo said, as he did in his famous letter to the Medici Grand Duchess Christina,  “I think that in discussions of physical problems we ought to begin not from the authority of scriptural passages, but from sense-experiences and necessary demonstrations…” Galileo, in all piety was making the claim that interpreters of the Bible must accomodate whatever it is that science demonstrates to be true about the world.  At the same time, he knew that the church, or elements within it could not risk acknowledging to the idea of autonomous expertise.*  Hence, Galileo told Christina, his antagonists

…make a shield of their hypocritical zeal for religion. They go about invoking the Bible, which they would have minister to their deceitful purposes. Contrary to the sense of the Bible and the intention of the holy Fathers, if I am not mistaken, they would extend such authorities until even in purely physical matters—where faith is not involved—they would have us altogether abandon reason and the evidence of our senses in favor of some biblical passage, though under the surface meaning of its words this passage may contain a different sense

As it was, so it is.

The Republican Party, taken over by extremists over a decades-long campaign (see the history laid out in the Mark Ames piece Anne Laurie linked to yesterday), has a broad resume when it comes to fighting science to avoid the necessity of confronting the basic facts of real life.  And it is this, to me, that makes the GOP not just wrong about almost everything, but unacceptably dangerous, a political force to be destroyed.

To return to the latest confrontation between the reality of gun violence, and the determination of the GOP not to know what it is inconvenient to understand:  legally enforced ignorance of the implications of the effectively unregulated presence of powerful weaponry throughout the country contributes to events like the Newtown massacre.

To anticipate an objection:  just as you can never tie a specific cigarette to a particular cancer, I cannot say that had we spent more effort really trying to analyze what happens when guns and the accessories that make them yet more deadly are so easily available we would have been able to stop that particular tragedy.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t discover epidemiological truths:  we know that smoking leads directly to an excess burden of cancer deaths among smokers.  You work out the rest…

The only hopeful thing I see is that the latest horrific events have forced more and more people to notice that the gun lobby and the worst wings of the worst political party I’ve ever seen in a half-century of living in America are one and the same.  Right now it’s important to press the case as hard as we can:  gun nuts aren’t defending freedom and long-established constitutional principles.  They’re preserving the profits of gun makers and serving the political ends of the party of the oligarchs.  We have a moment of advvantage in the fight against such forces.  If you take Silver’s argument seriously, the same demographics that propelled Obama to his second term put the gun lobby at risk.

But in the meantime, the suppression of knowledge about the actual human cost of gun ownership — to gun owners as well as the rest of us — is costing lives.  Those Republicans who block the pursuit of knowledge about what our weapons are doing to our country are complicit in the loss of lives by gun violence in the context of our artificially maintained ignorance.

*Which Galileo also knew many of them did not possess, writing, “Possibly because they are disturbed by the known truth of other propositions of mine which differ from those commonly held, and therefore mistrusting their defense so long as they confine themselves to the field of philosophy, these men have resolved to fabricate a shield for their fallacies out of the mantle of pretended religion and the authority of the Bible. These they apply, with little judgment, to the refutation of arguments that they do not understand and have not even listened to.”

Image: Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, detail of Popes from the lower central panel, completed 1432.

Stupidity Kills: McCain/Vaccination edition.

March 25, 2008

As promised, a post about this story. In my previous post, I asked what was missing from this seemingly straightforward bit of science/medical reporting about a growing number of parents who refuse to vaccinate their children because of fears that vaccines are unsafe.

The answer: a couple of things.

First, the piece had lots of numbers, but very little in the way of useful, contextual quantitative analysis.

For example, it would have been nice to know the ratio of the risk of serious complications of the vaccine to risk of the disease itself. That is, after all, the crux of most of the argument vaccine exempters make.

Second, the piece refers to the herd immunity concept, but never explains it — which is crucial, because the public health question (as opposed to the child abuse one) turns on the point at which refusal to immunize creates a big enough unvaccinated habitat in which a given illness starts to pose a risk to folks other than those who have chosen to risk disease rather than a shot.

Make no mistake — this piece does document, however imperfectly, a real problem. It catches the essence of the stupidity on the march in our rich, unprecedentedly healthy society in this passage:

It is the absence, or close to it, of some illnesses in the United States that keep some parents from opting for the shots. Worldwide, 242,000 children a year die from measles, but it used to be near one million. The deaths have dropped because of vaccination, a 68 percent decrease from 2000 to 2006.

“The very success of immunizations has turned out to be an Achilles’ heel,” said Dr. Mark Sawyer, a pediatrician and infectious disease specialist at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego. “Most of these parents have never seen measles, and don’t realize it could be a bad disease so they turn their concerns to unfounded risks. They do not perceive risk of the disease but perceive risk of the vaccine.”

But the third, and the real point of this post, is that there is a really big hole in the NY Times story: nowhere does the author mention that a current candidate for the Presidency of the United States has very recently made this problem worse.

Last month, John McCain said the following, according to ABC News:

“It’s indisputable that (autism) is on the rise amongst children, the question is what’s causing it. And we go back and forth and there’s strong evidence that indicates that it’s got to do with a preservative in vaccines.”

McCain said there’s “divided scientific opinion” on the matter, with “many on the other side that are credible scientists that are saying that’s not the cause of it.”

There is, of course, precisely the opposite of “strong evidence” that the vaccines cause autism. The NYT piece did point to the vaccine/autism panic as one wellspring for the movement to avoid vaccination, writing this:

Alexandra Stewart, director of the Epidemiology of U.S. Immunization Law project at George Washington University, said many of these parents are influenced by misinformation obtained from Web sites that oppose vaccination.

“The autism debate has convinced these parents to refuse vaccines to the detriment of their own children as well as the community,” Ms. Stewart said.

You would think that the fact that someone running for President is spouting the same myth, would register here. It has been less than a month since McCain exposed either his ignorance or his willingness to pander to an angry voter.

Whatever the source of his remarks, they provide direct demonstration of how credulity and intellectual sloth undermine science — and in this case, directly contribute to an evolving public health threat. It’s not good journalism to ignore elephants like this hanging around the edges of your story.

Beyond that: we’ve been lucky so far.

Measles is rare now, and likely to stay so in North America.

But outbreaks will continue to occur, and one may hit in an unlucky pocket of susceptibility to the diesease.

Meanwhile, other diseases have been getting more common. Pertussis, (aka whooping cough, for readers of a certain age), the “P” in the DPT shot is on the rise, with incidence rising fifteen fold in the last quarter-century, to over 25,000 cases in the US in 2004.

Sometime, probably not that far off, a kid or kids are going to die of entirely preventable illness because someone thought it was too damn risky to immunize their children.

Maybe they heard Senator McCain tell them that credible scientists thought so too. He should know better. And if he doesn’t know, then he should recognize his ignorance, and shut the hell up.

In my dreams.

Image: Louis-Léopold Boilly, “L’innoculation,” 1807. Source, Wikimedia Commons.

(I think I have used this picture in an earlier post, but it works so well here, so why not?)


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