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Wired has a great article about the anti-vaccine movement and how fears over autism, fueled by few if any scientific facts, have the potential to lead to outbreaks of almost forgotten diseases because more and more parents are choosing not to vaccinate their children. At the heart of the matter is the battle scientists must wage against pundits and misguided advocates who use unsupported claims and sensationalism to further their agendas. If scientists (or any truly credible advocate) are going to maintain legitimate credibility, the only recourse is carefully researched and verified logical reason. However, the sad truth is that sensationalism usually trumps reason in the realm of public attention. After all, there hasn't been a single scientific study that ties vaccines to autism, yet the debate rages on. In fact, the scientific evidence suggests that their shouldn't be a debate in the first place.
When it comes to my field of atmospheric science, a similar cloud surrounds the debate over climate change on both sides of the debate. Careful reason is often overshadowed by anecdotal data and conclusions based on ideology and not facts. Because of this, I often ask myself as a scientists, "What can I do to ensure that good science prevails over the bad?" How do you assert credibility as an legitimate expert when true experts are constantly vilified as biased mouthpieces with evil hidden agendas; particularly when, in an ironic twist, it's biased mouthpieces with evil hidden agendas that do the vilifying. The internet, despite being an invaluable tool for research and data dissemination, in many way compounds the issue. After all, how to you know if the blog post your reading is being written by an experienced researcher or a corporate marketing executive? How do you know that the author has done their due diligence in assuring that their claims are valid and robust.
The pro-vaccine camp has more-or-less been beat down to the point where they state that when enough children die, the public will finally understand their message that the risk associated with vaccines is far outweighed by the risk from the diseases they protect against. Perhaps the climate change debate will only be settled in one hundred years when we can see if the sea-level rose as predicted. Off the top of my head I think the most recent IPCC report predicted a sea-level rise on the order of three feet by the year 2100. If the sea-level only rises one foot will the debate rage on?
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