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King: Science competes with misinformation

POSTED: January 27, 2009 1:00 a.m.

Nothing defines America better than the First Amendment: Freedom of religion, freedom of the press and freedom of speech. You and I can stand on any street corner or write a letter to any newspaper and say whatever we want.

Well, almost. Today there are certain words one absolutely does not use in public, and proven slander is punishable in a court of law. But to most Americans, these freedoms are sacrosanct.

Nevertheless, absolute freedom of any kind can be dangerous. Think child pornography or shouting "fire" in a crowed theater.

Should there be any restriction on freedom of speech if it misleads or is demonstrably incorrect? I'm inclined to say no. Censorship is an anathema to a free people, but it comes at a price. Being wrong is no crime, but misleading people can be costly no matter how or why it occurs.

There are people who don't believe HIV is the cause of AIDS. Former South African president Thabo Mbeki was one of them. Despite studies from medical labs around the world, Mbeki listened to a few "dissident" scientists who rejected the link between HIV and AIDS. It was easier for Mbeki to blame South Africa's mounting death toll on poverty and malnutrition. Antiretroviral drugs were refused.

Mbeki has been replaced, but South Africa now has more than 28 million people suffering from AIDS, and African relief organizations expect to see as many as 18 million orphans by next year. This may be the most egregious example of misguided beliefs, but there are others equally dangerous and closer to home.

Autism is a devastating condition. The baby appears healthy. Then - usually before the age of 3 - something happens to the child's social and intellectual growth. Professionals are consulted, and the parents are told the child has a "developmental brain disorder."

It's thought to be genetic in origin, and while there are techniques that will help the child cope, there is no cure.

It's natural for parents to seek another explanation, one that isn't genetic and offers some hope for a cure. Because almost all children received their "shots" in the first two years of life, childhood vaccinations came under suspicion, but instead of rigorous debate a fiery crusade developed. The anti-vaccine people enlisted the help of celebrities and went on TV shows like "Oprah."

The chief of pediatrics at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia became so incensed about media misinformation he wrote a book titled "Autism's False Prophets." Now his life is being threatened. (See the New York Times Science section, Jan. 13)

Since it involves children, we can understand why this is such an emotional issue, but once again scientific consensus is being ignored. There is no hard evidence of any link between childhood vaccination and autism, but more and more parents are refusing to inoculate their children. Should enough parents refuse childhood vaccinations, mass contagion is possible, and children will die.

Neither the debate over HIV or autism comes close to the problem we have with global climate change. For over 30 years people have resisted the idea that their own lifestyles could affect something as vast and enduring as the planet. But the evidence is there. Despite a few "dissident scientists," there is consensus.

The Arctic ice cap is melting. So are glaciers and mountain snows around the world. The U.N. panel on Climate Change reports that 11 of the past 12 years are among the warmest since 1850. Scientists say humanity is pouring carbon dioxide into the atmosphere faster than plants and oceans can absorb it.

Most alarming of all, more than a million species face extinction from disappearing habitat, changing ecosystems and acidifying oceans.

If true, why do we read reports that claim otherwise? Because "dissenters," whatever the reason, cherry-pick their facts and figures.

There are parts of the world where annual temperatures are falling, places where glaciers are advancing, and a few species (often pests) that are increasing. It is global averages and the rate of change that matter, not local conditions in any one place.

All too often people distrust what they don't understand. When faced with complicated and conflicting evidence, they chose to believe someone — science, government or big corporations — must be conspiring to mislead the masses. While no institution is beyond corruption, beware conspiracy theorists. Science, government and the corporate world are not natural allies. Furthermore, for the most part they're staffed with good ethical people.

We are living in a time of upheaval. It's critically important that we try to understand what's at stake and work together.

Joan King lives in Sautee. Her column appears biweekly and on gainesville times.com.



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