When looking at the anti-vax campaigns, whether in Mauritius or in other countries, there is a certain paradox that is quite striking. Take a look, for example, at the level of education in society. Long ago, only certain casts or clergies and elites in society had access to knowledge; now the ability to read has been democratized. Long ago books were luxurious objects; now reading newspapers, encyclopaedias, and classics is almost free. So, it is all the more unbelievable just how much disinformation can spread. And it is even more unbelievable when this fake information about health is being spread by people with university degrees, doctors, nurses… people who are supposed to possess knowledge.
This is baffling: how come that now that information has become so accessible and yet there is so much disinformation? How come gurus and leaders - seemingly defending the interests of the people – are in the end advocating for positions that will put the lives of people even more at risk? How can we explain that people who have been schooled and learned science, now reflect in such an anti-scientific way?
What is science?
To grasp this anti-scientific phenomenon, we must first explain what science itself is. In the first place, it is necessary to understand that it is in opposition to belief, personal opinion. For example, in the health sphere someone can say that garlic, lemon or prayer lowers blood pressure. If you just accept these three declarations without examining what proofs they are based on, you are acting on belief. Faith is characterized by accepting “truths” unconditionally and refusing to challenge them.
For thousands of years, in human society, belief has predominated to explain how the world functions, including how the human body functions. But progressively we have developed tools that allow more precise and reliable knowledge. It had been a long process. Scientific reflection was born in Ancient History (China, India, Greece), with a golden age in the Arab world during the middle-ages, incredible development during the Industrial Revolution in European countries, and nowadays scientific approach is still being refined.
Scientific knowledge is, above all, collective. It implies intellectual humility, where people must realize that their intuition, their personal conviction, their reasoning is not foolproof. Scientific method requires the search for solid proof to explain things, even if what is discovered shakes previous beliefs. So, in three examples about what lowers high blood pressure the scientific approach will elaborate a series of tests to verify whether garlic, lemon or prayer do actually have an effect.
Collective thinking at the service of science
However, scientific thought is not easy to master: it demands language proficiency (often in English) and the ability to manipulate concepts and abstractions. So, most often, we ordinary people who are not scientists, have no other choice than to put our trust in what others are saying. And, paradoxically, we are back to belief: we have to put faith in what someone is claiming.
But thanks to collective strength, we can overcome this paradox. A scientist must publish all details about his “truth”. Then, several other scientists must perform a painstaking and thankless job: examining the “discovery”, finding its loopholes, looking for every fallacy (faulty reasoning). Only when there is no conflict of interests and when they have thoroughly examined all possible flaws, that they will succeed in making these results reliable. If, despite every effort to prove something wrong it resists,it gives an indication of its reliability. It requires humility to accept that even a scientist can make a mistake. That means, when you hear scientists believing in their own superiority and refuse that others challenge what they are claiming, you are facing people opposing scientific method.
In the Covid-19 context, within a record time frame and on a planetary scale, rapid decisions and measures to block the propagation of the virus were taken. There have been various theories on its origin and ways to deal with the viral epidemic. From a scientific point of view, the greater range of theories, the better. They must then be put to test: for example, it was said that chloroquine (Raoult), artemisia (Madagascar), or smoking cigarettes prevent people from catching Covid. Data analysis on a large scale then showed that these treatments did not work. According to scientific principles, when proven wrong people are supposed to acknowledge that they were mistaken. Clinging to one’s claim despite proof that demonstrates otherwise, is a sign that personal conviction and faith is shadowing scientific method.
The interests behind the Anti-science wave
There are several dimensions behind an anti-science movement, be it against vaccine, against Evolution or against Climate Change. Sometimes people (scientists, amateurs or activists) mix up their own convictions and ego with the will to defend some “truth”. Which means that, even if everything proves them wrong, they will stubbornly defend their initial position. Admitting one’s mistakes and changing opinion is a difficult process that requires a great amount of humility. It is even harder when you have taken a first stance and everyone is watching you. Stepping back is then a very complicated thing. (Especially in a society that encourages “macho” postures.)
It is true that sometimes people are convinced, in their good faith, about something and cannot realize that it is false. But we should keep in mind that beyond certain psychological and individual mechanisms, there are real commercial and political stakes fuelling anti-science movements. Commercially, for example, some cars manufacturers intentionally deny Global warming effects because their trade consists of selling vehicles that consume gasoline. Certain churches, financed by their congregation, are bound to deny Evolution since it threatens the role and existence of god, and consequently their own existence. In the case of Covid, every sort of charlatan can spread fake information on vaccine because they have products to sell that are supposedly miraculous cures. It becomes a serious issue when people consciously spread what they know to be false.
In politics, populist movements play on fear and irrational feelings. Just to attract sympathizers, they are willing to spread false rumours to discredit their opponents. They aim mostly at a mass ready to swallow propaganda instead of adopting a scientific attitude that involves critical thinking. So, it is not surprising that populist movements promote an anti-scientific mode of thinking. In the wake of Covid pandemics, political populist movements have used fake information, rumours, and partial truths just to stir up the anger of people. Their mobilization plays on the irrational fear in people instead of bringing out in-depth thinking on the basis of a program. Around vaccination, they play on sensitive strings such as:
- racism and xenophobia: they claim that what is not Occidental is not good (the fear of vaccines coming from China or India)
- atrocities committed by the Nazi: they claim that vaccination is akin to the medical experiences performed on Jews in the 2nd World War
- Deep disgust: in the vaccine there apparently is aborted human foetuses (to stimulate a reaction of self-defence because people don’t want to have dead substances and even less from aborted foetuses, introduced in their bodies)
- Aversion of being controlled: they pretend an electronic chip in the vaccine will make us lose our humanity and become robots controlled by some New World Order.
To conclude, we will take a look at a last paradox. We as humans, have evolved to cooperate and to ensure collective survival. It has always been necessary, on discovering a potential threat, to spread the news to the entire group so as to protect everyone. Imagine that someone dies after drinking water contaminated by volcanic sulphur… It is through generosity and desire to protect others that each member feels it is his or her duty to spread the news as much as possible so that no one drinks this contaminated water. Is that what is at stake when people — maybe well-intentioned — think that it is their duty to spread news about the supposed ‘danger’ of the vaccine?
But we must be careful. Spreading news for collective survival is relevant when the danger is real. On the other hand, spreading warnings about fake danger can be considered criminal. In the last 10 years, parents have been brought to Court because, having developed paranoia about lactose, gluten or “danger” of milk powder, they fed their babies with only soya milk. Their decision was influenced by movements challenging medical recommendations from WHO on feeding babies. The result was atrocious: in some cases, children suffered chronic malnutrition and died all skin and bones.
It is therefore important to realize that decisions concerning health is not solely a question of personal opinion; that everyone is entitled to do as they wish to “heal” themselves and give advice. And it is important to realize that it entails an enormous responsibility when spreading information without a sound knowledge of scientific findings. It is criminal to give advice that will expose the lives of other people.
It is also important to realize that, behind waves of protests seemingly in favour of the people, there are hidden agendas of manipulative politicians. Their intention is not to save people, but to fuel public outrage to destroy their adversaries and rise to power. And when they succeed, they will crush the people just the same. They are willing to prey on fear as long as it serves their interests. And they do not care if people consequently die. This is a dangerous form of populism.
Source: Original version of this article was published in Kreol on LALIT website on 29th June 2021. Link: https://www.lalitmauritius.org/en/newsarticle/2896/fenomenn-anti-syans-otur-vaksin/
Translated into English by member of LALIT translating team.