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Mares: Denialism

The recent Vermont legislative debate to repeal the philosophical exemption for vaccinations was a victory for science over emotion. Against overwhelming scientific and medical advice, proponents were willing to put other children at risk for their own philosophical beliefs about their own children.

The controversy reminded me of the debate in my youth about putting fluoride in the drinking water to reduce cavities. In that mid-Cold War time, certain pressure groups proclaimed that flouridation was a Communist plot to weaken the bodies and minds of young Americans.

Both are examples of denial, an unconscious defense mechanism characterized by refusal to acknowledge painful realities, thoughts, or feelings.

Science writer Michael Spector has written a book called Denialism with the red meat subtitle "How irrational thinking hinders scientific progress, harms the planet and threatens our lives." At length he treats the fears about genetically modified organisms, vaccinations and climate change, that are often born of a willful denial of scientific facts and the scientific method, and the perpetuation of conspiracy theories and raw economic self-interest.

It reminds me of a book I read in high school called How To Think Straight. It included 34 dishonest tricks of argument (many born of denial) and how to fight them, such as red herrings, ad hominem arguments, cherry-picking evidence, and naked self-interest.

Denialism can have the force of law. During 1950s and 1960s, referendums to introducing fluoridation were defeated in over a thousand Florida communities. Today, even as sea levels rise, the state of Florida has ordered environmental officers not to use the term “climate change” or “global warming” in any official communications, emails, or reports.

A new law in North Carolina will ban the state from basing coastal policies on the latest scientific predictions of how much the sea level will rise. They cannot use current scenarios of accelerating sea-level rise.

As comedian Stephen Colbert remarked. "if your science gives you a result that you don't like, pass a law saying that the result is illegal."

Meanwhile, even as the scientific evidence of human causation of climate change grows, climate scientists in many places have been subjected to concerted harassment campaigns, death threats, email hacking, and hostile Congressional hearings.

In explaining his vote to repeal the philosophical exemption for vaccinations, Representative Chris Pearson of Burlington has rightly said, "It is not about an individual's choice or an individual's right. It is about trusting scientific process that has brought us this development and whether or not we trust that process. "

Writer Bill Mares of Burlington is also a former teacher and state legislator. His most recent book is a collection of his VPR commentaries, titled "3:14 And Out."
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