Public health is not optional

We should be basing our decisions on science, and not paranoia.

"Mary Pat and I have had our children vaccinated and we think that it's an important part of being sure we protect their health and the public health. … I also understand that parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well, so that's the balance that the government has to decide."

— New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie

The recent revelations concerning outbreaks of measles in parts of our nation are troubling from a public health perspective. They also point out however, an equally troubling trend, namely that despite the fact that we are living in the 21st Century, far too many of our citizens make critical decisions in their lives based not on science but on ignorance, paranoia and superstition.

The current movement against vaccinations largely stems from a 1998 British medical journal that originally affirmed a possible link between that practice and autism. The article caused a firestorm of interest, but in 2010, the authors of the study were not only forced to retract their findings but were found to have been dishonest and fraudulent in compiling their data.

Since then, a corps of prominent health and scientific experts have worked to allay the fears and concerns of the American public regarding this important issue. Sadly, despite their efforts it appears that far too many parents have abandoned science and embraced fear and ignorance in their decision to forego vaccinating their children.

Even more troubling is that ignorance of the facts is not limited to just matters of health. Every day so-called experts, despite reams of irrefutable scientific evidence, cast doubt on the fact that our planet is warming and that substantive action is needed to address the problem. Other individuals, many of whom hold positions of power and influence in our society, see the ethereal concepts of creationism and intelligent design as being equal to the scientifically validated evolutionary process.

Because of Maryland's reputation for good schools and accomplished scientific organizations and institutes of higher learning, one might think that our state would be immune to the levels of ignorance one sees in other parts of our nation. Not so; I live in Severna Park, where just recently the well heeled voters of that fair hamlet saw fit to elect as their county councilman a man who believes that the earth is only a few thousand years old and that men and dinosaurs roamed the planet at the same time.

This is not to make the case that everyone should always think the same way about our world. So much of what we call life remains unsettled. Any scientist will tell you that we are far from finding all of the answers to countless challenges and problems. Life in many respects will always be a mystery. I once met the great journalist Bob Woodward, and during our conversation I complimented him on his work on the Watergate scandal. He replied, "Thank you for your kind words, but think about how much we still don't know." There is no doubt that life is an ongoing journey of exploration and discovery.

At the same time, while there is indeed much that we don't know, scientific inquiry has answered countless mysteries and questions. It is a fact that vaccinations prevent disease. Solutions to stop the warming of our planet are daunting, but that does not negate the fact of global warming. Some may opt to believe religious dogma rather than accept the fact of evolution, but that does not give them the right to teach their metaphysical concepts as fact.

In short, due to the great freedom we all enjoy, individuals can think or believe whatever they wish. However, when they enter the public square, they should not be allowed to substitute ignorance for scientific fact. To do so puts all of us at risk. Outbreaks of measles are injurious to our health, but outbreaks of illogic are a threat to the future of our nation and our world.

Patrick Weadon is a Severna Park based writer. His email is pweadon@yahoo.com.

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