I have written that science can replace magical thinking, superstition, or erroneous ideas or beliefs by ever more refined and focused views of reality though observation and experiment. And this is essentially true. Science has done away with many beliefs and ideas that were not backed by facts. However, these changes rarely happen overnight, and in fact they are often met with stiff opposition. A significant number of people won’t modify their thinking based merely on piles of scientific evidence. If one of the purposes of performing science is to generate knowledge that will help people, then scientists have to take the beliefs and cultural norms of societies into account when pursuing the application of scientific knowledge. To illustrate this, let me tell you a story.
A long time ago a physician friend of mine was working in the Amazon jungle. He was tasked with helping the local natives with their medical needs. At the time, an outbreak of malaria was decimating some of the local tribes. My friend told me the story of how he had traveled by boat up a river for several days and then hiked through the jungle to reach a particularly remote tribe. He contacted the tribe’s healer and explained to him that he had some medicine that could help protect the tribe against malaria, but that it was not strong enough by itself, so he needed the help of the healer. He explained that if they combined his medicine with the healer’s powers, they would be able to beat the malaria scourge that was affecting the tribe. So my friend proceeded to treat all the members of the tribe and the healer proceeded to make his potions and perform his dances and rituals, and all the individuals in the tribe affected with malaria were cured.
On hearing this, I was astonished. Did my friend really think that the superstitious rituals and brews concocted by the tribe’s healer contributed or were needed at all to cure the malaria?
Now, let me be clear on two things. First, I agree that indigenous peoples throughout the world have developed a rich and effective arsenal of products derived from plants and animals in their environment to treat different ailments and conditions. Second, I also agree that in diseases that are self-terminating (i.e. those from which most people recover) the right psychological frame of mind can go a long way towards making individuals recover faster from their ailment. Even if a treatment is not really effective in curing a person, merely believing it is can make a difference in terms of how fast a person recovers their health. However, when it comes to certain extreme diseases, both indigenous medicine and psychology have limitations, and they cannot compete with medicines designed through evidence-based science.
When I questioned my friend about these matters, he agreed with me that the healer’s traditional methods were not effective against malaria, but then he stated that that was not the issue. He explained that in tribes like the one he visited, the healer is a central figure in the hierarchy of the tribe. In the eyes of his fellow tribe members, the healer is so important in the role of protecting the tribe from dangers both real and imagined, that a healer who is perceived as ineffectual can deeply affect the psychology of the tribe and impair the way the tribe faces difficult challenges. My friend said that if he had barged right in and cured everyone, he would have delegitimized the healer in the eyes of the tribe and done a greater damage to the tribe than malaria. This is why he concocted the story about the need to combine both treatments.
I was a bit shook up by this. I understood that from a practical point of view this approach made sense, but I remained ambivalent. I asked him, what about truth, facts, evidence, and reality? My friend replied that if enough people believe something no matter how preposterous, that belief for all practical purposes becomes a reality that you have to deal with if you are interested in helping out. If you go head on against these beliefs and disavow or belittle them, you will do more harm than good.
I have thought about what my friend said over the years, and I believe it has some truth. People have deeply held beliefs that are often very important to them. From a scientific point of view, I may understand that some of these beliefs can be demonstrated to be false such as, for example, the belief in creationism, but I have to understand that the mere generation of more data and its repetition will not sway minds. And I think that this is a concept that should be applied (and is actually being applied) to the opposition against many of the initiatives that we need to implement today such as dealing with global warming or dealing with an increasing number of unvaccinated children. This is especially true in our current polarized environment, where scientists are portrayed by many with vested interests either as atheistic, liberal, socialist individuals who want the government to take over the lives of regular folk, or as individuals beholden to corporate interests who deliberately hide, falsify, or mischaracterize data.
The success of the strategy I outlined above will depend on the approach. Very conservative and religious people will be suspicious of scientists warning them of how, unless we change our behavior, we will harm the planet. However, they may be more receptive if the focus is on the concept that humanity is the steward of creation; that we should take care of what God has created. This approach will be even more effective if it is implemented by individuals who share their own beliefs.
A similar approach is also needed with people who are hesitant to vaccinate their children because they believe that vaccines cause autism. Many of these people have been swayed by stories of human suffering interpreted within the context of false or simplistic alarmist explanations. Data and facts are important in combating these false or misleading narratives, but the human side of the issue has to be addressed if scientists wish to change some minds. Scientists should acknowledge the parent’s fears and stress that the common goal of everyone is to protect children, and explain that’s why scientists vaccinate their own children. They should talk about the millions of people alive today because of vaccines, about how the world was when smallpox, diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, and other diseases were prevalent in our societies. Again, these arguments will be more convincing if delivered by former vaccine opponents.
The human mind is very complex. Different people perceive the same reality in different ways determined by genes, experience, and culture. Some of these perceptions will not conform to the actual veridical reality that’s out there, but as explained above, this in itself constitutes a reality that must be taken into account if we truly want science to help humanity. Whether it is helping a tribe in the Amazon or getting people to go green or to vaccinate their children, science cannot operate in a vacuum.
Photo by Agência de Notícias do Acre used here under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.