Live Well, Do Good

Science, Experts and Flu Shots

Brandon Sun, November 26, 2018 – David McConkey

I just got my annual flu shot. I support getting the vaccination for myself and for my family. I also support the government providing vaccinations free for everyone. I support it even though I know that any program has some negative consequences. But people balking at vaccinations reflects a disturbing reality where individuals choose what science to believe.

Don’t forget how beneficial vaccines have been. For example, we take the ending of polio for granted. But when I was a toddler, my dad almost died after coming down with polio during the 1952 epidemic in Winnipeg. While my dad was in the hospital, the Winnipeg Free Press did one of their stories about the epidemic. The accompanying photo showed my dad and two other patients. Only their heads could be seen. They were lying inside iron lungs – large contraptions that kept patients breathing, and alive.

“Hospital wards,” the newspaper story said, “are still filled to capacity with victims of the crippling disease.” 

Now I know there are problems with flu vaccination, as with any program. And I am thinking here of more than just possible adverse effects from the vaccine itself. Any government program has some negative impact. What do I mean? Well, funding a vaccination program means that spending elsewhere has to be reduced. So, as examples, less spent on doctors, nurses, diagnostic equipment or addiction treatment.

But this is where I trust the scientists and the experts. I trust that the vaccine is safe and that this program is the best use of government money. Does that mean that we should not be skeptical and should not ask questions? No, of course not. But it does mean that we should ask questions from a responsible place.

What’s a responsible place? Well, we should be scientifically literate enough to understand and endorse the scientific method. This method entails careful observation, testing and debate. Some science will never be settled; there will always be some uncertainty. Society should aim to do the best we can today, discover any shortcomings, and do even better tomorrow.

There are ways that we can support this on-going progress. We should support vigorous discussion, along with as much transparency in society as possible. We should support our representatives asking tough questions in parliament and the legislature. We also should support healthy investigative journalism.

And we should not hide out in an irresponsible place, taking pot shots in general at science and expertise. We should not rely on our “gut” feelings or what our Facebook friends or a celebrity says.

Unfortunately, science has become another option that many of us use to signal what “tribe” we belong to. Take climate change. It is now the most politically divisive issue in the U.S., more than guns or abortion. Many of us choose what science to believe by which side we are rooting for. This is like buying sports merchandise based on the team we follow.

The 21st century will be unprecedented for science and technology. Yet, many of us are retreating into our echo chambers, our confirmed biases and our bunkers of belief.

This heightens the need for scientific literacy in schools. But I fear that science education is also in retreat. A central feature of modern science is evolution. But teaching evolution in schools is threatened because it conflicts with religious beliefs. And this problem is intensifying as our society become more multicultural. Evolution is in opposition to not only the creation stories of the Bible, but also of the Qur’an and of other faith traditions. But skipping the teaching of evolution in deference to religion reinforces the dangerous idea that different groups can choose to believe their own science.

Here is one thing I would like to see: a candidate for election to school board embracing science education as an issue. Staking out this controversial position could be a way to raise an important issue, enhance a candidate’s profile and perhaps even increase voter turnout. The position: boosting education for scientifically literate citizenship. This starts by insisting that evolution be taught at school  – even if that ruffles religious feathers.  

Millions of Canadians choose to ignore the science of flu vaccination; fewer than 40% of us get vaccinated. This year, 3,500 people in Canada are expected to die of the disease. So, please, trust the scientists and the experts. Get your flu shot!

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See also:

Enlightenment Values Are Needed Now More Than Ever

More Than Ever, Words and Ideas Matter

How Can We Learn to Think and Argue Better?

How Do You be a Good Person?

Moral Truth, Moral Progress and Moral Relativity

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