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An Advocacy of Dunces

CONCORD, MASSACHUSETTS – Imagine that a group of advocates tried to alert the public to a danger that they perceived, only the evidence showed that the danger was not real, and that by spreading their fears, this group was causing people to behave in ways that put the wider public – and you – at risk. What would you do? What should the government do?

The government of Australia has answered that question in a dramatic way. It has revoked the tax-exempt charity status of an anti-vaccination advocacy group, on the grounds that their fear-mongering misinformation about the danger of vaccines threatens public health, especially the health of children.

The government has also required the group to change its name, from the Australian Vaccination Network to the Australian Vaccination-Skeptics Network, in order to make the advocate’s perspective clear. “We will continue to ensure that they present themselves as an anti-vaccination advocacy,” said New South Wales Fair Trading Minister Stuart Ayres. “We want to make sure that they don’t ever promote misleading information.”

This is, of course, dangerous territory. Though the evidence is clear that vaccination does not cause the harms that its opponents stubbornly claim it does, any effort by a government to restrict speech is worrying. No free society should permit its government to decide which advocacy groups can say what, based on what those advocates believe. But, in this case, the Australian officials’ action was an entirely appropriate, and essential, public service: protecting public health and safety, based on robust and consistent medical evidence.

That evidence conclusively disproves the claims of anti-vaccination advocates that childhood vaccination causes autism and other long-term neurodevelopmental damage. Yet a small but vocal group of alarmists and self-serving profiteers continues to spread fear-mongering distortions and outright lies claiming that vaccines do more harm than good.

As a result, vaccination rates are declining in some communities, especially those with high concentrations of anti-government libertarians or back-to-nature environmentalists. As a result, in some areas, community-wide “herd” immunity levels for diseases like measles and pertussis (whooping cough) have fallen below those necessary to keep them from spreading into the general population. Adults in whom the vaccine has worn off or is not 100% effective are increasingly getting sick. Infants too young to be vaccinated against pertussis are also falling ill, with some actually coughing and choking themselves to death.

So the Australian government’s decision is clearly justified. Protecting us from threats from which we cannot protect ourselves as individuals is, after all, a central part of what we empower government to do. When the evidence is as clear as it is with vaccines – and the consequences as grave – the government has the well-established authority – indeed, obligation – to act in the name of public safety.

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But vaccination is only one example of how advocates sometimes put the public at risk by rejecting scientific evidence. The ideology-driven denial of human-induced global warming is impeding efforts to mitigate climate-altering emissions or prepare for the increasingly obvious – and dangerous – consequences of this enormous threat. Absolutist opposition to any regulation of gun ownership, particularly in the United States, is making it harder to keep deadly weapons out of the hands of those who pose a threat to society.

Resistance to biotechnology, especially genetically modified (GM) foods, is another example. Some applications could bring enormous net benefits to human health, but society is not enjoying those benefits – and people are suffering and dying as a result – because opponents reject all GM applications, owing to a fundamental dislike of large companies, commercial agriculture, or modern technologies generally.

Consider “golden rice,” a GM hybrid that carries the gene from carrots that makes vitamin A. A recent study found that, in India alone, had golden rice been approved when it was technically ready in 2002, it could have saved 1.4 million disability-adjusted life years for those who instead suffered blindness or death from vitamin A deficiency.

It is time to push back against advocates when their values-driven views deny clear scientific evidence and put you and me at risk. Scientists must speak out, as they did recently in England, where researchers testing a new strain of wheat challenged anti-GM advocates to a public debate. The advocates refused, but went ahead with planned attacks on the field trials, causing public support for those activists to diminish.

You and I and our fellow citizens must push back, by choosing which groups to join or to support financially. We need to push back at public hearings and in testimony about pending legislation, and not let the most passionate voices bully our politicians and policymakers into choices that placate the loudest few, but that deny the greater community the most good. And, when the evidence is clear and the risk imminent, governments must push back, as Australia’s has done.

Feelings and values must always have a voice in any democracy. We need the passion of advocates on all sides to move society forward. But when those passions fly in the face of the facts and put us at risk, it is entirely fair that in the name of public health and safety, you and I and our governments all say, “Enough is enough.”

David Ropeik is an instructor in the Environmental Management Program of the Harvard Extension School, author of How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts, and a consultant on risk perception and risk communication.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.

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