Yesterday, a group of armed Ebola-deniers raided a quarantine facility in Liberia and “freed” the patients. This is–without a doubt–the stupidest thing I have seen anyone do in a while, and while it is really easy to point fingers at the raiders and label them as extremely evil or as complete idiots, we can’t and shouldn’t blame them. These raiders weren’t stupid, but ignorant, a huge difference that can serve as an important reminder to us all.
Let’s start with why these people would do this; after all, ebola is a terrible viral hemorrhage fever, why would anyone want to exacerbate its current record braking outbreak? The answer is heartbreakingly simple: many people in Liberia don’t believe the virus is real. How could one possibly believe this? It’s for a plethora of reasons: for one thing, Liberians greatly distrust their extremely corrupt government, and for good reason. It also comes from a disbelief that so-called “bush meat” (or meat that people hunt and kill themselves such as non-human primates and bats) carries ebola. Bush meat has been such a staple in Liberia for some time, so many simply don’t believe it could harm them. And a last, more implicit, and universal reason for the denial is fear. People don’t want to believe that such a deadly virus exists and could easily kill them in the most excruciating way possible (for those unaware, hemorrhage fever kill you by causing you to bleed out from the inside out).
While these reasons make it easier to understand why many Liberians don’t believe in ebola, it still will cause many of us non-Liberians to scoff and ridicule the Liberians as a people. More dangerously, it will cause a feeling of pity for the Liberians, causing many to think, “If only they were as developed as [insert western nation here].” But this begs the question: are we really more developed in our scientific thinking than these nations? I would argue that we may be, but not by much.
Microcosms of this dangerous denial of scientific thought exist all over the United States, which many regard as being one of the most developed nations on Earth. And yet, despite the 12 years of education received by more than 80% of Americans, we still have a great amount of scientific distrust in our country. Only 32% of the population believes in evolution by natural selection (the backbone of modern biology). As for climate change, while a majority of Americans finally accept its existence and effects, we are still well below the rest of the world’s population in terms of its acknowledgement. Many Americans even take vaccination advice from a former Playmate rather than the overwhelming majority of doctors who–not surprisingly–recommend you vaccinate your kids so they don’t get polio or tetanus, some even going as far as to remove patients from their practice.
This kind of thinking is arguably more dangerous than the ebola-deniers in West Africa, and shows their actions are not limited to a severely underdeveloped nation. While the raiders may have put a roadblock in the containment of this ebola outbreak, our thinking stalls the progress of medicine and technology in our nation. Cases of eradicated diseases are popping up in areas of the US known for high concentrations of anti-vaccine parents, and the denial of climate change severely hinders efforts to combat it. And while we think of ourselves as more developed and educated than West Africans, our reasons for these denials are the same: fear and faith. Ideas such as intelligent design rely on Americans to distrust new findings simply because they are uncomfortable with changing what they know to be true (similar to the Liberians view of bushmeat being safe). As for climate change, many Americans deny its existence not out of reason or fact, but fear. Nobody wants climate change to be real. I certainly wish it wasn’t. But it is, and not believing in it is not going to make it go away.
So while Americans are not going to, say, raid the CDC and release dangerous viruses, we are still doing harm to everyone. And while the raid is a short term threat, our beliefs are a long term one. Even something as minor as reading a daily horoscope is dangerous, as it causes one to perceive science as an alternative option to predict the world rather than the only correct one. As long as Americans still hold these beliefs and still elect people with similar beliefs to represent them, we are doing the same kinds of harm as the Liberian clinic raiders. So next time you see an article with some radical headline about “GMO foods causing autism” or something along those lines, do yourself a favor and look it up. Find a scientific study, read over the abstract, and do your part it making for a more educated and less dangerous America. And most importantly: when a political candidate promises to cut spending on school or allow for more “equal” science curriculum, think twice about what that means.
Originally posted August 18 2014