The skepticism isn’t limited to vaccines. Many people don’t believe in the science behind masks. Actually, I wonder why you have to wear a mask to walk into a restaurant but, as soon as you sit down, you’re safe (does the virus float a little higher than 5 feet?). A survey of the U.S. and Italy found that a little over 40% of people never wear masks or only sometimes wore them. Twenty-three percent said they weren’t effective.
This isn’t a surprise. Although trust in science is generally high in the U.S., 86% have a least a fair amount of trust but some specific issues leave a lot of people out. In the area I am most involved in, food issues, there is a lot of mistrust in science. Forty percent of Americans believe that genetically modified foods are unsafe, despite almost universal agreement among most scientists that that is not true. A friend of mine, a scientist, was attending a conference that included both food scientists and activists. When the subject of GM foods came up, one activist was asked why he rejected the scientific position. His answer, “F*** your science, we know what the truth is!”
Pesticides are another area of common concern. Twenty-three percent of men and 39 percent of women believe that pesticides create a “great deal of risk for the average person over their lifetime.” Should they be concerned? A study by food scientists tried to answer that question. Most pesticides are designed by nature, but we have found a way to supplement natural pesticides. Functionally, synthetic pesticides kill or repel insects, prevent plant diseases or kill weeds by poisoning them. Despite a few epidemiological studies finding that pesticides affect childhood intelligence and have reproductive effects, those studies turned out to be flawed, and most research has found no connections.
There’s not a great deal of harm ignoring the science of pesticides. If you get it wrong, you’ll just replace synthetic pesticides, which mostly disappear by the time you eat them, with natural pesticides, accounting for the vast majority of pesticides people consume.
True, there have been some reversals in scientific advice. First, we were told that it is dangerous to wear masks, then we would be crazy not to wear them. We were also told that social distancing is necessary, unless you are in a protest, in which case don’t worry about it.
Some mistrust in science won’t hurt you. Avoiding pesticides won’t help you but probably won’t hurt you either. The science says that alcohol doesn’t actually kill brain cells and moderate drinking has positive health benefits, but 30% of Americans don’t drink. It could be for other reasons but, either way, it doesn’t do any harm.
However, avoiding pesticides or abstaining from drinking is a personal choice to avoid a potential risk. Ignoring the science behind vaccinating for COVID-19 at this point is actively engaging in highly risky behavior. Refusing to wear a mask, social distance, or get a vaccine that has been put through rigorous testing risks not only your own health, but the health of everyone around you. These are matters of life and death.
When we have a tested and safe vaccine, it will be time to vaccinate yourself and your children. It will help to achieve herd immunity, somewhere between 60 and 70 percent of the population, and allow us to get back to a normal life. Leave the flights of scientific fantasy for your produce and your happy hours.
Richard A. Williams is the Principal and Vice Chancellor at Heriot-Watt University. He spent 27 years as an economist at the FDA in the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. He holds a Ph.D. in Economics from Virginia Tech and an undergraduate degree from Old Dominion University. Aside from authoring his next book, he spends his time reading historical, scientific and economics-related non-fiction. Find Richard on Twitter @ProfRAWilliams