An epidemic of whooping cough has broken out in California. Not long ago, this ancient scourge had been banished by modern medicine. But now it's back, thanks to people who believe modern medicine is dangerous.
These folks are not ignorant backwoods hicks. Many of them have advanced degrees. They live in some of the nicest neighbourhoods on Earth – places like Marin County, Napa and Malibu. But they believe that vaccines cause autism or worse. Immunization rates in some of the more fashionable California schools resemble those in the more backward parts of Africa. At the Valley Waldorf City School in Lake Balboa, for example, 88 per cent of students don't have the standard vaccinations.
Nearly 9,000 people in California have come down with whooping cough this year, and a handful have died. Repeated pleas from public health officials have gone unheeded. "Children are the victims of our ignorance," vaccination expert Paul Offit wrote in The Wall Street Journal. "An ignorance that, ironically, is cloaked in education, wealth and privilege."
Yet it's conservatives – religious, less educated, less wealthy and certainly less liberal – who are generally condemned for dogmatically refusing to embrace science. After all, they're the knuckle-draggers who believe that evolution is just a story and that global warming is a crock. In Canada, a week is not complete without another denunciation of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's so-called war on science.
But what about the progressives' war on science? That war actually kills people. As Hank Campbell, co-author of the book Science Left Behind, writes, "If some crank school district tries to deny evolution, no one is going to die and it just makes them look backward and stupid. Denying food, medicine and energy science, like progressives do, is costing lives."
In Canada, the progressive war on science is aimed squarely at the energy industry. A large number of Canadians believe that anything connected to fossil fuels is inherently suspect. It's not just global warming – it's that they are thought to be inherently dangerous. They leak, spill, kill birds, devastate natural spaces and poison our earth, water and air. One reason nobody can get a pipeline built these days is because of ridiculously exaggerated safety fears. Yet pipelines are a robust and relatively safe technology, vastly improved over the past 60 years. The United States alone has 2.5 million miles of them, and while their safety record isn't perfect, it's vastly better than other ways of moving the stuff around.
The war on fracking is also entirely ideological. Any new technology will have challenges, but the National Academy of Sciences, MIT, and other bodies with no axes to grind say that fracking is safe. Environmentalists should love it, because natural gas emits far less carbon than oil. Instead, they want to ban it. They've persuaded Nova Scotia and New Brunswick that it's evil. Without fracking and without a pipeline to the east, Eastern Canada will keep importing foreign oil. Does that make sense? Only to progressives.
Hardly anybody knows basic science and technology these days. Few of us are going to wade through the National Academy of Sciences report. We depend on intermediaries to tell us what to think, and a lot of them are also scientifically illiterate. Most journalists are generally more interested in controversy than in evidence. Environmental activists are in the business of opposing, and have no interest in solving real-world problems like providing heat and light at a reasonable cost. The people who actually know how things work – engineers and technology types – tend to be uninterested in politics and are poor communicators. Meantime, some of the most deeply anti-science activists (like the artfully named Union of Concerned Scientists) are quoted as if they were neutral actors for the public interest.
Some of my dearest friends harbour irrational fears about nuclear power, agricultural chemicals and anything genetically modified. They consider themselves enlightened, and since enlightened people are against these things, they are too. These beliefs are an expression of identity, just as a belief in creationism is part of the identity of a Southern Baptist.
Fifty years ago, enlightened people campaigned to ban the bomb. Today, they campaign to ban GMOs and modern agriculture. Vivienne Westwood, the famous British fashion designer, hand-delivered an anti-GMO petition to the British government earlier this month. Asked about people who can't afford expensive organic food, she declared that they should "eat less." She believes one of the problems with non-organic mass food is that it's too cheap.
But in most parts of the world, food is not too cheap. And the fear-mongering campaign against genetically modified food by the likes of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth has been a serious setback for global food security, depriving millions of people of more nutritious, affordable and sustainable food sources. "The actions of Greenpeace in forestalling the use of golden rice to address micronutrient deficiencies in children makes them the moral and indeed practical equivalent of the Nigerian mullahs who preached against the polio vaccine," says Mark Lynas, an environmental activist who reversed his position on GMOs and now campaigns for them. "They were stopping a lifesaving technology solely to flatter their own fanaticism."
The kind of doomsayers who warn that oil sands and pipelines will wreak environmental devastation are often the same people who warn that modern agriculture will prove catastrophic. These people are not harmless. As Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, observed, "If the naysayers do manage to stop agricultural biotechnology, they might actually precipitate the famines and the crisis of global biodiversity they have been predicting for nearly 40 years."
But nobody has heard of Mr. Borlaug. Nobody remembers a time when kids died of whooping cough, either. And that's part of the problem.