Caught a bit of start the week on radio 4 while I was rushing around trying to make the house respectable for the district nurses who are coming to dress Ali's wound. The guy from the Grauniad who does the bad science column was there. He's obviously written a book, or brought out a compilation of his columns or something.
I felt like dashing off a really long flaming email to him, but controlled myself. Firstly because I don't think people generally read rants if they're sent to them by strangers, and secondly because there was so much I wanted to say all at once that I don't think it would be very coherent.
He talked about the fact that while there are any number of erudite articles about the arts, science is always dumbed down in the press. You know, or you ought to know by now, dear reader, that I don't like the use of the phrase dumbed down in his context of meaning making content simpler, because it isn't the way that John Taylor Gatto meant it when he coined the phrase. But that's a nitpicking home educator's rant for another time.
One of the things which I have always been aware of is the way that school teachers and parents influence their children's choice of subjects, encouraging them towards science and away from the arts. Ihadn't really realised the extent of the influence until my children and my friends' children reached the age of decision making. Often I have heard parents tell their children that they should concentrate on the science subjects that they are good at and do art or music as a hobby. I can't say I have ever heard of a parent who went the other way and told their children to concentrate on art and do physics as a hobby.
I think it is a shame from all sorts of angles. The only reason arts and sciences are divided is because of the way that they are taught in schools and universities and the way that education is organised. It took several months of home educating my children to realise that the real world simply isn't organised in that way: if you make some biscuits as an exercise one afternoon, there is no-one to tell you that you are doing English (reading the recipe), maths (weighing ingredients), physics (conductivity of heat, reversible and non-reversible processes) and maybe biology, design, and a hundred other subjects too. Life isn't divided in that way.
In the 18th century, people from all walks of life were interested in science and the discoveries that were being made. I investigated the Coffee Houses of London for a project not long ago, and was amazed by what egalitarian and interesting places those were in the 1700s, with scientific experiments, news, discussion going on. People don't seem to have been scared away from thinking that tey couldn't understand science, and it was much more integrated into life... nowadays we have the idea that only people in white coats with complicated degrees are able to understand science because it has become so complex.
I've got a long way off any sort of point here. The chap from the Guardian talked about the MMR hoax, and said that poor journalism and poor understanding of science had lead parents to make ignorant decisions... that's paraphrasing, hope I haven't misrepresented what he actually said, I didn't take notes, as I was washing up.
I saw red, a bit. I am an intelligent woman who takes her responsibility as a parent very seriously indeed. When it came to vaccinations, I read extensively and then made an appointment to see the GP responsible for vaccinations at my local GP surgery. He said, and I quote "If you have been reading up about vaccinations, you probably know more than I do," as his first comment, which was hardly reassuring. He offered me the book that the NHS then sent out to surgeries with the "facts" about vaccination, and told me that his wife, a health visitor, had been against vaccinating their chilren, and so he had sneaked in during the night and vaccinated them without her knowledge or permission. I was more or less speechless by this time.
His main argument in favour of vaccination was that he had seen some terrible cases of whooping cough and no parent would want their children to suffer like that. It wasn't scientific, it was the thing which all scientists seem to deride, an emotional appeal to me based on anecdotal evidence.
I did vaccinate my children and the elder of my sons had the MMR. However, there was then a bit of a furore caused by the fact that a massive number of doses of MMR had to be withdrawn because the mumps element of this particular batch was causing mumps meningitis. Shortly after this, the government sent out a circular suggesting that all children should be given another dose of measles vaccine. Were they going to be given only the measles element of the MMR? NO, they were going to be given measles and rubella - in a booster due to take place shortly before all those doses of MMR without the faulty mumps element, were due to go out of date.
What made me really suspicious, was the fact that the leaflet suggested that rubella was being included with the booster because rubella can be a very serious illness for children too. This isn't true. It can be very serious if you are a pregnant woman who is not immune and come into contact with it, because of the effect on your unborn child, but it isn't a serious illness per se.
I became extremely distrustful of what I was told by the government about vaccines after that, feeling that they would say anything to use up unused stocks of vaccines.
When my elder son had his pre-school boosters a couple of months later, he had a very severe reaction, throwing up repeatedly. I took him to the doctor the following da, and said it was probably unrelated to the vaccines, but.... He said it was probably related to the polio that he had been given, but he didn't report the reaction on the yellow card scheme. When my sister's daughter had a severe reaction to her vaccinations, with high pitched screaming, some years later, the doctor confirmed that he thought that was because of the vaccine, but again didn't report that on the yellow card.
With such a lack of information, and cavalier attitude to the science around vaccinations, I don't find it surprising that parents distrust the information they are given. In America, one researcher has linked the inclusion of thiomersal in vaccinations with autism, but has been ridiculed in a similar way to the doctor who said years ago that BSE could be transmitted from cow to calf, and potentially from cow to human. In their protection of the establishment view, and closed mind to the alternatives, I don't see better science, just a different sort of prejudice.