Why I Fear False Prophets

“Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance”

In learning more about the disgusting history of racism in America, the above quote by George Bernard Shaw springs to mind. Considering the gruesome and inhumane pseudo-scientific practices that governed the eugenics movement in this country before and after the civil war, I find the wisdom of his words hard to deny. As a member of a proud, medically-minded community here at Geneseo, the abuses of those in our chosen field are particularly hard to hear about. However, to turn away from the topic in disgust and simply ignore the actions of past physicians would only make us complicate in their crimes. What disturbs me most is that those who participated in the abuses of African-American men and women did not do so secretly to hide their shame from the world, but did so openly without consequence, often to the approval of their fellow White citizens who saw them as saviors and their “patients” as little more than laboratory specimens.

The lesson we can all learn from these atrocities is just how devastating false science can be in its destructive potential. Long accused of being superstitious and irrational in their iatrophobia, the history of abuses against African-Americans gives credibility to such beliefs, ironically contributing in part to the poorer health outcomes among African-American populations. Even today, one does not have to look far in America to find dubious scientific claims being treated like religious dogma. The Anti-Vaccer movement, for example, continues to site disproved evidence concerning the link between vaccines and autism while well-meaning but poorly informed people continuously raise concerns of genetically modified food long put to rest by the scientific community.

Perhaps the worst crime committed by false science is that it competes with and often undermines real scientific study. Science is an imperfect process; a method of research that is laborious, multi-faceted, and time-consuming. It does not lend itself to sweeping proposals or sensationalism. Though often fascinating in its discoveries, it is essentially boring and struggles to compete with the emotional and often vindicating results pseudo-science provides to its adherents. Worse still, it can often masquerade as genuine science for years, as seen with the eugenics movement and persistent scientific agreement on the inferiority of non-white races. This undermines the trust given by the public to scientific endeavors and in turn makes it harder to pursue actually discovery.

There is no one solution for confronting the issue of what Churchill called “perverted science.” Although I’m sure education will help prevent the persuasion of those more skeptical students, confronting the close-minded zealotry that often accompanies pseudo-science will be much harder to overcome. Skepticism towards science helped elevate the least qualified candidate in modern history to the office of the president and has begun seeping into our institutions and poisoning the way the world views us. We owe it to ourselves and our fellow citizens to be responsible in the use and dissemination of knowledge and to work so that truth will always prevail in the face of false prophets.

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