I’m not the first to say it, but we could certainly stand to have a little more science literacy in this country. In almost all countries, actually. It’s not that everyone needs to understand thermodynamics or be able to calculate a Fibonacci sequence. But as our world and our devices grow in complexity, there are certain basic tools we could all use to make our lives better, safer and more financially secure.The recent death of a teenage girl in Coventry, England following her vaccination for human papillomavirus (HPV) is an prime example of this. Immediately following the girl’s death, the media jumped on the story, reporting it in such a way that it created a considerable and unnecessary scare. Though the cause of death was in fact an unrelated tumor, it was days before this information was available to the public. While the young girl’s death was tragic, it would be so much more tragic if hundreds of others lost their lives because they didn’t receive this vaccination. HPV is recognized as the major cause of cervical cancer. Worldwide, there are over half a million new cases of cervical cancer annually resulting in over a quarter million deaths each year. Yet it only takes a small number of serious adverse reactions to sway a large portion of the public because they don’t understand the difference between correlation and causation.
In the US, 24 million doses of HPV vaccine have been given in the last four years with a little under a thousand reports of serious adverse reactions. While some people may see this as a large number of reactions, this amounts to four thousandths of a percent! Given any sufficiently large group, it’s inevitable that something will occur to a small subset – they’ll get a cold or be in an auto accident or win the lottery that day. It’s only correlation. The two events are not linked.
Our minds are structured to want to spot patterns in the world around us. But as the world grows more complex, it’s getting harder to simply intuit those patterns correctly. That’s one reason why people believe in wild conspiracies or that a particular number or color or talisman is lucky for them. But with a little better grounding in science, people could make much better decisions. A little introductory physics will convince you that tailgating is a really bad idea, no matter how advanced your braking system. A quick cost-benefit analysis will show that three seconds of seatbelt-fastening every single car trip beats taking the chance of being one of the twenty thousand that die each year because they didn’t. Exposure to basic probability will show why those trips to the casino are a lousy investment. Knowing something about how polls, surveys and studies are performed will show that the methodology used greatly affects their accuracy and usefulness. (Unless your idea of usefulness is misinformation.)
As technological progress accelerates, it’s only going to become increasingly difficult to navigate through life successfully without these basic tools of science. Without them, many of us will increase our chances of being exposed to preventable health risks, of being needlessly scammed and taken advantage of, and even of dying an unnecessary death. And that’s a tragedy.