Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Ida Darwin, measles and why bad science mustn't win

It was in a way heartwarming to read earlier this week that scientists have discovered a fossil that probably comes closest to what might be called the “missing link”.
Step into the limelight Ida, a 47,000,000-year-old primate with features like fingernails and fur immaculately preserved, right down to the undigested remains of her last meal – a tasty vegetarian snack of fruit and nuts.
Ida lived in a swampy, volcanic area that is now part of Germany. And so important is her role in explaining the links between early life and us humans that her official Latin name is Darwinius masillae. Which ought to mean “Darwin’s great-great-grandma”, but doesn’t. It means “The Darwinian from the Pit of Messel”, which sounds like a Hammer second feature. But isn't.
What boggles the mind though is the fact that Ida – or rather her petrified skeleton – was actually discovered more than 25 years ago by an anonymous collector who kept her and her secrets hidden from public view. Eventually she was bought, for $1,000,000, by Jørn Hurum, a Norwegian palaeontologist who would probably be the first to admit that he was taking a bit of a punt. There was quite a chance that Ida was a fake. Luckily, she wasn’t.
Now, the 25-year wait for Ida’s perfectly formed skeleton to come to public light pales into insignificance beside the millions of years that she lay unregarded in that Teutonic shale pit. But if she’d come to public view as soon as her fossil was found, how many tedious arguments between creationists and evolutionists about when and how the world came to be might have been avoided?
Richard Dawkins wouldn’t have sold anywhere near so many books (the kind you buy because you think you ought to but never get round to reading). Creationist theme parks like Dinosaur Adventure Land in Florida might never have built. And Darwin himself might be sleeping more peacefully in his grave. It may be stretching a point, but you get the picture: hiding Ida also hid useful knowledge.
Meanwhile, one particularly unpleasant life form that should never see the light of day is rampaging around Wales: measles. Children get lifelong disabilities as a result of catching measles. Some even die of it. (Mumps isn’t much fun either, especially if you’re a bloke. Likewise rubella if your mum catches it while she’s expecting you.)
Enough parents have been been fooled – and yes, some newspapers were involved in the fooling – into believing that the MMR vaccination could trigger autism.
In Wales herd immunity – the level of protection needed to ensure that measles doesn’t get a chance to spread – has been compromised, and more than 120 kids have a disease that they need never have caught. Bad science won, big time.
As a final example of how people seem happier to believe bad science than good, take a report last January from your very own Bath Chronicle, in which it was announced that Bristol Water was investigating adding fluoride to water supplies. The reason is simple: children in areas with naturally-occurring fluoride grow up with less tooth decay than those in areas where the water has little or none.
By adding tiny amounts of fluoride to water that doesn’t naturally contain it, we help ensure children grow up with healthier teeth.
Enough people responded to the article with claims that fluoride causes cancer and “abnormalities” to make you wonder what century we’re living in. Let’s hope that, in this last case, Good Science beats Bad.
That was the column that was.

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