A tale of two Facebooks

I love science. And not just in a passive Brian-Cox-marvelling-at-a-distant-galaxy-way.

I want to make love to it in an expletive fashion. So I’m extremely fortunate there is a Facebook group that caters to my specific fetish.

I Fucking Love Science probably rates in between The Big Bang Theory and Mythbusters in promoting scientific knowledge to a mainstream audience.

If you removed all the IFLS posts about the Large Hadron Collider and Tyrannosaurs then my Facebook feed would be nothing but passive aggressive status updates and picture of food.

Sure, some people were surprised when it was revealed the group was founded by one of those female girl types but overall reaction to the message of IFLS  has been positive.

British scientist Tim Berners-Lee created the world wide web to promote the exchange of scientific knowledge and groups like IFLS – as well as the webcomic XKCD and The Oatmeal’s campaign for a Nikola Tesla museum – are part of this legacy. Reading all this you could be forgiven for thinking we live in a scientific golden age where rationality and reason have inoculated us against the superstitions of a less enlightened era.

However, while we laugh at the Schrodinger’s LOLCat meme there is an equally passionate subculture of people bitterly opposed to scientific thought and the advances it has given humanity.

There are the climate change sceptics who think the carbon tax is a cunning plan to ruin our economy. There are the the anti-fluorodated water brigade who think fluoride is cunning plan to make us all docile sheeple with perfect teeth. I don’t know what cunning plan the anti-vaccination lobby is worried about, possibly one to stop children dying before puberty in order to decrease the sale of One Direction CDs.

Anti-intellectual groups like this have always existed but what makes the climate sceptics and anti-vaxxers different is are quite comfortable using the internet – possibly the greatest example of applied scientific know-how since World War II – to disseminate their anti-scientific ideology. It’s the best example of irony since Pauline Hanson considered immigrating to England because of all the foreigners here in Australia.

The anti-vaccination groups like the Australian Vaccination Network are particularly active on Facebook, separated from their polar opposites at IFLS by nothing but a line of code.

Yet it is this infinitesimal barrier that proves the hardest to breach. I never see anti-vaccination posts in my Facebook feed. The only time anyone I follow on Twitter mentions climate change is disbelief that people could hold opposing views. If I think an opinion piece may argue against fluoride in the water I will more than likely ignore and click on a story about the Ashes child instead.

I suspect the vaccine avoiders and fluoride objectors do the same thing. A quick glance at the Vactruth Facebook page shows a lot or people furiously agreeing with each other and no mention that the Lancet article which linked the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine with autism was retracted three years ago.

This confirmation bias is harmful in two ways. First it cuts of interaction and debate between opposing camps. This means well-meaning parents who are worried about young Kailegh becoming autistic are cut off from people with the objective scientific knowledge to help make an informed decision and instead make their healthcare choices based on emotion.

Secondly, it means we lack exposure to differing views on genuinely subjective issues like how to best organise an economy or help reconstruct the country we invaded 10 years ago. And because we don’t understand the contrary positions, debate devolves into a comic book confrontation between Electricty Bill Shorten and Misogynist Tony Abbott.

Of course, there is no real moral equivalence between those who use the internet to avoid Christopher Pyne and those who use it to peddle the notion that measles are marvellous.

But if we don’t grasp the opportunities inherent in the greatest collection of knowledge in human history then we risk squandering the legacy of Professor Berners-Lee. And no amount of inspirational Facebook quotes from Isaac Asimov will ever make up for that.

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