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Protected from the anti-science brigade November 22, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Education, Life in London, Science, Singapore.
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Having grown up in Singapore, the one thing I am most thankful for is my excellent education in science. It was tough, it was rigorous, and I probably took it for granted. But I’m now starting to see that the quality of science education is not so universal. It may sound ridiculous for me to say this, but I am so glad that in Singapore, kids are taught that science is a good thing.

I’ve been living in the UK for more than a year now. And I got the shock of my life when I walked into a pharmacy one day about a year ago, to discover that they sell little bottles of sugar pills for more than S$10 each. Not just any old sugar pills. Sugar pills that have been dipped into water containing a “homeopathic substance” at a 10-60 dilution (For those of you without a calculator at hand, that’s one molecule of the original substance per 1034 gallons of water). In other words, sugar pills dipped into water. Pills that have been shown in hundreds of clinical trials to be no more effective than a placebo. Now, I had heard of homeopathy before, but I didn’t think that anybody actually took it seriously. How was I to know that that pharmacies would sell plain water and sugar pills as medicine, and that there would even be a hospital devoted to homeopathy, and that even the NHS recognizes it as a form of alternative medicine1? I see that not only as a huge failure of the promotion and understanding of science in the general population, but also a flagrant disregard for the scientific process and evidence-based medicine by the authorities.

Perhaps even scarier than the acceptance of homeopathy is the worrying fact that in some neighborhoods around London, measles has become endemic among children. Measles is not a nice disease at all: it is extremely infectious, has a not insignificant fatality rate, there is no specific treatment, and it can result in serious complications and sequalae. Measles is hardly a problem in Singapore because all children are given the MMR vaccine, which confers good resistance against measles, mumps, and rubella.

So why is the incidence of measles so high in a civilized city like London? Well, some people choose not to vaccinate their children because they believe that the MMR vaccine is linked to autism. This belief started due to a paper published by Andrew Wakefield in 1998. Wakefield’s research methods were poor, he made up a new syndrome (“autistic enterocolitis”), he manipulated data, and his claims were downright dishonest; but the media lapped it up anyway, sensationalizing his paper and broadcasting his lies. Despite the fact that his paper was eventually retracted by The Lancet, despite new reports that his claims were fraudulent, and despite at least 4 (that I know of, at least) subsequent studies on the subject denouncing the Wakefield’s MMR-autism link, this was all ignored by mainstream media. We cannot blame the parents who didn’t know any better (Or maybe we can blame them for turning to tabloids as their source of health information?). The resurgence of measles in the UK is single handedly the fault of the unregulated salacious tabloids willing to spout outright lies to sell copies. While I am disappointed by the absence of press freedom in Singapore, I am at least thankful that until now at least, even our tabloids have not sunk low enough to promote anti-science nonsense just for profit, whilst risking the health and lives of thousands of people. Free press or not, there is a line at reporting scientific untruths.

I guess it could be worse. I could be living in the US, where the anti-science sentiment exists even louder and prouder amongst a significant proportion of the population.  We should count ourselves fortunate that creationists have no influence over our education system, and our kids can learn scientific facts about evolution and the age of the earth, untouched by the blatant scientific untruths of 2,000-year-old books. We should be glad that the terms “genetically modified2”, “chemical”3, “stem cell research”, or “cloning” are not dirty words that immediately provoke a kneejerk reaction of disgust and suspicion. And I sure as hell am happy that science is not used as part of a political agenda in Singapore by portraying the acceptance of science as a form of oppression of the “average Joe”. It seems as though the Republicans not only shun science, they have a burning disdain for it, a hatred of intellectualism, and a distrust and scorn for members of the intellectual elite: scientists, academics, and the educated class as a whole. This is a party that uses the word “professor” as a smear to discredit people who they deem to be too educated.

Of course I’m not saying that every Singaporean is a glowing example of scientific thinking and rationalism. We do have our share of people who believe in baseless pseudoscience, superstition, and dubious medical claims. But one thing we have going for us is that we are taught to respect intellectualism and revere knowledge. We appreciate that knowing more about the world around us is always a good thing. As someone who is just starting a career in science, I am always grateful that my scientific curiosity was nurtured instead of discouraged, and my education in science remained factual, not censored.


  1. I wouldn’t say all alternative medicine is bunk. It’s just untested, unverified, and unproven. I just wish that “alternative” medicine would be subjected to the rigors of (statistically sound, large sample size, randomized, double-blind, controlled) clinical trials and safety testing in order to weed out the nonsense, and so the treatments that actually work can actually be upgraded to be called medicine.
  2. For clarity sake, genetic modification of crops is not bad because it is bad for health, it is bad because of economic and ecological reasons.
  3. Just because something is “chemical”, it is not necessarily bad for health – sugar, salt, amino acids can all be defined as chemicals. Similarly, just because something is “natural”, it doesn’t mean it is safe. Snake venom is a perfectly natural substance. “Artificial” does not automatically make something bad for health either.


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