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Friday, May 2, 2014

A Community Conversation - Part 12

A Community Conversation About Health and Responsibility: Vaccines and Beyond

Part 12:  Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Question?

For humans, the drive to learn is as powerful as the drive to eat. There's a good reason for this. Eating and learning are both equally vital for our survival. Humans generally don’t survive based upon instinct. We are learners, and as such, information has long been treasured, preserved, gifted, sometimes hoarded, and quite often controlled. Thus the frequently heard phrase, “Knowledge is Power.”

Unfortunately, the vital survival skill we call knowledge can not only be shared, but it can also be readily lost. The secret to preventing scurvy has been found and lost many times in human history. How could such vital, life-saving information get lost? And, why did people take so long to act on the information once it was rediscovered? As our history shows, humans are prone to both losing old information and resisting new matter how important it is.

Fortunately, there is a simple, time-tested method that helps us retain the old information and acquire the new: questions. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it is great for humans. It is not an accident that young children ask “why?” about thirty-four times a day. As we get older, we might get less pesky, but our drive to ask questions doesn’t go away. Consider the news stories that everyone talks about. They're all based around questions. Who will our next president be? How could a plane just vanish? Should we label GMOs? 

Questions are more than just a survival strategy. They can often be enjoyable, which naturally encourages us to ask more questions. Many of our games are based around questions of various types. Where will she move next? What is the best way to find the treasure? Is he bluffing? We see the same fascination with questions in detective stories which have been popular for centuries and continue to be seen in our books and films. Clearly, people are attracted to exploring the “unknown” and driven to seek answers.

However, questions aren't always allowed or easy to ask. Young children quickly learn that asking some questions will get them shushed or worse. How old are you? How much do you weigh? How did the baby get in your belly? These types of questions are frequently discouraged. As we age, learning to respect personal boundaries is probably a good thing. 

But can we go too far in discouraging questions? One benefit of living in a democratic society with free speech is that you will be exposed to many different perspectives. Some perspectives will feel comfortable, others will not, and still others will leave you curiously wanting to know more. From a scientific perspective, this is a very good thing because science is all about questions. It's about asking questions and testing questions and encouraging other people to question your results. Science without questions isn't science, just as democracy without free speech isn’t a free society.

Science works. It has taken us to the moon and allowed us to eliminate the scourge of smallpox. But science without questions truly is not science.  

We all need to feel safe and comfortable asking questions and questions and more questions. Yes, questions may temporarily grant some lousy science an unwarranted degree of attention. But the delightful thing about science is that it withstands questioning. An onslaught of questions will discredit flawed science, but that same onslaught of questions will strengthen quality science. 

So, on the subject of vaccines, who's afraid of the big, bad, question? We're not. Because we love science, we love discovery, and we achieve both by asking questions.  And quite frankly, we love this subject. Because, when you delve deeply into questions about vaccines, a whole host of additional fascinating questions come to light. It’s like the mystery that never ends.

In the spirit of regaining our ability to enjoy discovery and revel in exploration, we invite you to join us for a screening of The Greater Good. In a society imbued with free speech and a strong scientific foundation, there is nothing to fear from a documentary film. So, pack up your curiosity and skepticism, bring your questioning mind, and remember that all successful sleuths are first and foremost open to new ideas and possibilities.

“A Community Conversation About Health and Responsibility: Vaccines and Beyond” is an ongoing series written by two close friends with a passion for improving community cohesion and building respectful relationships in a diverse world.  This article was co-created by Karen Crisalli Winter and March Twisdale.   BLOG:   Email:

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Welcome to the conversation. Knowledge changes. People respond best when this truism is kept in mind. In community, March & Karen