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Better education, effective communication and dissemination of information could quell dangerous pseudoscience, argues George Claassen.

Rampant and increasing belief in pseudoscience is endangering progress in curtailing scientific ignorance in developing countries. Scientists should stop looking the other way when politicians and religious and spiritual leaders make outrageous claims that threaten vaccination and other public health programmes.

These beliefs take many forms - in the ability of herbal and natural potions to cure a myriad of illnesses, in claims by sangomas (traditional healers) and witch-doctors that only their medicines can cure disease, and in  superstition about the spirits of forefathers. All oppose scientific enlightenment.  

A recent Human Rights Watch report calls for officials to come out strongly against pseudo-AIDS treatments, which are promoted in India, Mexico, Thailand, Zambia and Zimbabwe, for example. These treatments are of particular appeal in South Africa, where the Minister of Health, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, has said that the natural medicines of Africa need not be exposed to the "protocols of Western medicine". She was addressing a meeting in KwaZulu-Natal province, where the rate of HIV/AIDS is among the highest on the continent.

Tshabalala-Msimang and South African President Thabo Mbeki are notorious for ascribing HIV/AIDS to poverty and for recommending a healthy lifestyle that includes eating quantities of garlic, beetroot and other vegetables and fruit to counter the scourge that afflicts roughly one in five South Africans.

Desperate to believe

In Senegal, success in countering the spread of HIV/AIDS is reflected in the government's sustained participation in publicity and educational programmes, and HIV infection stands at an estimated 1–2 per cent of the population.

But in next door Gambia, the weird ideas of the country's president, Yahya Jammeh, badly mislead the population. Jammeh claims he can cure HIV/AIDS on Thursdays, and on Fridays and Saturdays he rids people of asthma — at least, according to a recent report by Jannie Ferreira, foreign editor of the Cape Town daily Die Burger.

Jammeh knows the value of the media in putting his message across, and in the past has called news conferences and invited foreign diplomats to listen to his claims. Many people flock to his sessions, desperate to believe him.

In rural South African communities where illiteracy and superstition are rife, charlatans sell herbal concoctions to people with the disease, scorning clinics distributing antiretroviral drugs. Many townspeople have been attracted to claims made by the German supporter of pseudoscientific remedies, Matthias Rath, who has parachuted into Cape Town and Johannesburg, among other places, to proclaim and sell his vitamin concoction as a cure. Rath has been derided in Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States and accused of thriving on the ignorance of vulnerable South Africans who are encouraged by support from Tshabalala-Msimang.

'Modern-day Hitlers'

Religious leaders sometimes strengthen the hand of those making pseudoscientific claims. Attempts to eliminate polio in Nigeria, for example, ran into problems when Datti Ahmed, the chair of the Supreme Council for Sharia in Kano state, referred to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative as "modern-day Hitlers... who have deliberately adulterated the oral polio vaccines with antifertility drugs and contaminated them with certain viruses which are known to cause HIV and AIDS."

Ahmed — like Rath, a clinician — is an example of a scientist irrationally influenced by religion. As the US geneticist Jerry Coyne declared, "… the real war is between rationality and superstition. Science is but one form of rationality, while religion is the most common form of superstition… If the history of science shows us anything, it is that we get nowhere by calling our ignorance 'God'."

In 2007 Ruben Kruger, a member of South Africa's winning team in the 1995 Rugby World Cup, had to undergo emergency brain surgery after stopping treatment by a neurosurgeon in Pretoria — in response to a public announcement by his church minister that the player had been healed by prayer. Kruger had earlier claimed that the so-called prophet Joshua, a Nigerian preacher, had also cured him during a visit to Lagos in 2001.

Better communication holds the key

Science programmes should urgently address the necessity for science and scientists to be much more proactive in countering pseudoscientific claims.

As far back as 1985, a report by the UK's Royal Society set out the role scientists should play in the public understanding of science. "Scientists must learn to communicate with the public, be willing to do so, and indeed consider it their duty to do so. All scientists need, therefore, to learn about the media and their constraints and learn how to explain science simply, without jargon and without being condescending," the report noted.

But over two decades later, many people in South Africa's rural Limpopo province still believe people killed by lightning are the victims of witches in the community. And these unfortunate 'witches' — usually vulnerable old women — are still murdered by superstitious hordes ignorant of science.

Scientists must protest loudly against pseudoscience. It is also time to install a vigorous programme of scientific literacy in schools, a programme additional to normal science subjects. This should focus on explaining the scientific method in evaluating research, and on providing information about important scientific theories — evolution, the Big Bang and the age of the Earth and the Universe, for example — and how scientists arrived at them. Students would be instructed in how medical research programmes must undergo rigorous testing to confirm the validity of their results, a process not undertaken by alternative and pseudoscientific health claims.

Citizens with a basic knowledge of science are in a better position to make informed decisions about their health, about superstition and about their lives generally.

George Claassen is a South African science writer and the first winner of the National Science and Technology Forum's SAASTA Award for Top Science Communicator, in 2007.

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