Is it "good news" about science deniers that they've always been with us?
"We live in an age when all manner of scientific knowledge -- from the safety of fluoride and vaccines to the reality of climate change -- faces organized and often furious opposition. Empowered by their own sources of information and their own interpretations of research, doubters have declared war on the consensus of experts. There are so many of these controversies these days, you'd think a diabolical agency had put something in the water to make people argumentative. . . .
"The scientific method doesn’t come naturally -- but if you think about it, neither does democracy. For most of human history neither existed. We went around killing each other to get on a throne, praying to a rain god, and for better and much worse, doing things pretty much as our ancestors did."
-- Washington Post science writer Joel Achenbach, in the
March National Geographic cover story (the reference to
"the safety of fluoride" will be become clear in a moment)
Yes, I'm afraid the best news we're going to take away from the cover story in the March National Geographic, "Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?," is that science deniers have always been with us. Because the other major takeaway is that, it appears, they'll always be with us, and, it appears, there isn't a damned thing we can do about it, because they believe what they believe, and facts to the contrary only make them believe it harder.
And, oh yes, if you're thinking that they're more numerous, more powerful, and more dangerous than they've been before, nothing in the piece will disabuse you.
There's some good news in that the author of the piece is the Washington Post's wonderful science writer Joel Achenbach, and as anyone who has read him either in the paper or on the website knows, he's pretty much the ideal person for the job: smart, broadly knowledgeable, calm, and compassionate. I can't imagine a much better job on the subject for a general audience. It is, I think, a beautiful piece, and everyone should read it.
Which just makes the takeaways from it that much more depressing to, you know, take away.
At this point I think we could use a good laugh or two, so let's take a look at this classic scene from Dr. Strangelove, as the way-off-his-rocker Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), bunkered inside his sealed-off Air Force base while the preemptive nuclear strike on the Soviet Union that he's engineered plays out, tries to "educate" the increasingly hysterical British RAF Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers). Trust me, this is the most fun we're going to have here.
Joel starts us off with a snatch of this gorgeous scene (beginning at about 1:41 of our clip):
RIPPER: Have you ever heard of a thing called fluoridation? Fluoridation of water?Joel proceeds to point out that by the time Stanley Kubrick's "comic masterpiece," Dr. Strangelove, came out, in 1964, "the health benefits of fluoridation had been thoroughly established, and antifluoridation conspiracy theories could be the stuff of comedy." This, of course, is what makes General Ripper's obsession with it so funny. This, and the fact that, nevertheless, there were crazy people in 1964 who believed something not nearly far enough from what Jack D.R. did. What's more, Joel says,
MANDRAKE: Ah, yes, I have heard of that, Jack. Yes, yes.
RIPPER: Well, do you know what it is?
MANDRAKE: No. No, I don’t know what it is. No.
RIPPER: Do you realize that fluoridation is the most monstrously conceived and dangerous communist plot we have ever had to face?
you might be surprised to learn that, half a century later, fluoridation continues to incite fear and paranoia. In 2013 citizens in Portland, Oregon, one of only a few major American cities that don’t fluoridate their water, blocked a plan by local officials to do so. Opponents didn’t like the idea of the government adding “chemicals” to their water. They claimed that fluoride could be harmful to human health.It's at this point that Joel delivers the "We live in an age" lines I've quoted at the top of this post. Only now you can get the references to the safety of fluoride and to putting something in the water. Did I mention that Joel is a really gracious writer? Just a sweetheart to read.
Actually fluoride is a natural mineral that, in the weak concentrations used in public drinking water systems, hardens tooth enamel and prevents tooth decay—a cheap and safe way to improve dental health for everyone, rich or poor, conscientious brusher or not. That’s the scientific and medical consensus.
To which some people in Portland, echoing antifluoridation activists around the world, reply: We don’t believe you.
Joel notes that the takedown of science has penetrated pop culture, as in the film Interstellar, where the schoolbooks of this "futuristic, downtrodden America" teach that "the Apollo moon landings were faked."
NO, IT'S NOT A NEW THING
[Click to enlarge (a little).]
SQUARE INTUITIONS DIE HARD: That the Earth is round has been known since antiquity -- Columbus knew he wouldn't sail off the edge of the world -- but alternative geographies persisted even after circumnavigations had become common. This 1893 map by Orlando Ferguson, a South Dakota businessman, is a loopy variation on 19th-century flat-Earth beliefs. Flat-Earthers held that the planet was centered on the North Pole and bounded by a wall of ice, with the sun, moon, and planets a few hundred miles above the surface. Science often demands that we discount our direct sensory experiences -- such as seeing the sun cross the sky as if circling the Earth -- in favor of theories that challenge our beliefs about our place in the universe. [National Geographic caption]
Looking at our worldwide epidemic of science denialism (I think it's a mistake to refer to it as "doubt," or to the people who engage in it as "doubters," when what they're about is denial), it's easy to think of it as a modern phenomenon, perhaps in reaction to what may seem to be a takeover of our lives by science.
In a sense all this is not surprising. Our lives are permeated by science and technology as never before. For many of us this new world is wondrous, comfortable, and rich in rewards—but also more complicated and sometimes unnerving. We now face risks we can’t easily analyze.And he engages in a splendid description of the kinds of problems we face in knowing who and what to believe and about who and what. But as the reference to Frankenstein may have hinted, he's here to tell us that the "doubters" have always been with us. And it comes in good part from deep confusion about what science is and tries to do, which is, essentially, to give us the tools to make decisions about those questions of who and what to believe, who and what to fear, based on rigorous and continuously evolving investigation of real-world evidence.
We’re asked to accept, for example, that it’s safe to eat food containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) because, the experts point out, there’s no evidence that it isn’t and no reason to believe that altering genes precisely in a lab is more dangerous than altering them wholesale through traditional breeding. But to some people the very idea of transferring genes between species conjures up mad scientists running amok—and so, two centuries after Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, they talk about Frankenfood.
The world crackles with real and imaginary hazards, and distinguishing the former from the latter isn’t easy.
Now Joel has so much to say on this subject, or rather these subjects, that I feel particularly remiss in jumping over most of it -- how many times do I have to tell you to read the damned piece> -- but instead I'm going to refer you to the caption for the "Square and Stationary Earth" map above, and in particular to that last sentence: "Science often demands that we discount our direct sensory experiences—such as seeing the sun cross the sky as if circling the Earth—in favor of theories that challenge our beliefs about our place in the universe."
YESSIR, REGULAR FOLKS TRUST THEIR EYES AND EARS
National Geographic caption: "A worker adjusts a diorama of a moon landing at the Kennedy Space Center." Aha! So this must be how they faked it!
They aren't gonna be fooled by fancypants talk that contradicts what they see and hear. Except that time and again what they think they see and hear is wrong, and as Joel carefully explains, even those of us who accept scientific precepts still tend to cling to "our intuitions -- what researchers call our naive beliefs." At the same time we don't like random or unexplained things ("our brains crave pattern and meaning"), and so we're awfully vulnerable to attempts to explain everything in terms consistent with those naive beliefs, and so we can be suckers for everything from flat-earth hogwash to the craziest of conspiracy theories, all the more so in a time that has bred distrust for smarty-pants "authority."
The conspiracies emphatically include Sen. James Inhofe's favorite one: global warming. Joel points out that the idea of a global-warming conspiracy is preposterous on its face: "The idea that hundreds of scientists from all over the world would collaborate on such a vast hoax is laughable—scientists love to debunk one another." (And it's "very clear," as he also points out, "that organizations funded in part by the fossil fuel industry have deliberately tried to undermine the public's understanding of the scientific consensus by promoting a few skeptics.")
What's more, Joel argues, it isn't just a "scientific communication problem." Research suggests that better-educated people not only are able to believe anti-scientific theories but tend to believe than even more strongly than less-educated people.
Because, as I think many of us have come to understand, facts don't have a lot to do with what people believe. People tend to believe what they want to believe, and that tends to be what the people they feel a shared identity with believe.
Science appeals to our rational brain, but our beliefs are motivated largely by emotion, and the biggest motivation is remaining tight with our peers. “We’re all in high school. We’ve never left high school,” says Marcia McNutt [a geophysicist "who once headed the U.S. Geological Survey and is now editor of Science, the prestigious journal"]. “People still have a need to fit in, and that need to fit in is so strong that local values and local opinions are always trumping science. And they will continue to trump science, especially when there is no clear downside to ignoring science.”And as long as it's who we are that conditions what each of us believes about the universe that science is trying to give us tools to understand, reasoned argument doesn't stand to help us a lot.
"If you're a rationalist," Joel says, "there's something a little dispiriting about all this." After all, he says,
evolution actually happened. Biology is incomprehensible without it. There aren’t really two sides to all these issues. Climate change is happening. Vaccines really do save lives. Being right does matter—and the science tribe has a long track record of getting things right in the end. Modern society is built on things it got right.Joel makes an excellent case that, contrary the hope of some environmental activists that scientists will become more engaged as policy advocates, the likely effect of this would be increase the perception that they're advocates rather than truth-seekers.
Doubting science also has consequences. The people who believe vaccines cause autism—often well educated and affluent, by the way—are undermining “herd immunity” to such diseases as whooping cough and measles. The anti-vaccine movement has been going strong since the prestigious British medical journal the Lancet published a study in 1998 linking a common vaccine to autism. The journal later retracted the study, which was thoroughly discredited. But the notion of a vaccine-autism connection has been endorsed by celebrities and reinforced through the usual Internet filters. (Anti-vaccine activist and actress Jenny McCarthy famously said on the Oprah Winfrey Show, “The University of Google is where I got my degree from.”)
In the climate debate the consequences of doubt are likely global and enduring. In the U.S., climate change skeptics have achieved their fundamental goal of halting legislative action to combat global warming. They haven’t had to win the debate on the merits; they’ve merely had to fog the room enough to keep laws governing greenhouse gas emissions from being enacted.
It’s their very detachment, what you might call the cold-bloodedness of science, that makes science the killer app. It’s the way science tells us the truth rather than what we’d like the truth to be. Scientists can be as dogmatic as anyone else—but their dogma is always wilting in the hot glare of new research. In science it’s not a sin to change your mind when the evidence demands it. For some people, the tribe is more important than the truth; for the best scientists, the truth is more important than the tribe.
SO WHERE DOES THAT LEAVE US?
Joel harks back to something said to him by geophysicist Maria McNutt -- that "scientific thinking has to be taught, and sometimes it’s not taught well."
Students come away thinking of science as a collection of facts, not a method. [Occidental College's Andrew] Shtulman’s research has shown that even many college students don’t really understand what evidence is. The scientific method doesn’t come naturally—but if you think about it, neither does democracy. For most of human history neither existed. We went around killing each other to get on a throne, praying to a rain god, and for better and much worse, doing things pretty much as our ancestors did."Now we have incredibly rapid change," Joel writes, "and it’s scary sometimes."
It’s not all progress. Our science has made us the dominant organisms, with all due respect to ants and blue-green algae, and we’re changing the whole planet. Of course we’re right to ask questions about some of the things science and technology allow us to do. “Everybody should be questioning,” says McNutt. “That’s a hallmark of a scientist. But then they should use the scientific method, or trust people using the scientific method, to decide which way they fall on those questions.” We need to get a lot better at finding answers, because it’s certain the questions won’t be getting any simpler.Let me say again that I really haven't done anything like justice to Joel's piece. But one thing I don't think I've overlooked is any grounds for hope. In fairness, I did warn you that this wasn't going to be a lot of fun. Maybe we should have just watched Dr. Strangelove. That wouldn't have helped with the problem, but at least we would have had a good time.