Americans are rejecting science, and putting themselves…and everyone else…in peril
Every semester I lead my Introduction to Sociology students through the following scenario:
Uncle Phil is sitting at home watching television, a wonder of technological advancement, and eating a microwave meal. Suddenly, he feels a sharp pain in his chest that travels down his left arm. Uncle Phil remembers watching a medical show one time that taught him how to recognize the symptoms of a heart attack. He quickly formulates the hypothesis that he is, in fact, having a heart attack, and runs over to his computer so he can Google the symptoms. Sure enough, the most likely cause of his symptoms is a heart attack. If nothing else, it’s better safe than sorry. Phil remembers reading an article in the science section of his newspaper that taking aspirin might help him. He takes an aspirin while he dials 911 on his cell phone. The technological marvel transmits his signal to the nearest tower and almost immediately puts him in touch with responders, who use similar computer technology to alert the EMS. Trained paramedics, using GPS services, arrive at Phil’s house shortly after he falls unconscious. They rush into the house and use the most sophisticated technologies and scientifically proven techniques to stabilize Uncle Phil’s condition and get him to the hospital. At the hospital, Uncle Phil is subjected to even more sophisticated scientific gadgets and scientifically trained professionals. They rush him into the ER.
Uncle Phil’s family is contacted and they rush to the hospital. When the scientifically trained doctor enters into the waiting room and assures them that Uncle Phil survived and is going to be just fine. As long as he takes his scientifically designed medication and follows a scientifically proven diet and exercise regimen he should make a full recovery.
What’s the first thing Phil’s family says?
The answer is, of course, “Thank God!”
Even if one is not inclined to rule out the role of divine intervention, shouldn’t science at least get second billing or an honorable mention?
Here in the United States we face a unique relationship with science and technology. In one sense, we take for granted and, to a certain extent consider mundane, the incredible technological advances of the last thirty years. At the same time, we are enthralled and awed by the changes that may take place in the next thirty. Culturally, however, Americans have a peculiar love/hate relationship with science. We love the idea of a scientifically sophisticated society, but when that science bangs up against our cherished beliefs, then too often science is rejected.
Part of this phenomenon, I think, has to do with the nature of belief in the United States, and the misapplication of “theory” as a synonym. Often in discussions with Global Warming deniers the argument breaks into a diatribe of how my own “belief” in Global Warming does not supersede beliefs in denial. The same holds true with the hundred and fifty year old debate on evolution. Many people in the United States equate the concepts of “belief” and “theory.” They are lacking a basic understanding of what a theory is, and thus, they are unqualified to make judgments about scientific matters. And people are dying as a result. Nothing less than the future of civilization hangs in the balance of educating Americans about the nature of science.
When confronted with a claim about my “belief” in Global Warming or Evolution or what have you, I try to clarify a distinction. I do not belief in Global Warming, or in Evolution, or in Gravity or Germ Theory for that matter. I accept the validity of these theories because they have been tested and have demonstrated utility and reliability. In other words, they satisfy the requirements of a valid theory. In the event that another theory comes along that demonstrates greater validity and reliability, I will not hesitate to embrace it. That is a key difference between belief and theory.
I teach my college students that a theory must possess two key characteristics. First, it must explain the phenomenon to which it is attributed. Evolution through sexual selection, for instance, effectively explains the process of speciation. In this matter, it is important to understand that a theory can only explain the phenomenon to which it is attributed and should not be held to account for failing to explain other related phenomena. Darwinian Evolution, for instance, does not explain the origin of life itself. That is the domain of other theories. Nor should the useful debate of the nuances inherent in theory necessarily constitute a weakness. A good example of this is the debate between steadu state and punctuated equilibrium schools of evolutionary thought. That there is a debate on the nuances of evolution does not mean that there is a debate about the validity of Darwinian Evolution itself.
Secondly, theories must be useful in formulating testable hypotheses and consistently predicting the outcomes of research or experimentation based on these hypotheses. A counter-example that I offer is Intelligent Design “Theory.” What hypotheses can be formed? What outcomes can be predicted based on Intelligent Design? Without knowing the whims of the Intelligent Designer the concept has no scientific utility. It is not a theory and should not be given equal time as a theory in science classrooms.
Therein is the central misunderstanding. Americans have an almost postmodern understanding that belief in religion, or belief in capitalism, or belief in patriotism is of the equivalent quality as a “belief” in science. That science is a discipline of proof is irrelevant. Acknowledging the validity of Global Warming is qualitatively the same as the belief of Denialism. Accepting the truth of the evolution of species is just as much a matter of faith as is the belief in the Biblical account of Genesis. This false equivalence is embraced and fed by the equal time movement claiming that students should have equal exposure to theory and faith in the classroom.
One of the things we know about the contest between belief and evidence is that when one’s belief is contradicted by a preponderance of the evidence, our human tendency is to deny the evidence. We will find or invent reasons that reinforce our pre-conceived notions. It’s almost as if our beliefs are addictive. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the first coordinated attacks against science, unrelated to religion, was the PR strategy to defend the tobacco industry. Perhaps there is a reason why Marx’s claim that religion is the opiate of the people is among his most famous quotes.
With what I call the Tobacco PR Wars as precedent, companies hire firms that specialize in seeding enough doubt and enough false evidence to allow those steeped in their beliefs to enhance their confirmation bias. Yes, I smoke two packs a day, but the lady down the road used to smoke three packs a day and she lived to be ninety-two years old. These professional cons use the nuances of science and play against the probabilities and uncertainties of all research models and experiments to make their case. They hold up the natural limitations of all theoretical explanations as proof that the target theory is clearly false. Hey, the northeast has experienced some cold springs, so Global Warming is a lie. Scientists used computer generated numbers in their models. They are clearly fudging the data to make themselves look right. Those who want to continue smoking, or refuse to invest tax money into alternative energy, or love their SUVs, or feel that their religious beliefs are under attack, grasp this “evidence” to confirm that they are right after all. Those stuck up scientists don’t know what they are talking about—until Uncle Phil has a heart attack.
This is despite scientists’ track record. In the seventies scientists warned that the rain falling from the sky was contaminated with sulfuric acid. They recommended restrictions on sulfur emissions. Such policies were put into place and the acid rain problem went away. In the eighties scientists theorized that CFCs were causing life threatening ozone depletion at the poles. CFCs were restricted and the ozone holes have started to close. But they simply must be wrong about global warming because it snowed somewhere in April.
The consequences of this ignorance aren’t just inconvenient. They are deadly. The anti-vaccine movement is case in point. Most parents take want to protect their children. When they hear horror stories about children experiencing all kinds of problems and are told that vaccines are the cause, parents must choose between the scientist and the natural repugnance of watching a needle enter their child’s arm with a toxin that may hurt them. Parents who are convinced that those scientists don’t know what they are talking about, that it’s a conspiracy to make money on the vaccines feel justified in denying their children vaccines shots. This is especially true of parents who are part of social movements that emphasize so called “natural” healing as a central belief. Consequently, preventable diseases like Whooping Cough (Pertussis) are making a comeback. But why not? After all, my belief in the dangers of vaccines is no less valid than your belief in science.
When it comes to global warming, the consequences of ignorance is nothing short of catastrophic. The bottom line is that civilization itself hangs in the balance. That’s a little much to handle. Most of us would love to believe that our world is perpetual and that our grandchildren will inherit the same opportunities that have always existed. This is a central belief system in the United States. It plays into our faith in the American dream, our belief in capitalism as the best means of economic and cultural advancement, and our belief that God is watching over us and will take care of us so long as we are faithful. Human Caused Global Warming is a challenge to all of these belief systems. Not to mention, the means by which we must deal with this problem are far more daunting and invasive than putting up with CFC free hair spray. It’s much easier and more comforting to believe that the scientists are wrong. They must be!
And let’s not let the scientists themselves off the hook. There are examples of scientists selling their souls to profit. We look at examples of over-medication, genetically modifying food for the patent protections or to withstand greater quantities of pesticide. The science system, in the US especially, is one in which even well intentioned scientists have to play to the market to get their research funded. Many scientists will draw huge salaries to work for pharmaceutical and oil companies. It was scientists who designed cigarettes that allow for greater absorption, and consequently, increased addictiveness, of the product. Famed nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi referred to the development of the atomic bomb as “superb physics.”
In the case of vaccines, scientists haven’t been very clear in communicating that there is risk associated with this product. Just as some people are allergic to penicillin, others will react poorly to vaccines. To my knowledge, there isn’t a significant “anti-penicillin” movement. Perhaps for good reasons, scientists have downplayed the few risks of vaccines because they are far outweighed by the benefits. But then the papers report on a child who became sick after getting his vaccination. Why are the scientists being so secretive? Doubt is sowed, and that becomes the fuel for ridiculous movements such as the Anti-Vaxxers. That’s all it takes.
Science simply must find ways to educate the public on scientific process, not just science trivia. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos is incredible, but how have scientists made these fascinating discoveries? Why should we trust that what Professor Tyson says is true? What are the checks that exist in the scientific enterprise that ensures the best possible explanations? What happens when scientists like Einstein are wrong, or when new theories are developed to explain the cosmos? Why should we care about evolutionary theory? What is the truth about vaccines? What is the role of probability in scientific understanding, and why is this not a weakness that challenges the validity of theory? The discoveries of science are fascinating. Most Americans are aware of these discoveries…they just don’t necessarily trust them. We need to know why we should. We also need to be educated in the fine balance between healthy skepticism and destructive cynicism.
After all, scientists cannot afford, nor should they be expected to pay for, their own PR movement. There’s only so much that Bill Nye the Science Guy can do. Those of us who love science and believe in the value of science for the endeavor of human progress must provide, for free, that education and PR. We are against the greatest systematized effort of public doubt in human history. Billions of dollars have been invested into keeping us ignorant. There is no counter other than knowledge.