Sunday, February 8, 2015

Doubting Science

Communicating Science

Old Conflicts: “In 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee, where John Scopes was standing trial for teaching evolution in high school, a creationist bookseller hawked his wares. Modern biology makes no sense without the concept of evolution, but religious activists in the United States continue to demand that creationism be taught as an alternative in biology class. When science conflicts with a person’s core beliefs, it usually loses.”
Photo Credit:
: NatGeo

An article, by Joel Achenbach, in National Geographic raises the important question of why so many Americans doubt science; there are not only climate-change deniers (only 40 percent of Americans agree that human activity is the chief reason for climate change), there are also anti-vaxxers and anti-evolution individuals whose chief motivation, it seems, is to question everything that emanates from science, or at least those ideas or parts with which they do not find agreement.

Questioning and disagreement is part of human activity, but this goes beyond the questioning to gather facts so as to arrive at an informed decision. There is something else at play here, which has everything to do with our human brain’s need to make sense of uncertainty and randomness. Change can be difficult. The fast-changing world of technology and great advances in science and medicine can be confusing and not comforting to many. It can be highly disquieting.

Achenbach writes:
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. And there’s so much talk about the trend these days—in books, articles, and academic conferences—that science doubt itself has become a pop-culture meme. In the recent movie Interstellar, set in a futuristic, downtrodden America where NASA has been forced into hiding, school textbooks say the Apollo moon landings were faked.

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.

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. Should we be afraid that the Ebola virus, which is spread only by direct contact with bodily fluids, will mutate into an airborne superplague? The scientific consensus says that’s extremely unlikely: No virus has ever been observed to completely change its mode of transmission in humans, and there’s zero evidence that the latest strain of Ebola is any different. But type “airborne Ebola” into an Internet search engine, and you’ll enter a dystopia where this virus has almost supernatural powers, including the power to kill us all.
In some cases,this anti-science view emanates from the old and continuing conflict between religion or rather, faith and science, which cannot mutually co-exist in the same mind and body. When core or fundamentalist beliefs conflict with science, beliefs win and science loses. While some are deeply informed by religion; others by a combative or conspiratorial frame of reference, which doubts authority and facts—this is an counter-culture view that first found favour during the Romantic era as a counterweight against cold rationalism and the European Enlightenment. As I and others have argued elsewhere, while emotions and feelings are suitable and wonderful for the arts, they have no place in science. At the core of science is the tried and true Scientific Method.

No amount of evidence will convince the romantics; and the Internet makes it easier for such people to find like-minded individuals who “feel the same way.” And such people become the “experts” and sources of information. Yes, it's emotional, which is not how science works. Most deniers, doubters and truthers, as they are called, are not scientifically literate, which explains much, but not all.

That they do societal harm, as is certainly the case of anti-vaxxers, is undeniable. But such folks think, or at least feel that their questioning of authority, of the official position, is actually the right thing to do. They have certainty on their side (while science is often uncertain and provisional), and in lieu of that anger and rage to fuel this certainty. That they can be wrong does not enter their minds, so certain they are of their position and views.  This, of course, is the opposite of an intellectual scientific mind, which on the basis of evidence, can and does change views.

Science, if anything, is self-correcting; and this is its strength.

For more, go to [NatGeo]