The Growing Distrust of Science
A growing phenomenon in the world is the distrust of science as a valid way to view the world. It is caused by a number of factors, including religious affiliation, political conservatism, lack of a sound education, and fear. And it is particularly bad in the USA, and driven by the conservative movement in their political sphere, by people such as Sarah Palin, and in the religious sphere by people like Ken Ham from Answers in Genesis.
Between 1974 and 2010 the number of conservatives who say they trust information coming from science and scientific fields has dropped from 48% to just over 34%, a drop of 14% in just under 40 years suggested in a study published in The American Sociological Review.
In the political spheres, and especially in the rhetoric spewed by the conservative presidential candidates, we hear the distrust in science being depicted as untrustworthy, and the message is twofold; denial of science because of the perceived inability for science to make up its mind about facts (science is always proving itself to be wrong), and denial of scientists due to their perceived position as elitists in the community. People distrust science from this standpoint because they don’t understand science and the scientific method, and are bitter because they feel they are being told what to do by an elitist few.
Additionally, people see the information coming from science as “scary” or unpleasant, and would like to live their lives without having to worry about things like climate change, acidification of the oceans, deforestation, habitat loss and mass extinction. In their eyes, the information is being “invented” by the scientists, and if it weren’t for science these things would never be happening. Of course, we wouldn’t be where we are now if it weren’t for technology, but conflate the negative results of centuries of human activity with the progress of science is the wrong way to go about things. Science today is in the business of finding ways to do things better, rather than hanging on to our older and more destructive ways.
I can understand to a certain degree that some may feel alienated by science, that all those numbers and figures, diagrams and test-tubes filled with coloured liquid, they’re all so complicated, and it would be much easier to deny the findings and go back to playing Mario Cart on your portable hand-held device than try to learn about it. But just because something is difficult, or beyond understanding, doesn’t make it any less real. (Of course we’re talking about facts here, not stone-age musings on the origins of the universe).
One of the most damaging and disingenuous movements in science denial comes from what is known as “The Green Dragon” phenomenon, a pushback by Christian Conservatives which aims to blame the environmental movement and the information coming forth about climate change on a massive scale. In this way of thinking, god created the earth for mankind to live on, and there is no way that the same god would allow for humans to destroy the ecosystem to a point that the earth can no longer sustain human life. Only God can do that, and he will, soon. The main claim is that not only is climate change an anti-Christian plot, but that any form of environmental preservation or talk of sustainability, or even anything that might threaten the amount of petroleum available to the American people, is a giant conspiracy, led by terrorists who are hell-bent on corrupting the young away from Jesus and into the hands of Satan.
It is much easier to teach people that the world is only 6000 years old, that we are the centre of the universe, that climate change is a lie, that Jesus cures cancer or that God exists than it is to teach people the truth of the situation. Facts can be difficult and sometimes painful to deal with, and telling people that if they just have faith and stop questioning things that everything will be alright is an easy out for those unwilling to deal with facts.
Science denial is a huge worry, especially in times where we depend more upon scientific innovation to help us solve some of these problems. Those that deny science, while they play on their iPhones, drive their cars, fly around the planet and enjoy hot meals daily, are particularly blind to the fact that none of these things would be possible if it weren’t for science. The fact that they don’t have smallpox or polio, that they still have teeth, that they didn’t die from the flu or heart-failure should be enough to sway their opinions, but unfortunately the deniers don;t see things this way. Denial of the real impact science has had on our lives can be illustrated in many ways, but when presented with these facts, the and the deniers find themselves faced with cognitive dissonance, clam up and end any attempts at reconciling these views in opposition of each other.
This phenomenon is not restricted to the USA. As Dr Paul Willis, paleontologist and Director of RiAus, wrote a piece last week about the dangers of science denial, and how it seems we are inheriting some of this denialism here in Australia. Using a recent episode of Q&A on climate change to illustrate where we are headed, he states:
I share Dr Willis’ concerns, but see that the only way to combat this is through education. Not just primary, secondary and tertiary educations, but a general education of the people in their daily lives, to bolster scientific literacy in the community through the media. We need to demystify science, and show that while it may not be possible for us all to understand everything science shows us, that if we understand the scientific method, we can then understand what certain scientific studies and findings show us. We don’t all need to be scientists (I’m not), but if we have a grasp on science, we can use that understanding to help make the world a better place.