This National Geographic article on science denial brought up some points I consider on occasion. It’s strange how some aspects of science have become so political, with global warming and evolution especially being viewed as left-wing concerns. Oddly, the anti-vaccination movement seems to attract both the far right and the far left, for different reasons. And it’s more of a leftist idea to oppose genetically modified food, although the issue is complicated somewhat by the fact that a lot of the genetic research is under the control of big businesses like Monsanto. The same concern plays a role in medical skepticism as well, because the science shows that medicine can save lives, yet it also puts money in the pockets of Big Pharma. When it comes to global warming, the science is largely against the corporate world, while on these other subjects it’s not so clear cut. I think the article was on to something when it mentioned the “two antagonistic tribes.” Yes, politics and religion play a role, but the larger concern is that of tribalism, of going along with the group with which you most identify. This can also help to explain how people can identify as Bible-believing Christians when the ideals they hold have nothing to do with Jesus or the Bible.
Mind you, some of the terms that Joel Achenbach takes from Dan Kahar are rather problematic in and of themselves. How can someone be both individualistic AND hierarchical? And doesn’t being an individualist pretty much mean you WOULDN’T want to go along with your tribe? I guess it depends on how you’re using the term “individualistic,” because Kahar appears to use it as indicating that you look out for number one, not that you necessarily value independent thought.
But then, independent thought is a tricky thing anyway, because we all have to trust somebody when it comes to concepts for which we have no frame of reference. I’m not really that knowledgeable about science; my educational background is more in liberal arts. So yes, I have to have a certain amount of trust in others when I accept the gradual process of evolution or the age of the planet, and even that the Earth revolves around the Sun. People who deny basic tenets of science and other common knowledge like to imagine that there’s some kind of conspiracy to hide the real truth. I’m not entirely sure what the goal of this conspiracy would be, but there have certainly been occasions when the commonly accepted model turned out to be wrong.
The thing I don’t get is why you’d then believe people with obvious ulterior motives, like preachers, corporate spokespeople, and snake oil salesmen. There’s a pervasive attitude that scientists and academics are elitists, and in some cases the intellectuals aren’t doing much to dissuade this. Not that I know what they COULD do when people aren’t going to be swayed by facts and peer review. I also don’t understand when someone goes on about elitists and then votes billionaires who want tax cuts for their rich friends into office. But I guess some of these politicians are good at talking the talk of being on the side of the common person. Fundamentalist Christians loved that George W. Bush came across as one of them, regardless of what his actual policies were.
I also have to say that, from my perspective, I’m not sure how science goes against common sense in some of the cases Achenbach mentions. Yes, I get that the Sun appears to be going around the Earth. But with evolution…well, what’s the alternative? There are certainly aspects of evolution that I don’t fully grasp, but at its most basic it comes down to mutation and changes in genetics, which we CAN observe. On the other hand, has anyone ever seen an organism generated out of nothing? For a long time, people believed that flies could automatically come into existence from rotting meat. I don’t think too many modern Creationists believe this, but at least it was based on observation. I guess the missing factor here is that Creationists already believe in an all-powerful God, while to me that’s also something that has to be verified by evidence.
Vaccinations are another area in which I don’t think the basic principles are that difficult, but people refuse to learn them. When I was a kid, I learned that an inoculation put a little bit of a disease into your body so the white blood cells would find out how to fight it. I’m sure it’s a little more complicated than that, but that’s essentially how it works, right? On a recent episode of Real Time, Bill Maher (whom I generally like) was trying to compare vaccines to antibiotics, saying something about ruining the immune system. The difference is, at least as far as I understand it, that antibiotics cut out the white blood cells entirely, so taking too many of them can have a negative effect on immunity. With vaccines, isn’t it pretty much the opposite? I do have to give props to the comments from another Bill on the same show, Bill Nye, who pointed out that the term “climate change skeptics” was misleading. I agree, because aren’t skeptics people who refuse to accept something until they know all the facts? Climate change deniers typically don’t care about the facts.