Blog 71. The War on Science

The cover of the March 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine blazes with the title, “THE WAR ON SCIENCE.”

The sub-headings on the cover, cast against the image of a man-on-the-moon model, say:

These topics might sound like everyday disgruntled banter if they were not so threatening.  However, current society—in America and in much of the world—is based on the technologies that have come out of science.  Society as we know it is an emergent result of technology, developing from controlled fire, then stone arrowheads, agriculture, and eventually to machines and medicine.  Denying the validated results of science is dangerous.

Anti-science topics are used as divisive elements in politics.  The political arguments are based on ignorance and result in harm.  As the feature article in the Geographic reports, the city of Portland declined to add fluoride to its water.  I grew up where our “natural” water had little fluoride.  As a result, I have teeth that are mostly metal.  Those who now inhibit action on fluoride or on climate change add burden to the lives of today’s children.  Those who think life may be more “natural” without vaccinations put their own kids and everyone else in danger of epidemics.  With a technical society come social responsibilities, like driving on the designated side of the road and vaccination and evaluation of problems that affect everyone.

You don’t have to know all the science.  You do need to understand how science works and to apply that understanding.  The physicist Feynman once described science as a way of organizing your information so as to avoid being fooled.  As a society, we fail to understand that.  It seems that half of us regard science as just another opinion, as just one more unfounded belief system.

It is beliefs, not evaluation, that drive the anti-science movement.  Beliefs underlie the polarization regarding those sub-headings on Geographic’s cover, the sub-headings reproduced at the top of this post.  When data conflict with belief, data are seen as an attack rather than as information.  As the Geographic reports, “…our beliefs are motivated largely by emotion, and the biggest motivation is remaining tight with our peers.”  The motivation for maintaining a belief contrary to the evidence is to maintain identity, to stay within the group, to feel approval of the fellowship.  Thus, people filter information, accepting only that information that supports their shared beliefs.  That’s abuse, not use, of science.

As a scientist, I don’t “believe” in fluoride for domestic water or “believe” in climate change or “believe” in evolution—rather, I understand the findings and act accordingly.  I understand the relation of fluoride to teeth, I saw the data on the accumulating atmospheric CO2 twenty-eight years ago, and I see that evolution is the way of organizing biological data even though I know little about biology.  I had to think about these things rather than to “believe.”  Scientific theories and laws and rules are guided and enforced by a firm process: repeated experiment.  That’s quite different from believing climate change is a false issue promoted by a conspiracy of environmentalists.

According to the Geographic, only 40 percent of Americans accept that human activity is changing the global climate.  That’s  despite the fact that the United Nations adopted a climate resolution and established a continuing international investigation in 1988, more than twenty-six years ago.  Apparently, the sons and daughters of climate deniers become the next generation of deniers.  Unfortunately, anti-science as a belief system applies not only climate, but to many other issues.  Climate is the biggest issue, bur not the only issue.

With such beliefs, we are fooling ourselves in disastrous ways.

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