A wise Nebraska farmer I know taught me this saying: “It’s what you know for certain that keeps you from learning.” This principle is at the core of why certain groups and entities are rejecting good science.
As a scientist, and particularly as a scientist involved in agricultural and environmental issues, I’m increasingly aware of this trend. In some cases this involves open hostility to science, in others it is just a matter of ignoring the scientific input. What is disturbing is how many different “voices” are in this unlikely “coalition” and the extent to which they are coloring the views of the broader society (as seen in the recent Pew survey of American attitudes about climate change).
At acknowledged risk of offending people, I will try to describe factions in the groups that tend to reject things that science would tell them. I know that what I am talking about does not apply to everyone, or even most people in these groups, but it is still a potent force in our society.
Fringe “Green” Activists
To some Green Activists, anything associated with large corporations, synthetic chemicals, or genetic engineering is automatically bad and must be opposed vigorously. Their view is unmoved by the fact that multiple scientific reviews and regulatory systems are in place to insure the safety of these important technologies that actually get people fed. Because the activists restrict their input to myth-recycling channels, they reinforce their beliefs to the point where evidence no longer matters. Unfortunately, these groups have succeeded in significantly undermining the broader societal trust in our food system.
Even though the scientists in Europe and Japan assure their citizens that biotechnology is safe, the “precautionary principle” continues to prevail and creates a politicized regulatory system that ignores science. Many of these countries could be growing more of their own food and doing it in more sustainable ways (e.g. no-till) if they adopted biotechnology improved crops, but instead they continue to be major food importers and even use that leverage to block biotechnology in the countries from which they import and for the poor (particularly former European colonies in Africa).
“Echo Chamber” Republicans
Some of today’s Republicans seem to have become convinced that anything favored by liberal or even moderate politicians has to be wrong. The evidence from the science around climate change falls into this category. When people restrict their input of information exclusively to the sources that tell them only what fits their presupposition, the ‘echo chamber’ effect leads to conspiracy theory thinking that becomes impervious to contrary evidence. The “Drill baby drill” philosophy prevails unquestioned.
Elements in Fundamentalist Islam
There was an interesting article in the British magazine, “The Economist” pointing out the link between poverty in Islamic countries and the very poor status of science education based on hostility to the theory of evolution. This is not an obligatory feature of Islam. Muslim cultures were the leaders in science and mathematics up until around 1100 c.e., but the students in many modern, Saudi-funded, madrassas throughout the world are being taught not to trust science.
Elements of the Evangelical Christian Community
There is no obligatory conflict between faith and science. Enlightenment era Christianity was the birthplace of modern science. But since that time, some Christians have become so threatened (I would say unnecessarily) by the Theory of Evolution, and the evidence for the age of the universe, that they tend to demonize science and scientists (I say this from personal experience within the Christian community over the years, fortunately not in my current church). I suspect that this undercurrent of hostility towards science may explain the disproportionate share of Evangelicals who reject climate change evidence.
Marketers in the Food Industry
Many food companies with valuable consumer brands have pragmatically chosen to avoid potential conflict about technologies, even when they know they are safe. This is all because there could be some controversy that would “harm the brand.” (I’ll be doing a future post of the details about this). By doing so, these companies effectively use the highly influential power of their brand to reinforce the anti-science agenda of relatively small groups. This short-term avoidance of trouble compromises the future of the very supply chain on which their products depend and the overall societal trust of what they sell.
One of the most significant contributions of science to humanity has been the development of vaccines against major diseases. In spite of the overwhelming public health benefits associated with their use, persistent myths continue to be propagated and innocent people are scared away from protecting their children and the population as a whole. We are now struggling to make enough vaccine to control the H1N1 flu virus because activist-driven lawsuits have driven vaccine production off-shore. The fact that a small number of activists can undermine a science-based pillar of our “social contract” is a particularly frightening aspect of the general anti-science drift of modern society.
Science has a tendency to tell us some things we don’t want to hear at times – something that challenges our core pre-suppositions. Sometimes what science tells us really matters, so just rejecting it or ignoring it can have serious consequences. I’m not saying that scientists are never wrong or never influenced by their own presuppositions. I’m not saying science can’t be questioned – that process is at the very heart of the scientific method.
But overall, science has served humanity very well. We need to build a broader scientific literacy in our population so that we can intelligently consider complex issues. We need to separate the science from the politics. We need to take a serious look at the “coalition” described above and stand against the broader, anti-science drift that it is encouraging in modern society. Remember, “its what you know for certain that keeps you from learning.”
Monkey statue image by robertpaulyoung
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