Science Controversies in the US


In the US, there are a few “controversies” raging in the public debate. For the most part these controversies have been settle in the scientific community and many other countries. Europe for exam does not have a problem with either evolution through natural selection and climate change. These two are huge problems in the US. What are some others? Geocentric solar system, flat earth, connection between HIV and AIDs, and the link between autism and vaccines. While most of these can be laughed off, such as the geocentric or flat earth, others can have serious repercussions. For instance there is a growing population that is refusing to vaccinate their children because they are afraid that they will develop autism. This not only puts that child at risk, but it also puts every other child around them at risk.vaccines only work when a critical mass is vaccinated, because not all vaccines actually take. Typically, scientists look at people that are skeptical of the main stream science with scorn and tend to mock them. This will not get people to change their views.

I’m going to focus on evolution and climate change in this blog. Mostly because the people that don’t accept the evidence for either or both fit into the same set of people. Dealing, I don’t know enough about the autism/vaccine group to comment on them intelligently.

Who are the people that reject evolution most often? They are typically rural white, Christians that are also republicans (article). The same people also reject climate change (I can’t find an article, but republicans rejected global warming in the house). So, let’s assume that these people aren’t stupid, uneducated and are not immoral. What reasons could they have to reject Climate change?

Well, what kind of ethics are these people following? They believe that humans have no ability to change nature. This is actually a belief that Kant held, that there is a separation between what humans can impact and what they cannot impact. Next the Bible says God won’t allow another flood. This, to some extent, falls under the belief that we don’t have the ability to impact the world enough to destroy it.

BUT! Look at the data! It’s pretty obvious. Unfortunately, we humans have an amazing ability to take contradictory evidence and convince ourselves that it’s actually completely wrong and strengths our currently held position. So, people will create elaborate stories or point to anecdotal evidence that “disproves” the aggregate data. Meijnders et al, puts this as statistics are humans with the tears dried off. Basically we need stories. We don’t understand statistics  or how it relates to people in general.

Are these people being irrational? Well, the first case is clearly not irrational. They are operating within a clear set of ethical principles that dictated to them that the world is not at risk as we cannot impact it in this way whatsoever. Not accepting scientific evidence to the contrary is not irrational. The second part, well that’s a defense mechanism to increase the rationality of their decision. If you can show that these data are wrong, then obviously your ethical stance is even more justified.

Accepting climate change as fact for many of these people would cause an earth shattering change in their current belief system. It won’t cause them to lose faith in the bible or anything, however it will force them to look at their current behavior in a way that maybe incredibly painful for them.

Tomorrow, I’ll attempt to come up with some ways to correct this problem. How we address this is important for addressing our growing climate problem.

References:
http://www-personal.umich.edu/~bnyhan/nyhan-reifler.pdf
Meijnders et al (2009) “The Role of Similarity Cues in the Development of Trustin Sources of Information About GM Food” Risk Analysis Vol 29, No. 8 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2009.01240.x/full

3 thoughts on “Science Controversies in the US

  1. It has been pointed out that I imply that all christians from a rural area don't believe in climate change. That wasn't my intention to say that. I was saying that the people that are most likely not to believe in it fit this description, but I did not note that this did not extend to everyone in the group. In fact, it's a small minority. However, they are vocal, and I still stand by my point that this group is most likely not to support it.

  2. I wonder if these climate change deniers might possibly have this notion, but not be able to articulate it: We are moving toward a glacial minimum over thousands of years within an ice age over a million years long. We might be poised to hit a minimum and move back toward glaciers covering most of Canada. Science tells us human activities have a big role in the current de-glaciation, but this was going on prior to the industrial revolution. If we approach the problem by reducing rate of CO2 emission growth, we'll just be taking a fraction out of something that only accounts for a fraction of the problem; and we'll be forgoing significant economic growth. I question if CO2 emission reduction is the best approach. I may be reading my own views into rubes. I personally do support CO2 reduction efforts until someone finds a better approach. But the CO2-reduction approach seems costly and ineffective to me. I suspect we will learn to deal with the problems of climate change as they present themselves using engineering approaches.I'm probably reading too much into the rubes, but I sometimes wonder if on some level they sense that even though the science of climate change is sound the cost/benefit ratio of CO2-reduction measures is questionable.

  3. Well, that's one theory, that climate change is naturally occurring and that CO2 doesn't cause temperature increases. However, the rate of that changes is out of line with anything recorded previously, and we're experiencing hotter temperatures than before. Climate change is real.Well, the problem with not putting these technologies into use, is that without user feedback and revenue it is difficult to move to better technologies. As an engineer i'm sure you appreciate that, you can't move to the best technologies without moving through a research space.In fact there's at least one idea out there that looks to ignore dealing with CO2, and just pump another gas, a volcanic gas, which reflects heat and causes the temperature to cool. I think the idea is, we pump this gas into the air until we can figure out a good fix to CO2 problem. The gas has a shorter lifetime in the air than CO2, so we could stop pumping the gas into the air whenever we needed to. Here's a blurb about the chapter:http://www.grist.org/article/2009-11-03-superfreakonomics-chapter-climate-changeAs to the costs, I think that the freak out over the costs of dealing with climate change are overblown. If you remember the acid rain discussion in the 90's they were saying the same thing. that it would end business in the US. That didn't happen, and prices didn't change much on products either. It also would spur growth, as firms have to buy these technologies and install them. Which is good for the economy. I really find the too expensive argument to be an attempt to change the subject. If we dealt with CO2 as a negative externality and taxed it, it would probably costs firms more money than fixing the problem.

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