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