The Mystery of Opposition to Science



There is only a minor amount of truth in that poster, isn’t there? Social sciences have no doubt attracted a larger audience by attaching “science” to the name of their respective disciplines. However, modern scientific consensus cannot even garner automatic accord from a majority of adults. Polls tend to cluster around 40% in the U.S. when respondents are asked whether they agree with the vast majority of climate scientists that climate change is caused by human behavior.

An article in the March 2015 National Geographic offers a couple hypotheses for the distrust of scientists: 1. Heightened politicization of scientific findings.  “If I answer ‘yes’ to the question above, the logical consequence would be that I am thereby supporting regulation of American industry. I do not like government.” 2. Facts have less impact on human belief than we wish to acknowledge. Even scientifically literate people have primal intuitive senses that tend to link with their perceptions. Hence, even though they would say they trust science, they hesitate to accept scientific findings that have no basis in their personal empirical observations.

Personally, I find neither hypothesis  anything more than epiphenomenal. They probably have some small effect at best.

But do you or I have any better hypotheses? Let me toss some out with little attempt to censor myself in terms of applying systematic doubt to any of them.

1. Scientists are often wrong. Judicious scientists frequently point out the frequently probabilistic nature of science. Exhibit A might be nutrition science. The more people know that science can be wrong, the more their dichotomous tendencies click in.  Facts get kicked to the side of the road, and we all are now free to believe as we wish.

2. Very few of us have the scientific knowledge to evaluate specific scientific claims. We trust the method of science, while acknowledging that the method rarely lives up to its grandiose description in the early stages of science texts. I wonder whether the over-selling of science as a method does not create avenues whereby even thoughtful people will sometimes pick and choose which scientific findings they wish to confer faith in.

3. The ease with which we now can see into the daily foibles of leaders and experts jaundices people’s respect for experts of all kinds. Did you read about the $1.3 million payment from the coal industry and received by the Harvard scientist, who was revered for his anti-climate change views? Events like that snowball in people’s imaginations.

What do any of you think is going on here?

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