Saturday, October 29, 2011

Fear of Science

Do Americans fear science? Not just having to study it, but science as an enterprise? The October 26 episode of Jon Stewart's Daily Show gives a hilarious, chilling view of one population segment's attitude toward science. Watch it.

The truth is, a large segment of the American population distrusts scientists and, like the woman in the interview, would rather trust their gut than scientific evidence. It's telling that of all the Republican candidates for president, only one, Jon Huntsman, has spoken up in defense of science. To quote him,
Listen, when you make comments that fly in the face of what 98 out of 100 climate scientists have said, when you call into question the science of evolution, all I'm saying is that, in order for the Republican Party to win, we can't run from science.

Most of the other candidates seem to have decided that running from science is good campaign strategy. Even Mitt Romney, who knows better, has been shifting rightward on the question of climate change. In his 2010 book No Apology, he wrote, "I believe that climate change is occurring. ... I also believe that human activity is a contributing factor." In June, 2011, he said that the US should "reduce our emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases that may be significant contributors." Now he says, "My view is that we don't know what's causing climate change on this planet. And the idea of spending trillions and trillions of dollars to try to reduce CO2 emissions is not the right course for us." This is not just a change in Romney's preferred policies, it's a stated change in his beliefs -- all of a sudden, even as the scientific consensus becomes clearer and clearer, Romney doesn't know what's causing climate change. He's embraced the campaign strategy of fleeing science.

The point that Jon Stewarts show makes is that some of us distrust science because we think it's something only scientists can understand and evaluate. So who's to say the scientists aren't all ganging up together to fool us and keep grant money coming? This is a new twist on America's bent toward anti-intellectualism. All of a sudden, there's a group of us not ashamed to say, "Look, I'm not educated enough or smart enough to understand this, so I don't trust the people who do."

Come to think of it, that's kind of the way I used to feel about car mechanics. They know about my car, and I don't, so they can tell me I need to buy something, and I don't know how to evaluate the recommendation. Of course, I can always take the car to another mechanic.

What many people don't understand about science is that it's always automatically being taken to another mechanic. That's the process of peer review and of replicating experiments. Sure, there are cases of scientific fraud. But the system uncovers them automatically, without the need for government wiretaps, and a lot faster than it took Bernie Madoff's fraud to unravel and expose itself. Science is a self-correcting way of getting at new knowledge. That's what's wonderful about it. What to do with that knowledge is a legitimate political question. But running away from that knowledge because it feels uncomfortable is succumbing to our most craven instincts. It's sort of like saying, "Well, I know my cholesterol can't be that high because I feel fine." Gut feelings don't prevent heart attacks.

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