Why people don’t trust science

So a colleague posted this article on my Facebook wall and queried me for my thoughts on the matter.  With longer things to say, I think I am going to use my blog more than Facebook.  Partly because of the easier formatting, but also the more permanency of keeping my ideas in one place.  The article is a NY Times article in which the author talks about the growing anti-science strain in this country called Welcome to the Age of Denial. Perhaps none of my ideas on the subject our very original and there are a number of excellent comments made under the article itself, but I think it’s worth sort of collecting a lot of them in one place.

The problem itself is much like Climate Change itself in that it is quite complex and no single factor can be completely to blame.  To start simply however many have pointed to a weakening economy as the reason for this change.  Of course weaker economies do tend to breed more extremism, more faith based reasoning as the amount of people living near poverty increases.  The great irony being that as the nation rejects science more the innovation and growth science can bring also goes away too.  In addition the strength of our economy is built on this growth in science and innovation and if we had all that going for us, where did we falter?

Please keep in mind that what I am going to say is a lot of opinion based on what I’ve read and what I’ve observed as an educator for now 11 years.

I think if we are going to make things better there are numerous factors that have to change:

  1. The corporation is out of control.  Money carries a lot of weight and everyone knows that.  Corporations do not want to take responsibility to the damage they’ve caused to the environment or the human body in the case of pharmaceuticals or fast food.  It’s not even conspiracy theory thinking to say that in a capitalistic society that corporations have a vested interested in making sure you are not concerned about important issues and so the spreading of misinformation in an age where information is easily disseminated is a big factor in the growing anti-trust in science.
  2. The politicization of science.  It was interesting to read this article and learn how in a way things have gotten worse in regards to scientific issues according to pulls from 1982 until now.  Especially when I had read about the increased secular population in the U.S.  According to polls also the number of agnostics, atheists or people who do not associate themselves with any particular religion is also growing.  Initially I thought these things were at odds, but not so if you think that U.S. is becoming increasingly polarized.  The continued two party system in this country is getting uglier and uglier, and despite that their is almost no difference between what the two parties actually do when operating the government the platforms they run on give a staggeringly different perception.  Especially when it comes to social issues. It is these social issues that are the main reason why I remain a democrat because quite simply science demonstrates that the democrats are right.  But there are many things I disagree with in terms of how they run the government.  That being said, somehow the democrats have sort of taken science as part of their party platform.  It shocks the hell out of me when, if I support scientific consensus on an issue, that makes me automatically a liberal democrat.  Science doesn’t take sides.  If the science is properly done it simply shows you what is, and once we are okay with that, we can move forward and figure out what is to be done about it, or done with it.  And just for the record I also am quite aware that while the democratic party has sort of taken up the reins of “pro-science” it does very little good with it.
  3. The devaluing of education.  Much could be said about this topic.  Of course it’s no big news that we continue to fare rather poorly in comparison with many other countries on the scientific literacy of youths coming out of school.  This is all too apparent to me as a professor who teaches many freshmen every semester.  Schools continue to get less funding, tuitions continue to rise.  Best practices in teaching are pushed aside in favor of standardized metrics that can be used to compare different schools to figure out who should get a piece of the every shrinking pie of funding.  This leads to increased class sizes, meaning less interaction between student and teacher, this leads to grade inflation where students do not get a meaningful evaluation of their actual abilities, and it leads to less critical thinking skills in place of rote memorization.  One day I will write an entire post probably regarding this subject, but suffice to say there is good reason why a lot of people don’t even respect the institution of education more when many students come out of school without basic writing skills let alone good quantitative skills, how to think critically and understand how science is done.  There is also politicization here too, and there should be one place where both parties agree, is that you can’t really spend too much money on education.
  4. Increasing transparency of science.  There is a word I was looking for instead of transparency, but I need the skills of the person who posted the article to my Facebook page to be able to find it. lol  What I mean by transparency here is that we take less notice of how it impacts our lives.  One commenter on the article said something to the fact that things are so small now we don’t see the gears and the machinery that makes things move so we wonder less how things work.  Well I’m not sure I necessarily agree with that, but I think he is right in some way.    Just like Republicans fail to see how taxes have actually benefitted their lives, I think many don’t understand how science is part of their everyday world and how knowledge of science would actually improve their lives regardless of what they do for their career.  Especially when so many important issues in government rely on a scientifically literate population.  I already have a blog post on this, so I won’t go into too much detail, but there does seem to be a general lack of awareness on why science is important and how many things in this world are actually rooted in science.  This is also a place where perhaps education is failing the young.
  5. Increased strain of biblical literalism.  In Europe, the fact that the Catholic church has publicly said that evolution is not in conflict with biblical teaching is huge in telling you that, while Catholicism may still have its problems it is at least trying to get away from the biblical literalism that plagues science today in this country.  A close relationship with good, good morals, and the happiness that people gain from faith should not in conflict with scientific advance.  One of my big problems is how people here can take one particular part of the bible so literally but ignore many of the other parts that are no longer practiced.  Any time words from the bible are literally used as a direct argument against scientific findings, I think we have a problem.  Much like I am annoyed that science has been associated with the democratic party, I know many good Christians who are annoyed that Christianity has become associated with the Republican Party.  Ultimately we have to take both religion and science out of party associations even if sometimes political decisions have to be made regarding science and religion.

 

Well those are the top 5 I can think of and I think they require a greater amount of overhaul than just one thing.  I think ultimately the most important is to continue the fight to make government value education, and also to make corporations responsible for poor practices.  I feel like the other ones sort of fade away if we can start to increase scientific literacy and not let corporations run the government.

 

What is normal and natural?

The following is a complete rewrite of something I posted on Facebook before about natural and normal.  I wanted to be a bit more comprehensive in my arguments.  Which also means its much longer.

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I remember when I engaged the gay basher that came to our campus last academic year, one of his many arguments included the idea that “being gay was not normal, that it was not natural”.  I am the type of person who thinks a lot about even what I know to be incorrect.  This is because I accept that what I know might actually be wrong and so I want to be always asking questions.  At one point in the argument he even claimed victory because he had got me to admit that it’s not normal.  It took me some time to understand exactly why he hadn’t won his argument and that I had not proved his point.  It comes down to the way in which I see normal, and the way he sees normal.

The word “normal” is one that I’ve come to see as a rather dangerous word and I think that I even need to be more careful about how I use the word.   The first part of the dictionary definition describes it as conforming to the standard or common type.  However it also defines normal as being “not abnormal” and “natural”.  This is where the problem lies.  Allow me to try to make the argument for what “normal” shouldn’t be, before making the argument for what it should be.

The word abnormal has a negative connotation to it, and anything that we define as normal implies those things that do not meet the defined criteria for normal, by definition are abnormal.  And since normal and natural are often used synonymously that thing becomes also unnatural.  Once we’ve reached this place in our mind we have created two categories.  In one is the category of things that belong in our world, and in the other category are things that don’t belong.   And once we decide what things don’t belong in our world, it becomes a very dangerous notion.

Now as a quick vocabulary aside, by definition I believe normal has a broader definition than natural.  Natural does only pertain to things that happen, well, in nature.  So normal can apply to nature, but it can also apply to a lot of other things.  For instance one can say “It is normal for Jim to be late to a party”.  Unless we were sort of being sarcastic or funny “It’s unlikely we’d say “It is natural for Jim to be late to a party”.  So all things natural could also be said to be normal, but the reverse is not true.  And the dictionary definition supports this line of thinking.

I argue that this categorization into normal and abnormal is not only dangerous, but also faulty.  Many of the things that people consider abnormal and normal are actually better served by using the word probable and improbable.  For instance,  only about 10% of the world is left-handed.  Now 10% is still a decent percentage in my opinion, and for a long time in our history even though 1 out of every 10 people were naturally left-handed those people were often oppressed and demonized as being unnatural.  People who are left-handed still are often inconvenienced today, and it wasn’t that long ago before parents actually let their kids be left handed (and I am sure there still kids being forced somewhere in the world to use their right hand).  I was actually a natural lefty, and my dad, not knowing any better forced me to use my right hand (I could have been an artist, or at least a much better writer!).  Language and culture favor right-handedness so much that it’s not surprising that left-handedness was looked down on for so long.  Therefore if we didn’t have this concept in our mind of what was normal and abnormal perhaps we could have avoided this type of discrimination.  Of course the truth is that being left-handed is just as normal or natural as being right-handed.  It is simply the fact that one is more probable than the other.  If we are going to use the term natural we might be better served saying that, “it is natural for humans to have a preference to use one hand more than another.”  Of course then we still might be lumping ambidextrous people into the unnatural category unfairly.  Because about 1 in 100 people are ambidextrous, this too is also natural.  Thus I would argue in situations like these that probable and improbable are the preferred words to use.  Something that is improbable is hardly something that we would consider sinful, bad, evil, or even something that didn’t belong.  It may be that we don’t want an improbable event to occur, but by looking at it as an improbable event means that we don’t have any inherent “wrongness” of the event, but we can study it and its effects and then make a decision about what if anything we need to do about it.  Some events are very improbable, but they happen, and that makes even the improbable events both normal and natural.

One could also make the broader argument that everything can be considered natural to a certain degree, even the things that are purely human products.  As a natural species on this planet, anything that we might do or construct could be said to be natural.  Since it all lays within a realm of probability of what we are capable of and what we can become.   One might be able to get away with saying, “It is unnatural for an object to not fall to the ground once it is no longer suspended in air”.  But using the word “highly improbable” would just be as acceptable and probably safer because hey you just never know. J

In Michael Shermer’s book The Believing Brain he makes the argument that we believe first and rationalize to support our beliefs rather than use rationalization to form beliefs.  Without an objective tool such as the scientific method we are left to trying to make sense out of the world as quickly as possible and then doing our best to preserve that world view through the process of rationalization.  Thus it could also be that things we learn to fear might lead us to rationalize those fears and label things normal or abnormal.  People who are religious and are belief driven tend to do this more often, but we are all capable of it from time to time.  It’s important to remember here that while I think letting belief dominate your life is dangerous, belief is also natural.  It is normal.  But so is science.  It is also normal.  While some scientific advances happen accidentally, most processes require refinement and attention.  If it was not for careful testing and experimentation one could not make the bow and arrow shoot farther and more accurately, let alone make a better iPhone.

So if fear can lead us to categorizing things as normal and abnormal, what do we fear?  I think that humans do naturally fear improbable events.  For most of our evolution, improbable events were probably a bad thing.  A natural disaster, the occasional lion who developed a taste for human flesh, an unknown disease or sickness.  Like all animals we want to feel safe.  Safety means survival.  Improbable events reduce that feeling of safety.   Even if an improbable event didn’t pose any real danger, such events are also harder to predict.   Humans through most of our evolution lived in small groups.  Events that had a 1/1000 chance of happening would not have happened very often, giving even early man very little chance to try to understand why it was happening and what to do about it.  It is only a luxury of large populations and sophisticated technology that we can study low probability events and still have a statistically significant number of cases to reach some good conclusions.  Therefore I also don’t deny that our tendency to categorize things as normal or abnormal is extension of what we fear especially when it comes to improbable events.  This too is something we naturally do.

Finally I think we also, regardless of the probability of an event, tend to regard negative things as unnatural.  Violent  behavior, sexual abuse, genocide just to name a few.  At an emotional level I have also heard many people refer to feelings, for example, like lust, anger, and apathy as unnatural.   Unfortunately science reveals that all these things are quite natural, not only to our species, but to other species as well.  Now, so what do we do if we say it is natural?  The naturalness of something, however, is not necessarily the basis of morality.  I think there is this feeling that once we accept something as being natural that we have to let it happen because there is nothing we can do about it.  We know from our studies of chimpanzees, our closest genetic relative, that they also practice genocide.  Does this mean we should just let genocide happen?  Of course not.  In chimpanzee societies the practice of genocide often is triggered by competition for territory and resources.  However, we have the advantage of coming up with other solutions to resolve differences, make resources and territory available to everyone without the need for killing.  Even primates realize that through cooperation they are better at surviving than without.  If they had the intellect to come up with other solutions, they would perhaps choose alternative solutions too, instead of ones that can end in their own deaths, and reduces the power of cooperative growth.  Therefore all these terrible things that we do should not be evaluated based on whether they are natural or not.  They should be based on what harm they actually cause.

To argue that homosexuality is not natural, or not normal is simply not a valid argument.  And if you are going to allow only natural things in the world, then you have to accept that things like abortion is normal (since even anthropological evidence even shows the abandoning and killing of one’s young when resources are limited).  For humans to kill each other is also normal.  The boon that is granted by the day we live in and the civilization we have built is to understand the reasons for behaviors that cause harm and find alternatives to that behavior when dealing with problems, or to learn how to change our behavior so that we can all live peaceably together.  I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what I’ve put into the category of natural and unnatural, or normal and abnormal, and it has certainly changed how I look at the world.  I am sure there are many other thoughts that I have that need revisiting that could use a glance through a different lens.  Do yourself a favor and spend some time thinking about how you use those words, how you think about those concepts and what things in this world you tie to them.  It’s worth the effort.

Science is your friend (written August 13th, 2013)

A little while back I posted a quote from Carl Sagan about how we live in a world dependent on science and technology, but yet few people know very much about science and technology.  I wanted to say some more about the importance of science to kind of address some of the other things that worry me in regards to the attitude about science I’ve encountered in people.

First let me say that science is difficult but it is natural.  From a very young age we clearly have scientific principles within us that guide our learning.   You can watch young children play and manipulate objects and see that they are simply learning how those objects move, sound, feel, etc.  This is at the heart of experimentation.  Of course science in practice is far more sophisticated, but every child is a little scientist.  Of course every child is also a believer. A defenseless life form who is trying to survive and doesn’t know that it has the luxury of taking its time to think about things, the luxury to reason.  For even as safe as the world might be for some young humans it doesn’t know that.  And keep in mind for many humans even today it is not that safe.  So we have this scientific side that demands we pause, reflect, test and make conclusions based on this evidence.  Then there is the side of us that takes on face value what our parents or other authority figures tell us, we tuck it away and move on to something else.  Believing has evolutionary advantages because it’s quite simply faster.  Both types of thinking have their value up to a point, but in many ways the believer is most valuable to the self, where as the scientist is perhaps most valuable to the larger population and over a longer span of time.

Of course you actually don’t need to learn about science to survive.  One could argue that you don’t need to learn about science as a member of society if you simply accept that scientists are as right as they can be, based on the evidence that the community analyzes and thus trust the decisions and recommendations that they make.  This would work, except that, at least in the US, everybody still has an opinion about scientific issues and feel that it is of equal value to that of the scientist even when they are illiterate about the subject material and how science works.  No issue makes this clearer than when you look at the attitude of many towards climate change.  Though almost every researcher in the natural sciences find evidence of man-made climate change there are many who find the issue to be one of belief, bias and conspiracy.  So it’s not only a problem that few people know about science, but that many of these uninformed people will form an opinion based on pseudoscience, pundits, or even in some cases intellectuals who are not scientists, and then not support legislation that is based on the recommendation of the scientific community.  The issue of evolution in this country is another example, and it bothers me when people say the phrase “believe in evolution”, because evolution does not require belief.  It only requires an objective analysis of evidence and this is the natural conclusion that anyone would come to based on that evidence.

I have even learned that there are many people who don’t understand what evidence is.  What they consider evidence for something is not evidence and this is where math comes into the equation.  No pun intended.  Part of the reason why science is difficult is because math is at the heart of science.  And I don’t mean just complicated equations although sometimes to really understand a certain area of science it helps to understand some complicated equation.  The heart of math is logic.  Math is in fact cold, unemotional, and doesn’t care one iota about your passions.  This makes mathematics actually quite unique in our world which is actually why I’m passionate about it.  Math doesn’t care what you want, it’s there to tell you what is.  When you try to have a debate with someone about an issue you can see that most people don’t know how to make logical arguments.  Hey I make plenty of mistakes too, and logic, reasoning, math requires us also to be humble.  When someone points at an error in your logic it can be a blow to the ego.  Math may be perfect, but we are not. It’s something you have to get over if you want to continue to learn and grow in this world.  You are going to make mistakes, but you need to keep trying to understand where flaws in your reasoning might lie.  Often this is because you are missing pertinent information.  Logic is also dangerous because entire logical frameworks can be built on faulty premises.  The example I always use is the logical argument:

All A are B

All B are C

Therefore all A are C.

Few can argue here as this is a logical truth.  But let’s put actual information in there now.  All cats are black.  All black things are hats.  Therefore all cats are hats.  This is a silly example of course, but logic can lead us down a road when the premises we use to draw our conclusions are faulty.  However, we can test the truth of “All black things are hats” and “all cats are black” through careful observation and science.  As silly as this argument sounds it could be that any individual might come up with this conclusion if they really had not seen anything black other than a cat.  An authority figure in their life tells them now that “all black things are hats”.  You’ve never seen a hat, but you trust this adult.  So your brain makes the logical conclusion that all cats must also be hats.  The error is not your conclusion, but rather that you A) have seen only a small portion of the things that are black, and that you took at face value what the authority figure said about black things and hats.  Thus what the example actually shows is how easy it is to draw incorrect logical conclusions through having incomplete information about the world.  This person may even begin to argue with other people on the nature of cats and black things, but always remember to be humble and realize that you may not know as much as somebody else in regards to a particular subject.  This extreme example also demonstrates why religion fails to explain how the world works effectively because it generally suppresses the investigation into the truth of promises and relies heavily on simply trusting in what an authority figure as truth.  This is why religious texts have numerous contradictions and outdated information.  Any community which purports a text or set of guidelines that are not open to question, scrutiny, and testing that is a dangerous community.  That community is the exact opposite of a scientific community.

Any individual scientist can also fall victim to his/her own gospel and this is of course why I don’t advocate that a society simply trust what scientists have to say, but rather is educated about science themselves.  Questions are what drive scientists, and any one scientist would easily admit that they may not have seen all the evidence, interpreted it correctly, or may be subject to bias.  This is where the value of community comes in.  The greater the volume of scientific literacy in a community the more likely we are to arrive at correct answers about how the world works and most likely more quickly.  Any researcher always faces some criticism from others in their field.  People who disagree with them and ask them questions that they may not have considered, which eventually makes them more careful researchers in the future.  Scientists make use of peer-review for their research, as well as the fact that numerous scientists may be working on a particular problem independently but attempting different methods at solving the problem.  This can reveal holes in an individual scientist’s research and this is extremely valuable because once again we can save time and energy by learning which methodologies are inefficient, which question shouldn’t be asked, and which questions we should ask.

Science is most successful when both old questions are re-asked, and new questions are asked.  A continued investigation of old questions that are attacked from new angles and with new information allow us to make sure the foundation in which we tackle new scientific problems are sound.  Science does this all the time, which is why occasionally you find out that something you learned in school may not be true anymore.  Science makes mistakes, but continually marches forward self-correcting along the way.  If you start trying to move forward on a faulty premise you find that you hit a wall. Forward progress can sometimes stall, sometimes even by the ego of a big scientist in the field, but eventually something that isn’t right will fail.

And even if you become scientifically literate are all your problems solved?  Certainly not.  There are a lot of things to know in the world and it is time consuming to be knowledgeable about the all.  There are plenty of areas of science I know little about.  Microbiology, organic chemistry, atomic physics are just a few.  So when I read something that a community of those scientists has said, I have two choices.  I can trust them.  Knowing how scientists work I can feel pretty confident that within their own community they are doing exhaustive and rigorous research to come to the conclusions they have.  However if I’m not satisfied, I can start learning.  I can start reading.  There is a lot of information on the web now so even the simplest of terms in a particular field I can find definitions for.  I could read a few books of course too.  All this takes time.  But perhaps it is worth it.  What seems surprising to me though is all the people who would argue against something like climate change having very little understanding of the subject and spouting off incorrect information from articles which actually prey on the scientific illiteracy of the reader to convince them to a certain point of view.

We live in an age of information.  But as a consequence there is also a lot of misinformation out there.   Science can be most powerful in just helping you understand the quality of the information that you are being given, and help you separate the bad from the good.  I see many people getting their information from terrible sources.  As a scientist here are some of the steps I take when trying to learn about something (this is also how good research is done):

  • Look for consensus.  Try to find independent sources that say similar things.  This can be hard on the internet as sometimes one person’s words get republished (and uncredited) on other sites.  But usually the wording will be very similar.
  • Try to find the author.  Who is he or she?  Do they even have a degree in the area of science they are writing about?  Many critics of something  like climate change do not come from people who actually are knowledgeable about the physics that apply to climate.
  • Does that author publish journal articles on their findings?  Before any science becomes mainstream it always first or at least simultaneously published in a journal.  But also important is the nature of that journal.  Does that journal have anonymous peer-review?  Does that journal seem to fit the subject of the article?  Is the journal regional, national, or international? Many weaker studies that represent bad science or relatively inconclusive findings will be published in small journals, journals without peer-review or in journals only loosely related to the subject area to avoid it being reviewed by other appropriate experts.
  • The best sources of information often site numerous studies and try to culminate those findings to build a logical narrative.

Finally it doesn’t hurt to try and read other contradictory articles, provided that those articles meet some or all of the criteria mentioned above.

A democracy is only effective when its people are intelligent and well informed, and there are plenty of issues that are important to our future and future generation.  Climate change is only one of them.  Learn about biochemistry and understand more about vaccinations, diseases, stem cell research, genetically modified foods.   Learn about Earth Science and understand more about water quality, soil and water conservation, climate change, natural disasters, and pollution.  Learn about physics and understand important issues related to radiation, heating and cooling, lasers, and of course physics is such a fundamental science that it is the root for understand many other scientific disciplines.  Learn about biology and understand how life works such as: the similarities and differences among species, the human body, wildlife conservation, and evolution.  And don’t forget that scientific investigation is used to try to answer many questions in the social science.  Fields like sociology, psychology, education and communication.   For instance we can learn with science that if we want abortions to happen less and less than imposing one group’s morality is less effective than education, good health care, and easier access to birth control.  Learn about math and statistics so that you can understand when numbers are significant, what probabilities mean, and what uncertainties might be associated with a particular finding.

To conclude I would be remiss if I left out all the other amazing things that add color to this world.  In your quest for scientific literacy don’t forget about the humanities and arts.  Get lost in those things that inspire and excite the imagination.  Tell stories and listen to stories because there is insight interwoven into the narrative.  Learn about history and understand the process of discovery through the ages, learn about change, and the rise and fall of civilization so that we can learn well the lessons of the past for a better future.  Lose yourself in music, whether it is by dancing or just letting your mind and heart get carried away by the melody, or even just singing at the top of your lungs in the car.  I don’t expect everyone to get their sense of wonder from science, so make sure you are doing things that keep making you wonder about the world.