An excerpt from a talk I’m working on, to be delivered a month and an ocean away:
Two thirds of North America believes in Angels ; only half accept the reality of global warming. 78% believe that human beings were created by an invisible sky fairy, and 46% believe that this fairy created them in their present form ten thousand years ago (up from only 40% in 2011). Almost half of the adults in the US cannot correctly answer the question “How long does it take for the Earth to complete an orbit of the sun?” even when the question is presented as multiple choice. The level of scientific literacy in North America is nothing short of pathetic.
Ignorance would be bad enough, but North Americans have gone further. They don’t just endure ignorance, they embrace it: are not just ignorant of science, but actively hostile to it. And so tens of millions of N’Americans reject outright the reality of anthropogenic climate change, of evolution by natural selection, of even the effectiveness of vaccination for chrissake, despite all the scientific evidence to the contrary. They don’t care about evidence; anything they find objectionable, they dismiss as lies and conspiracies by intellectual eggheads who are not to be trusted.
This was recently driven home to me on a very personal level. A couple of years back I was on trial in the US for asking questions during a border search; that’s a felony in the US, punishable by up to three years in prison. While preparing our defense my lawyer consulted with various colleagues, and during one such consultation I remember feeling vaguely confused over something they obviously considered a major issue: how to counter the body blow the Prosecutor would deliver when she referred to me as “Doctor Watts”. At first I couldn’t see why they were so worried; what difference did it make? But after a few minutes I realized that in the United States, being called “Doctor” was an insult: this jury would be hostile to me the moment they learned that I had an advanced degree, for no other reason than that I had an advanced degree. Educated people are not trusted in the United States of America; educated people are the enemy. And sure enough, the prosecutor went out of her way to call me “Doctor Watts”, and my lawyer went out of his way to point out that I didn’t really use that term, that I really wasn’t one of those people.
A number of pro-science advocates actually blame scientists themselves for the public’s attitude. Scientists should reach out more, they say, climb down from their ivory towers and make science accessible to the common man. People just don’t understand science; if we only explained how cool it is, people would get it. Back in the day you had Carl Sagan, the geek-cheerleader’s cheerleader; these days you’ve Neil DeGrasse Tyson. We need more of this, the argument goes.
I’m not convinced. I think it was Einstein who famously said that you can’t reason someone out of a position they did not arrive at through reason— and America’s fundamentalist beliefs were not arrived at through reason. People may not understand science — it’s blatantly obvious that many do not — but I don’t think that’s why they hate it. They hate it because it tells them things they don’t want to believe. Science is the messenger they can shoot.
And the more you know about how science works, ironically, the easier it is to shoot at.
Science follows the creed of disproof, after all. The whole edifice is founded on the admission that everything we know might be wrong, that any of today’s “facts” might tomorrow be tested and found wanting. Science is pretty straightforward as a concept; in practice it’s messy as hell, full of arguments and counterarguments, noise and statistical filters. It’s a perfect target to those who crave certitude and simplicity: every dispute over detail can be twisted into an indictment of the entire process, every new discovery lets the Ignorantsia thump their bibles and say “See, the scientists can’t even keep their story straight amongst themselves! Why should we take any of that global-warming bullshit seriously?”
Case in point: yesterday’s momentous announcement that so much of what we once called “junk DNA” — all those bits that we once thought accumulated for no other reason than the sheer Darwinian selfishness of parasitic nucleotides — actually serve a host of vital regulatory functions. (Update: Or maybe not. Apparently the ENCODE people simply redefined “functional” to apply to code sequences that actually aren’t; “junk DNA” can breathe a sigh of relief.) To a scientist, such moments of enlightenment — the chance to discard the old and replace it with something better — are what the whole endeavor is all about. And yet it took less than 24 hours for the creationists to turn that into “Hah! Wrong again! Everything plays a part in God’s Plan!”
It’s just what people do. It’s been suggested that reasoned debate didn’t evolve as a truth-seeking strategy at all, but as a means of persuasion and social control. Lofty rhetoric evolved to serve dogma, not rationality: the things we call empiricism and logic are just side-effects, and not especially strong ones. Given the endless litany of cognitive glitches that interfere with our thought processes — confirmation bias, sunk-cost fallacies, the Semmelweis reflex to name but a few — it’s hard to argue that we’re in any way optimized for impartial analysis. If we’re optimized for anything, it’s denial: the ability to reframe unwelcome facts in a way that justifies our own preconceptions.
So while I have nothing but admiration for the likes of ol’ Neil, forgive me if I don’t regard attempts to “educate people about science” as an unmitigated good: too often they just play into the hands of the enemy. Most arguments are not joined with any sincere desire to arrive at the truth; they are joined to be won. It doesn’t matter how many decimal places your results are significant to, or how homoscedastic your residuals turn out to be; people weigh arguments in their guts, and the gut is blind to statistics.
If I’m full of shit, tell me now. I have maybe two weeks to change my mind.
(Retro edit: Lightly deharshened 11/9/2012)