Despite the ever worsening raid on natural resources, documented climate change, and scientific advances in the medical field, there is still a movement fomenting within the U.S. that regards scientific fact as fiction. These conspiracy theories even exist in the halls of power, conspiring with a kind of general apathy among other leaders when it comes to environmental issues to create a tepid response to a list of growing concerns that, if treated with inaction or denial, may bring broad-reaching economic, medical, and natural consequences over time.
Skepticism and cultural opposition has plagued scientists for centuries, with trail blazers like Galileo being persecuted by the religious establishment. As we creep into a more modern era, that issue still persists. Since its inception by the Founding Fathers and centuries beyond, scientific prominence and a thirst for invention has been a hallmark of the American ideal. The 1960s gave us the moon landing, and the ’70s and ’80s saw booms in the computer sciences and biotech.
Still, there are always those looking to undermine progress; these anti-science skeptics began as early as the 1950s, when many chiropractors were openly against the life-saving polio vaccine. While America has long been on the scientific cutting edge, but a new movement, born from a growing amount of misinformation spreading like wildfire and the demand for “ideological conformity” from the health-based conspiracy theories on the left and the religious dogma on the right, is looking to halt that kind of progress. In fact, the Renaissance (and before) idea that the world is flat has been resurrected by a modern movement, so there is clearly no theory too insane to warrant a following.
Based on his statements with regard to climate change, it doesn’t seem like President-elect Donald Trump will push back against science deniers, but even if he were to suddenly switch gears and fashion himself as some kind of green champion, we’d still be on a downward trajectory. In a moment where the weight of actual facts has been brought into question as safeguards and intellectual curiosity erode, we simply have no choice but to acknowledge that the cancer of doubt has metastasized. How we stop it is, unfortunately, an open question, but a war on many fronts can be won piecemeal, and it’s not hard to see that the internet and the classroom are among the first battlegrounds.
Identifying The Problem
CNN recently did a photo spread that showed the harrowing effects on worldwide ecosystems that are crumbling in the face of climate change. Preventable diseases like measles, polio, rubella, and whooping cough are all on the rise again thanks to a rejection of vaccines. Stephen Hawking is positing that humanity only has a thousand good years left on earth at the rate that we’re going. American used to be at the forefront of the scientific field, but restrictions from past administrations have crippled our advancement to a troubling degree.
According to the Huffington Post, the Bush administration “restricted what government scientists could report to the public,” and while the Obama administration has been a bit more progressive, “this has not translated into the maintenance of adequate support for scientific research, which in all fields, including space, environment, energy, and health, comprises just a few percent of our military spending.” This recent lack of emphasis on the scientific fields has had a trickle down effect into our education system. The US ranks 29th among developed nations in science literacy in high school students.
Dr. Andrew Rosenberg, the director of the Center for Science and Democracy branch of the Union of Concerned Scientists, believes that this lack of emphasis on scientific importance is creating an uninformed public.
“In terms of the anti-science, that’s just a fail of the educational system,” Dr. Rosenberg told Uproxx. “People do not know as equally and as widely as they should what science is and how and why it works. We were taught science out of a textbook as a thing like any other subject taught out of a textbook… It’s different from other categories. Because your knowledge of science in a free democracy will matter in terms of policies that affect the health and wealth of your country, and in the larger scale, civilization. There is no decade more impacted by the need for innovations in science and technology than this the 21st century. There is no century that is as needy of that as this current one. So, the educational system needs to reflect this.”
Pushback against scientific progress comes from a number of places. Between conspiracy theorists to ultra-conservative evangelicals, fringe groups are doing their best to prevent us from moving forward. The unfortunate fact is that these vocal minorities are gaining such traction. Despite the anti-science stereotype, 70% of American evangelical Christians do not believe that science and religion are in opposition of one another.
However, the remaining percentage is particularly vocal, with many like Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe (R), who claimed that “God is still up there, and He promised to maintain the seasons and that cold and heat would never cease as long as the earth remains,” and “The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.” It would certainly be wrong to paint all Christians with such a broad brush, but it is impossible to ignore the workings of a few to do their best to prevent scientific development.
Learning From Past Mistakes
It’s easy to blame the current rise in anti-intellectualism and science denial on a lack of education, but it’s not as simple as that. Neil deGrasse Tyson, noted astrophysicist and television personality, makes it clear that that kind of elitism is just as culpable as a lack of education.
“The attitude of so many intellectuals is one where they reject pop culture, they reject what people think and value and feel,” Tyson told Uproxx in an interview. “And that’s bad. It backfires, every now and then. So we need an intellectual class of people who can not carry an intellectual attitude with them when they interact with others.”
Tyson has even experienced this kind of intellectual elitism in his own life.
“I know these people, and I’ve seen them, and I’ve interacted with them,” he said. “Some of them criticize me even having a Twitter account. Because that is anti-intellectual. The intellectual is giving your full featured argument of why this is true, not 140 characters. I recognize it. So I think the intellectual community has to take some, if not most, of the blame for that.”
While it’s important to establish the legitimacy of facts and while it’s natural to put faith in those facts, it’s clear that many fall short when it comes to understanding the power of other people’s beliefs. And when those people are dismissed as “less educated,” then the battle to win them over is already lost.
Roberta Millstein, a philosopher at the University of California, Davis, also points to how this “us vs. them” mentality almost always does more harm than good in an interview with Science Mag.
“It’s unproductive,” Millstein says. “We’re making it seem as they don’t care about science and we’re pushing them into another camp instead of trying to bring them into the conversation.”
Anecdotally, the 2016 election provides evidence of this fact: calling Donald Trump supporters “monsters” and “racists” seemingly emboldened more than it shamed. But in terms of hard numbers, a study by Mark Largent, a Michigan State University-based medical historian, may prove the point that communication may be the key to winning people back once they start to doubt science fact. Apparently, 40% of parents are anxious over using vaccines on their children, but only 3% identify as explicit anti-vaxxers. Largent told Science Mag, “They have very high levels of trust in science and physicians, and they have very large knowledge about vaccines.”
Instead, it is their mistrust of the pharmaceutical industry — a legitimate fear — that drives them toward the rejection. So the question is, how do you combat that? Especially when these issues move away from dinner table conversations and start working their way into politics.
Politics, Money, And The Search For Truth
Rosenberg says that the denial of scientific evidence is related to “a specific and concerted attempt to politicize particular issues like climate change, reproductive health, environmental concerns, and many others and to, therefore, spin conspiracies about ‘experts’.” This isn’t novel, Rosenberg admits, but he nonetheless finds it “very disturbing” as it has become more commonplace and cautions about the “proliferation of the ways that people obtain information and the ability to filter to only those voices that you agree with.” He also defends the scientific process against these biases.
“The science process has some safeguards to ensure that work is ‘independent’ from undue influence by political or vested interests,” he said. “But those safeguards such as disclosure of conflicts of interest, peer review and public access to information, are not consistently applied and are largely hidden from the public in too many cases.”
Beyond the desire to discredit facts for political gain, there is also a lucrative cottage industry that has been built around science denial. Climate change denial groups and anti-vaxxers are, in some cases, well-funded, and there are also more direct paths to monetizing skepticism, specifically when it comes to the food industry.
Vani Hari, also known as “The Food Babe,” is using the message of all-natural food as a way to build up a blogging empire. In a culture where (rightly or wrongly) GMO is a dirty word and a panic occurs when the marriage of food and chemicals is mentioned, Hari has parlayed her viewpoints into book deals, a television show, and an army of dedicated followers who want to keep science out of their food, no matter the cost.
In her book, The Food Babe Way: Break Free from the Hidden Toxins in Your Food and Lose Weight, Look Years Younger, and Get Healthy in Just 21 Days!, Hari claims that her new lifestyle healed her colitis.
“Everything I had been putting in my body was either made from something out of a chemical factory, sprayed with chemicals or genetically modified to make companies richer and me sicker,” she writes in her book.
Out of these personal changes, Hari leads a crusade against major food producers, demanding that companies like General Mills and Kellogg’s remove ingredients that she and her followers object to. And she continues to get results.
But what about the facts and the hard science? How do experts use studies and data to combat broad generalizations and eye-popping claims like the example below from Hari’s book as excerpted by The Atlantic?
“Every bite of food that passes through our lips, and every glass of water we drink, are potential sources of toxic chemicals, including pesticide residue, preservatives, artificial flavors and colorings, addicting sugars and fats, genetically modified organisms, and more. These toxins can travel to, and settle into, all the organs of your body, particularly the liver, kidneys, gastrointestinal tract, and lungs—and do great damage. Scientists are now blaming chemical-ridden food for the dramatic rise in obesity, heart disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, infertility, dementia, mental illness, and more.”
David Gorski, a cancer surgeon and one of Hari’s detractors, told NPR, “companies live and die by public perception. It’s far easier to give a blackmailer like Hari what she wants than to try to resist or to counter her propaganda by educating the public.” Instead of pointing her followers towards actual research over what is and isn’t healthy, The Food Babe has set herself up as a folk hero.
As Yale’s Steven Novella wrote on NeuroLogica Blog, “Unfortunately the web is cluttered with people who really have no idea what they are talking about giving advice as if it were authoritative, and often that advice is colored by either an ideological agenda or a commercial interest. The Food Babe is now the poster child for this phenomenon.”
She’s also proof positive that a thorough vetting system is essential as you seek to learn more about the way that the world works. According to Rosenberg, critical thinking is the first step to scientific understanding for truth seekers.
“Try to be critical about the sources of information and push back against vested or special interests spewing out misinformation on climate, or energy, or public health issues or [the] environment,” Rosenberg said. “Is the source of supposed science really coming from scientists? Is it free from a conflict of interest? Is it corroborated by other sources that might have a different perspective? How does an expert community view the science?”
Finding independent apolitical reporting is the new challenge of the erudite information consumer in the social media and internet news age, but the climate — both literally and metaphorically — makes it clear that where you get your scientific information is crucial. This isn’t just a warring of ideals; this is the very fate of the planet and the humans who inhabit it at stake.
Instead of just chasing after every conspiracy theory that grabs your attention, do the work. Read more. Read better.