Don’t Deny It
I’m on my way to another conference in Australia and the flight is a good opportunity to catch up on some of the reading and viewing I have accumulated on my iPad. It also provides a good chance to blog about what I have learned. So what is it this time? I just watched a TED talk by Michael Specter about science denialism. Yes, I know, another one of my favorite topics and one almost guaranteed to result in a rant against ignorance. So here it is…
The presenter’s point was that science denialism is currently at an unprecedented level. He claimed it was at its greatest since the Enlightenment, in other words since science existed in its modern form. I’m not sure if this is true or by what mechanism it could be measured but there is certainly ample anecdotal evidence that there is some veracity in the idea.
What areas of science are under attack the most and by whom? Well that’s the interesting thing because the areas are wide ranging and the attackers also represent people with many different world views. It might be tempting to say that most of the assault comes from the right, after all they have traditionally been anti-science because of their political and religious ideas. But I think that is too simple because the left is almost as bad.
Their misplaced opposition is based on ideas such as what they call natural solutions being superior to artificial or technological ones. For example the claim that genetically engineered food crops should be replaced with natural ones is quite common. What they might not realise is that almost every “natural” crop is in fact already engineered. The original wild varieties would be unrecognisable to them. And there’s also the fact that engineered crops provide much greater yield and better nutrition in most cases. Sure we could go back to wild forms but we would need to reduce the population of the world to about a tenth of what it is now first. That’s not a bad idea in itself but I don’t see a lot of call for population reduction from any area of society.
And what about opposition to vaccines? This is surely one of the most dangerous and stupid ideas existing in modern society. When people deny the efficacy of vaccines – or worse, suggest they are the cause of conditions like autism – they put not only themselves and their children in danger but also the community they live in as a whole. The alleged link between vaccines and autism has been well studied and completely rejected by real research. The link between vaccination and the elimination of disease is accepted by all reasonable people. As I said, the deniers are both stupid and dangerous and that’s not a good combination!
So let’s move on to natural remedies. This isn’t quite as bad because using natural remedies is a personal choice and only marginally affects other people. If someone wants to take something that doesn’t work then they have only themselves to blame when things go bad. Plus there is the fact that a tiny proportion of these remedies might have some positive effect. On the other hand the ones which are effective are also likely to have side effects so even then taking them is a risk.
Many natural substances have been incorporated into modern medicine (aspirin which was originally sourced from willow bark would be a well known example) but the modern forms are produced in safe conditions (as a rule) and in well controlled doses so they are far safer than taking a natural form of the same thing.
But there is also the objection that scientific medicines are usually produced by large corporations which many people distrust. I agree that a certain level of distrust is good but there are two things which need to be considered here. First, drugs produced by big industry tend to be very regulated and checked for quality, so even if there was some conspirational plan by big business it would probably not succeed. And second, big corporations have taken over a lot of the production of natural remedies as well. They love them because they can make a lot of profit for very little effort and with much less oversight than they are burdened with when producing “real” medicines.
Finally let’s look at denial at a more philosophical level – of things which don’t effect people quite as directly. Evolution and global warming denial would fit into this category. Again the denialism is based on minimal real evidence. There are always small factors which can be twisted to work against any theory, and there is also a level of doubt associated with any theory. Science is all about doubt. If there was no doubt and skepticism of all scientific ideas then science wouldn’t really be working. On the other hand there are theories which are so widely accepted that the doubt is practically non-existent. Global warming isn’t quite there yet: the evidence is very strong but there is still a small place for doubt. But the evidence for evolution is so overwhelming that you would need to be very dishonest or very ignorant to deny it.
But that’s where a common trick utilised by denialists often becomes apparent. That trick is maintaining the denial but just changing the reason. It’s actually almost a valid process, at least compared to a lot of the others which exist in the denial community, but the big problem gets back to the rationale behind the reasoning.
The best example might be in global warming denial. Originally these people denied warming was happening at all (some still do) but as the evidence became so strong that even they couldn’t ignore it they changed their strategy. Instead of denying that warming was happening at all they switched to denying that it was caused by humans. Many still believe this even though the evidence linking the rate of warming with human activity is very good. But those who have accepted even this still have another strategy to maintain their denial. That is to reject the idea that anything can be done about it. So first global warming didn’t exist, then it did exist but wasn’t caused by humans, then it was caused by humans but we can’t stop it.
A similar pattern exists for vaccine denial. First it was the mercury based preservative which they claimed was harmful but when that was removed their attention switched to the vaccine itself. So what will be next?
And with evolution again we often see the same pattern. First God created all life in its current form, then when it became obvious that was untrue the theory shifted to the idea that he created life but then used evolution to develop it, then when that idea looked doubtful the theory was changed again to God lets evolution happen naturally but occasionally interferes to fine tune the outcome.
It’s not unreasonable to fine tune a theory when new facts become available but the option of completely abandoning it must also be considered. Science has done this many times. One of the best examples is the replacement of the Steady State theory with the Big Bang. That change just made more sense and was almost universally accepted.
But deniers don’t do that. Why not? It’s simple really: they have decided on what they want the outcome to be based on emotional, political, or religious ideas and they just rearrange the “facts” (which are rarely actually real facts) to suit that outcome. That is an almost guaranteed way to become delusional, dogmatic, and detached from reality. And that’s where most deniers are today.
Using delusion to feed science denial is dangerous and stupid. It needs to stop before the consequences become even more serious than they already are. Genetic modification is an essential scientific and commercial tool, natural remedies almost always don’t work, global warming is real and we need to act, and evolution is a fact. Don’t deny it.