Tuesday, May 26, 2015

End the anti-science partisan mudslinging

Yes, climate change skeptics are usually conservative. That does not mean they’re the only ones who cherry pick scientific information.

A strange idea is floating around that some faction in the American public is uniquely anti-science.

Climate change skeptics are probably the most common targets and the anti-science accusation comes strongly from the political left (AlterNet, Salon, MSNBC, etc.), but also from centrist mainstream media outlets like Scientific American, Slate, and The New York Times.

A report released in January from the Pew Research Center showed that the public’s beliefs in general tend to be way out of line with mainstream scientific thought on a number of other issues like genetically modified food safety, nuclear power, human evolution, and childhood vaccinations.

And you often see a back and forth with the right bashing the left for its “anti-science” beliefs in overestimating the danger of nuclear power and genetically modified foods. And then the left comes back at the right for promoting “anti-science” beliefs of climate skepticism and creationism.

The most widely proposed solution to the public’s disconnect with science often involves improving scientific education.

“Science literacy is an inoculation against charlatans who would exploit your ignorance of scientific law to then take your money from you or your opportunity from you,” Neil DeGrasee Tyson, a popular astrophysicist, recently said on Moyers & Company.

One year ago, Bill Nye the Science Guy told LiveScience that “If you have scientifically illiterate leaders that insist [climate change is] not an issue, it's just a formula for disaster.”

Unfortunately, this way of thinking fundamentally misunderstands how people use information. It’s long been known in psychology that people tend to uncritically accept information that confirms what they believe and downplay information that contradicts their beliefs.

People who are more scientifically literate are actually slightly less likely to think climate change is a major problem, according to a 2012 study in Nature by Yale Psychologist Dan Kahan and his collaborators. Difference of opinion on climate change also rose as scientific literacy rose.

Pre-existing cultural beliefs turned out to be far better predictors of whether participants supported climate action. This is partly because we are motivated to get along and fit in with people who share our worldview.

As Harvard Psychologist Joshua Greene put it in his 2013 book, Moral Tribes, “false beliefs once they’ve become culturally entrenched--once they’ve become tribal badges of honor--are very difficult to change, and changing them is no longer simply a matter of educating people.” 

As far as the science tells us, there aren’t any differences between liberals and conservatives on this behavior.

Kahan did another study showing that liberals and conservatives are equally likely to interpret scientific information to support their ideology. Participants were more likely to recognize a scientist as an expert when the scientist’s stance on controversial issues like climate change, gun control, and nuclear energy affirmed the participants’ beliefs.

None of this means that the public doesn’t pay attention to experts or that opinion on critical issues is hopelessly deadlocked.

The whole anti-science label that gets thrown around is terribly misleading. People are more than willing to trust scientists.

Nearly everyone accepts Newton’s three laws of motion. No one denies that calcium and vitamin D build strong bones. No one doubts the scientific method as the best way we have to generate knowledge. Plenty of creationists, climate skeptics, and anti-vaxxers trust scientists on a whole host of issues, but there are just a few specific topics where they disagree.

As entrenched as they are, these beliefs can change. After years of growing climate skepticism, Gallup polls have shown that from 2010 to 2014, there was a modest increase in the percentage of Americans who say climate change is a result of human activity, even among Republicans.

There is hope for resolving public misunderstandings of science, but while more scientific literacy would be great, it will not end these debates.

Jon Overton is the coeditor of Iowa Peace Network. He will be enrolling in the Sociology PhD program at Kent State University this fall.

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