Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Science Denialists:

The Hidden Danger

An amusing tongue-in-cheek article in the New Yorker, entitled "Earth Endangered by New Strain of Fact-Resistant Humans," made me smile--but also made me reflect on the darker truth behind the humor.

Most of us, especially those trained in science, find it difficult to believe that other people sometimes can't seem to understand principles that are obvious to us.  This has been a problem for hundreds of years, of course, whether the issue was the shape of the earth, the evolution of the human species, or anything else.  Most of the time, we tend to dismiss such people with a laugh and a shrug. 

The problem is that the failure of people to understand science is not just an amusing sideshow--too large or too loud a constituency of such people can influence public policy, and therefore, can have a profound influence on many aspects of our well-being.

The illustration in the New Yorker article shows an image of the earth, and the title reflects the fact that earth is endangered.  This would lead to an implication that the article is taking on climate change deniers.  That may well be the case, but as I thought about the article, I became convinced that the same strain of fact-resistant humans can affect many other areas as well, and in some cases, the implications may also be widespread and substantial.

For example, if emotional arguments against energy-producing technologies (such as nuclear power) and unrealistic expectations of other energy-related technologies (such as conservation or renewables) are allowed to rule decision-making on R&D and on new build, we are likely to face growing energy shortages in the future.  If irrational fears of advanced biological developments, like genetically modified organisms (GMOs), restrict our ability to improve the disease resistance and productivity of our crops, the world's food supply will remain vulnerable.  If too many people reject vaccines, we will be susceptible to new epidemics of diseases.

As I was thinking about this issue, I came across a related article in the New York Times.  This article reports on a study of scientists who seem to reject scientific explanations.  The article seems to suggest that my focus on the lack of analytical training of the general public might be too short-sighted.  The study found that the very same group of scientists employed questionable tactics over the decades to cast doubt on scientific findings relating to such diverse areas as acid rain, the ozone shield, tobacco smoke and climate change.  The researchers observed that some of these scientists had had major "career triumphs" during the Cold War, but later apparently came to equate environmentalism with socialism and government regulation with tyranny.

Thus, the problem may be much deeper than an uneducated public.  And, since some of these views come from people with scientific credentials, they may be even harder to counter.  Nevertheless, they are both manifestations of "fact-resistant humans."  Neither article suggests a way to overcome the invasion of this species, and alas, I don't have any easy answers either.  Perhaps the first step is for us to stop thinking that such views are harmless, and to start recognizing that they may be as dangerous as a new pathogen.



  1. Some pro nuclear power advocates do the same when promoting that radiation is good for you. And some anti-nuclear power advocates do the same when exaggerating radiation risks.

    1. We know that 0.8 rad of Co-60 gamma rays every day is good for you if you are a male Sprague-Dawley rat, among other animals (like guinea pigs), and the people who bury themselves in monazite beach sands and soak in radium-rich hot springs (breathing the radon) are voting for radiation as a therapeutic agent also.