[For part 1 in this series, click here.]
What’s behind the anti-science position? I’m in no position to answer that question, since I haven’t done detailed research myself. Classic studies, such as Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, may not capture the current reality at all. I’m not aware of current research into this specific question, so I certainly welcome anything pointers from you, the reader. I can give a few personal examples.
I’ve known several people who believe sincerely that they are challenging previously unchallenged “truths.” For example, in my past career, when I was teaching a seminar, a few students expressed their outrage over the whole enterprise of social science. How, they asked, could someone present the theories of political science (the topic of the course) as Truth with a capital T? Can’t you always find facts to support your position? Isn't science, therefore, a fraud?
Happily, I told them that they had happened on the actual principles of science in general, including social science. Unfortunately, they took a rather tortured, thorny path to get there. Trained scientists would tell you that the scientific method demands a pursuit of facts disputing your theory, rather than supporting it. Additionally, no scientist worthy of the title would ever claim that theory amounts to immutable truth. Instead, theories are the best explanation we have currently—the most elegant theory that, so far, has survived the challenges to it.
Tomorrow, when a new set of challenges emerge, who knows what will happen? When astronomers couldn't explain the position of Mercury, as observed in the sky, modern physics collapsed. OK, that's a bit of an overstatement. There were more empirical challenges to Newtonian physics than just one observation, and Newtonian mechanics have not been completely replaced for many applications. But you get the idea.
Honestly, I’ve known professional scientists who don’t really understand the scientific method fully. (In one case, I heard a political scientist say that you look for facts that support your theory—again, exactly the opposite of how science really works.) They’re bad scientists, just as there are bad judges, bad doctors, bad politicians, bad mutual fund managers, and other people who are inept at their profession, or unfaithful to its ethos.
I’ve also known people who reject science because they can’t accept the results. Unfortunately, science always produces answers that we don’t expect or prefer. Take, for example, this list of ten myths about divorce. The current state of the research, as cited in this list, challenges nearly everyone’s cherished beliefs. Living together doesn’t seem to improve the chances of staying married. Children are not automatically better off with a stepparent than just a single parent. If you feel uncomfortable with this list, you should look into the research behind it, and challenge it where it appears weak. What you should not do is challenge these conclusions because you don’t like them.
Sadly, people have been shooting the messenger—in this case, scientists—for as long as humans have been receiving unhappy news. However, what’s different about today’s anti-science faction is their claim that a vice, willful ignorance, is actually a virtue. What is more important, they argue, is the world that should be, not the world that is. Therefore, we have a generation of people who reject evolution, but are willing to accept the medical benefits that come from every branch of biology (including immunology, which doesn't make sense if you ignore the rapid evolution of microorganisms). We also have a generation of leaders that include people who believe that they can will the international system into a different shape, or a different set of operating principles. As I said in the first post in this series, these attitudes leak into politics, affecting both the leaders and the led.
Lastly, I’ve known people who reject science for the basest of reasons: they just don’t get it. Science is an elite democracy, in which everyone has the right to challenge the current state of knowledge, but they have to do it with a level of skill that not everyone possesses. Not everyone is entitled to their opinion, if it’s unsupported by the facts or logic. In fact, opinion has no role in science; principled argument, standing on firm empirical foundations, is the only thing that matters. You can neither break the rules of argument, nor can you pretend that the facts don’t matter.
Sadly, some people have base motives for ignoring these strictures. They may be demagogues, eager to whip up a crowd. They may be resentful that someone else is smarter or more knowledgeable than they are. (To be fair, I’ve known plenty of Ph.Ds who are brilliant in their field, but moronic about everything else in their lives.) They may be terrified of living in a world where cherished beliefs, such as the shape of the world, or the laws of physics, can change overnight.
It’s difficult to argue with them, which makes it a good reason not to include them in public forums for the debate of scientific conclusions and their practical consequences. Diehard anti-scientists do not have a valid opinion that deserves to be aired. There’s very little the rest of us have to say to them, and vice-versa, so the chance of an on-air “conversion” is practically nil. However, people who have credible challenges to current science should always be welcome.
This conclusion—there’s little point debating the anti-science crowd—may be unnerving for the determined optimists out there. On the other hand, I’m not saying that we should give up on a significant fraction of the American public. Just as Christians always hold out the prospect of salvation to sinners, the pro-science majority must always be ready to talk to the anti-science minority. For example, it’s important to have the refutations of creationism handy for when someone is willing to listen.
However, until that moment of real discussion arrives, there’s no point in granting representatives of the anti-science minority a prominent (or any) part in public debate over scientific theory and its applications. They can only wreck the discussion, not invigorate or ennoble it. As I said in the first post in this series, they are on the other side of the deepest, widest chasm in the United States today. Granting them air time only widens the chasm, with dire consequences for for public policy, including national security. (Which, as you might guess, is the topic of the next post.)