A Public Distrust of Science

The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.”

–Isaac Asimov

If you read my last post, you would have seen me leave off with a link to a proposed March for Science in Washington DC. In the two weeks since, this march has caught wind and turned into a movement, with a planned date of Saturday, April 22nd, otherwise known as Earth Day. The first Earth Day in 1970 was a celebration tied with the government’s changing policies on the Environment and acknowledgement of science.

The opposite is true for this march. Many are concerned about the direction the country is moving in terms of Environmental policy, especially with a climate change denier appointed as head of the EPA and other actions outlined in my previous post. However, this march has much deeper roots than just the environment, as scientists see the current administration as an outright threat to scientific discovery and understanding.

An article posted by the Scientific American just over a month before the election graded the presidential candidates on how they utilized scientific discoveries in their policies. On each of the 20 questions, Donald Trump received the lowest score of the four candidates, showing a complete lack of knowledge surrounding science. Overall, his scores added to a whopping 7 out of 95 possible points (each question rated out of 5, with grades not given for the question about immigration), compared to Clinton’s 64.

One section of this article, discussing policy about Scientific Integrity, notes: “Evidence from science is the surest basis for fair and just public policy.” However, an increasing number of Americans do not trust science as a basis for public policy, or for just about anything.  Concerns about growing distrust in science have led to fear in the scientific community.

A commencement speech delivered at Cal Tech and latter printed in The New Yorker highlights the benefits scientific inquiry have had on our society (spoiler alert: there are a lot of them), alongside how individuals are still inclined to mistrust science. It lists examples where this is true, ranging from vaccines causing autism to the reality of climate change. Then, it goes to say that trust is continuing to decrease, as “In 1974, conservatives with college degrees had the highest level of trust in science and the scientific community. Today, they have the lowest.”

This distrust isn’t just along party lines. In fact, certain gaps between Democrats and the scientific community on supporting using animals in research, use of nuclear power, and benefits of GMOs are larger than their Republican counterparts. And again, evidence shows that this distrust in science is growing:

So where does this distrust come from? One study attempted to discover just that, and results showed again that it wasn’t only a divide between the right and the left. The study outlined more specific reasons why individuals fail to trust science, and the results showed biblical literalism and a distrust in the government itself as key factors. Therefore, this issue stems more from culture than from political leaning.

Living in a country that does not trust science is a huge threat to the climate, as denying climate change will not make it any less real. Despite significant evidence that climate change exists and is caused by humans, a climate change denier was elected as President, and his policies will have an effect lasting for generations. Ignoring other scientific proof will cause an abundance of challenges, and many issues could be resolved using science.

There is some hope in ending this distrust. A study that presented participants with the simple fact that, “97% of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change is happening,” resulted in participants acknowledging to a greater extent the consensus among scientists. Additionally, this statement even changed actual beliefs on the existence of climate change and the influence of humans.

Until society begins to trust in science, it’s unlikely that significant and necessary movements to reduce climate change will be made. Hopefully the March for Science can bring some recognition to the important role science should play in public policy. A parallel movement called “314 Action” is directly focusing on getting scientists to run for office so government can actually include experts on scientific matters. A future where all matters of science, and especially climate change, shape the government of our country, might be around the corner.

Scientists Are Planning the Next Big Washington March
The March for Science is Set to Happen on Earth Day
Trump Picks Scott Pruitt, Climate Change Denialist, to Lead E.P.A.
Grading the Presidential Candidates on Science
The Mistrust of Science
Americans’ increasing distrust of science — and not just on climate change
This is where distrust of science really comes from — and it’s not just your politics
How to Combat Distrust of Science
Professor Smith Goes to Washington

2 Thoughts.

  1. Your post is very well written and informed–I enjoyed reading it and completely agree with the points you make.

    Because you began your post with an Isaac Asimov quote, I’ll begin mine with one as well:

    “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”

    The distrust of science that you mention is prevalent in modern society and is incredibly dangerous. But I think that this skepticism stems from a larger American problem–anti-intellectualism.

    Americans, in my opinion, don’t value education/specialization or those who pursue it as much as they should. Think about the culture of our schools. The most popular children are athletic, don’t seem to care, or act rebellious. Learning, becoming educated, is left to an ostracized group known as the ‘nerds’, and few are content to be part of this group. Nerds are seen unconfident outsiders, and are avoided at all costs.

    This carries over into the adult world, and is supported, as Asimov writes, by a skewed definition of equality. And as this article from American Council on Science and Health notes, (http://acsh.org/news/2016/06/26/anti-intellectualism-is-biggest-threat-to-modern-society) a distrust of experts in every field has been emboldened by the ubiquity of modern information via smartphones and other convenient computers. People trust the internet’s information, and therefore believe they don’t need experts. The two features combine to produce a “you’re not better than me” attitude combined with an “I read it on buzzfeed…” defense strategy.

    These facets of American culture certainly contribute to the distrust you mention with regard to climate science. But I think another large part of this type of ignorance is based on fear and insecurity.

    With climate change a real and dangerous threat, I think many Americans simply choose to deny its existence so that they don’t need to worry about it. If you don’t believe the problem exists, there’s no need to be anxious about finding a solution or suffering the possible consequences. At the same time, I believe many Americans feel shatteringly insecure among Scientists and other highly educated professionals, and resent them for their achievement. In retaliation, they reject their work and findings even when they are undeniably true.

    Anti-intellectualism and serial denial are enormous American problems that are absolutely halting scientific progress. As you mentioned, the only ways to solve this problem are the repetition of facts and a possible change in elected officials.

    Here’s another article I found about the anti-intellectualism of the Trump campaign: http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2016/10/the-oddly-snobbish-anti-intellectualism-of-donald-trump.html

    • Thanks so much for this comment! I do agree that there is a lot of intellectualism in the US, which definitely helped Donald Trump win the presidency. Often intellectuals, and especially scientists, can seem aloof and hard to relate to, killing their chances of being elected into office. I’ll have to check out those links soon!

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