For as long as scientific thought has existed there has been resistance from certain groups, mainly religious institutions. Geo-centrism, the ancient belief that the sun revolves around the earth has been challenged at least as far back as the 4th century BC by a Greek Pythagorean philosopher named Philolaus. The first geometrical heliocentric model of the universe that wasn’t solely based on philosophical speculation did not come until the 16th century AD with the work of of Nicolaus Copernicus. This has since been referred to as the Copernican Revolution. This model was further expanded by Johannes Kepler, and Issac Newton and supported by observations made by Galileo Galilei using an early version of the telescope in the 17th century. Later on still, this heliocentric view came into question as it became obvious that the sun was just one of many stars that made up our galaxy, and that there were also many galaxies . This idea was not confirmed until the 1920’s with the invention of the Hubble telescope. This is the way science traditionally progresses, by expanding on, and adding to previous work, but many of these scientists named have been heavily scrutinized in their time, mainly by the catholic church. Galileo, for instance, was found guilty of heresy by the Roman Inquisition. Even to this day there are some fringe elements in our society, such as the Flat Earth Society, who not only believe that the earth is the center of the universe, but as their name implies, that it is flat, something that can be proven false by simply boarding an airplane and flying in one direction until you get back where you started.
Today, even most Christians would agree that the earth is not the center of the universe, but one idea that still sees a lot of resistance, based on fundamental religious views or a literal interpretation of the bible, is Charles Darwin‘s theory of natural selection. Despite it’s overwhelming acceptance in scientific communities, many see it as completely opposing creationism. Personally, having witnessed evolution in a lab, I cannot deny it, but I do not believe that it necessarily contradicts the idea of creationism… but that discussion will come in a future blog.
Two other well established fields in science that the general public have trouble accepting are climate science and vaccinations. The blame for this resistance, as is the case with most of science, is usually placed on poor science education or on peoples emotions, as pointed out in this Scientific American article. In some cases, people might downplay warnings about climate change or pandemics in order to deal with their fears, and in other cases, they might even have paranoia of perceived conspiracies among the scientific “elites”. Much of the paranoia is often the result of misinformation, like the supposed “climategate” scandal, where quotes from stolen e-mails between climate scientists were taken out of context. A second batch of leaked e-mails was just released on November 23rd, which climate scientists were quick to respond to. There has also been fraudulent studies linking vaccinations to autism.
Science is also resisted by those who are not necessarily religious, but see nature as something sacred that should not be tampered with. These people tend to be opposed to things like genetically modified organisms (GMO’s), cloning, stem cell research, geo-engineering, or pharmaceutical drugs. All of these sciences have potential benefits and risks which need to be addressed and resistance to some of these might be valid, something I will also have more to say about in the future.
The idea of personalizing peoples medical treatments based on their genes is another controversial issue. Although this can have tremendous benefits by using the best possible treatment for any given individual, it is almost seen as a taboo to some as it would result in different treatments for people of different races. It has been shown that certain drugs can have greater benefits for some racial groups than others, so personalized treatments would actually help minorities who may already be disproportionately affected by certain diseases. This idea is explored in a chapter of a great book Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens our Lives by Michael Specter.
There are also cases where the war on science overlaps with the war on terror, like the assassinations of three Iranian nuclear scientists. A recent report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) saying that Iran is actively pursuing nuclear weapons, has been shown to be not based on science, but on political positioning, as the IAEA is becoming more associated with the US government. This has been laid out in a recent Nature News blog. Then there is the case of a Muslim French-Algerian physicist, Dr. Adlène Hicheur, who has been held in custody since 2009 without trial. He is suspected of being a terrorist based on little or no evidence. I believe that it is important for scientists to stand up for the human rights of their colleagues.
A place where the war on science is most visible today is at the GOP debates in the US. This is not to say that Democrats are not guilty of misleading people as well. In fact it seems, as this article from Scientific American concludes, that conservatives are more likely to be over skeptical, while liberals tend to be more alarmist when it comes to science, especially with climate science. A Rolling Stone interview with author of the book Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America, Shawn Lawrence Otto also speaks of the different ways the two political ideologies view science. Having said that, the vast majority of the anti-science rhetoric comes from the GOP. Why is this? Bestselling author of The Republican War on Science, Chris Mooney, has an upcoming book, The Republican Brain, where he explores this idea further. Can this be explained by psychology, or is it deeper than that. Is it ignorance of the facts or blatant deceitfulness. I believe that it is for the same reason that religious fundamentalists resist science, to maintain the status quo. The advancement of science can cause one to question their long held beliefs or profitable practices.
Washington Post opinion writer, Katrina vanden Heuvel gives some good examples of Republican misinformation, and goes on to put some of the blame on the media for it’s obsession with balance. I agree. Why should non-scientific views be given as much attention as as scientific ones? Shouldn’t the media be more focused on the truth rather than giving equal coverage to each side of the debate?
Another problem facing science today is the whole funding system. Scientists are forced to spend more and more of their time trying to get funds, so they do not have as much time to actually do research. In tough economic times, state funding is more likely to be cut than increased, something that has more negative effects on the economy in the long run. This forces scientists to fight over an increasingly limited amount of money. Corporations who fund research also have a large say in what types of research is conducted. Obviously, this is most often research that will help with business rather than the greater good of the world or community.
All of this is not to say that science is an unquestionable authority that should never be seen in a skeptical light. On the contrary, skepticism is essential for the progress of science, as it is reliant on revising previous work. Disagreement is common among scientists, which is often seen as a weakness but in fact, it is one of science’s greatest strengths, as it allows for debate and the sharing of ideas. One of the reasons people don’t trust science is that it always seems to be changing it’s mind. One day you might hear of a study saying that a certain food is bad for you, and the next day you might hear that it is good for you. In a case like this, it might be wise to only consume said food in moderation. We can’t assume that there is a scientific consensus based on one study. The mainstream media loves to use fantastical headlines and news stories to attract readers or viewers. It is important to be critical of all news stories, especially on the internet, which is full of misinformation. However, good information can be found on the internet if you know how to spot it. In general, scientific journals are the best source. The words “Peer reviewed” are key, as they imply a certain amount of consensus. On a website, it helps to look for advertisements. If they are trying to sell you something, their information might not be the most trustworthy. It’s also good to check for references or citations to make sure they are getting their information from a reliable source. Common sense and rational thinking also go a long way. For instance, does it make more sense that there is a conspiracy among the majority of climate scientists trying to destroy the fossil fuel industry, or that the energy sector, made up of some of the largest companies in the world, is campaigning to smear these scientists to keep their business’ thriving? It helps to think about things.
There is a huge difference between looking at science critically, and completely denying the facts. If there is an overwhelming consensus among scientists, as there is with climate change and vaccinations, it might be a good idea to trust the experts rather than going with your gut instinct. Politicians who ignore science to promote their political agenda are disgusting and they are harming the planet and everyone on it! The media who let the politicians get away with it should be ashamed!