Science Skepticism

It seems to me….

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’.” ~ Isaac Asimov[1].

Tribalism and anti-intellectualism seems to be triumphing over facts and reason. Moving forward will require understanding the cultural and psychological reasons why people reject scientific thinking. Science denial is basically anti-intellectualism. It’s a thread that has run though American society for decades, possibly even centuries.

The problem people have with science is never about the actual science. People have a problem with the implications of science for their worldview and, even more important, for their ideology. When anti-intellectualism rises to the surface, it’s due to new, urgent results coming out of the scientific community that challenge the perspective and status quo of people with power.

Admitting to a certain amount of skepticism about almost everything does not exclude believing generally accepted scientific “facts”: facts remain valid regardless of one’s personal beliefs. Many do not seem to understand that science is a method for producing incrementally useful approximations to reality. There never can be anything that should be construed as constituting an absolute or universal truth, certainty, or exactness. No theory can ever be declared totally correct or complete; good theories always continue to evolve and embed innovation.

Some people skeptically distrust scientific pronouncements. Many others have difficulty understanding this rejection of scientific facts. Facts are facts: end of discussion. Skeptics however, place their trust in political or religious beliefs, cultural identity, or personally intuitive inborn theories. Some people will believe the unbelievable simply because they want to, not because the arguments for it somehow out weigh those against it. Everyone wants certainty and predictability; no one is comfortable with uncertainty.

As everyone who has studied any formal logic is aware, logic is just one of the ways of knowing about the world – and it is insufficient (e.g., consider Gödel’s[2] Incompleteness Theorem). The best method of establishing the validity of a claim, especially in science, is to compare the claim with observation and then to replicate it through experimentation. This frequently even involves testing of alternate possibilities disproven by independent researchers. The scientific community never accepts any claim or result that has not been independently verified.

Universal truth, specifically in the realms of science, advances upon the shoulders of those who have preceded but to what extent is any of it actually true? Advances are only accepted somewhat generationally with the demise of those responsible for, and in which they have a personal vested interest, “inventing” the currently popular religiously accepted dogma of putative facts. But those who popularized the past still exert control over the present. It is their version of the truth that is generally accepted as the foundation upon which the next edifice is constructed. How is anything really known to be true or to having not actually been invented dependent on other supposedly proven theories of knowledge?

Just as the resistance to new ideas frequently restrict the development of knowledge, the very unquestioned existence of what is accepted as an elementa commemorare fundamentalia (fundamental fact) forms the basic foundation for future research and interpretation of experimental results. Experimental methodologies and testing could therefore conceivably be flawed by the prejudicial biases of the researcher – a fragile house of cards constructed upon a possibly flawed foundation.

An experiment might challenge a prevailing idea – and if the experiment is confirmed, the older idea is supposedly either replaced or updated. In many instances, the prevailing belief is simply modified as slightly as possible to incorporate the desirable results. Unless the framework becomes totally unusable, the familiar theory is retained to avoid revolution.

But who can actually determine truth especially in fields not lending themselves to experimental decisiveness? It is difficult to challenge a prevailing concept. Scientists can be surprisingly quick to adopt novel theories if those theories are well supported but in fields where results are not totally clear, prevailing beliefs can be extremely persistent. While some new theories replace old ones, some new ideas seemingly take their place only in what was previously unexplained or in what might be considered a vacuum devoid of theory.

There never can be a totally objective truth in science with a reality independent of scientific claims. While some theories are absolutely true, others are dependent upon initial conditions severely limiting their objectivity. E.g., duplication of medical science trials can be difficult due to individual gene expression differences.

Science is all about measuring rather than seeing as what frequently is observed is skewed by our preconceived ideas, post-conceived notions, and outright biases. Changes to scientific theories does not necessarily totally eliminate error but is the integration of new information or recognized connections into what is understood.

In some fields, such as the social sciences, simple explanations are insufficient for they are based upon rational principles or scientific understanding of human behavior. There are essentially no equations in psychology or sociology. The universe and everything in it is complex and most easier questions have already been answered.

Part of the problem is not that the people who do not believe in climate change, who choose to not vaccinate their children, or who deny evolution by natural selection are necessarily uninformed. It is that regardless of overwhelming evidence, they refuse to adjust or abandon their erroneous beliefs.

Because climate solutions appear to challenge the ideology of the right-hand side of the political spectrum, it has become one of the most polarized issues in the U.S. We’ve become so tribal that if you’re on the left, it’s like a statement of faith to say climate change is real. And if you’re on the right, it’s a basic tenet to say climate change is not real.

Climate change, of course, is also a tragedy of the commons and requires communal action. Yet the U.S. is the number-one most individualistic country in the world founded on a revolt against big government and taxes. 20 years’ worth of studies indicate that scientists systematically underestimate the rate and speed of change.

It does not help that the White House and Congress have lost their way when it comes to science. Notions unsupported by evidence are used in forming decisions about environmental policy and other areas of national interest including public health, food safety, mental health, and biomedical research. Congressional committees that craft legislation on these matters do not even have formal designated science advisers. The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology’s leader, Republican Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, clearly misunderstands the scientific process which includes assessment by independent peer reviewers prior to publication. The result has been a nakedly anti-science agenda.

Elected officials, especially the heads of Congressional science committees, should not be allowed to interfere with the scientific process, harass researchers, or deny facts that fit poorly with their political beliefs. Both the House and Senate science committees should create independent groups of impartial researchers and policy specialists to advise them on science and technology issues including those related to energy, genetically modified foods, and clean air and water.

Congress used to have a body of this kind: the widely respected Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). The OTA was an office of Congress created in 1972 serving members and committees overseen by a bipartisan board of senators and representatives. The OTA created reports on scientific issues ranging from alternative fuels to cancer and presented Congress with options it could pursue to reach different goals. A conservative controlled Congress eliminated its funding during budget reductions in 1995. Many have since advocated for the OTA’s return.

Stupidity is not a lack of knowledge, education, skill, or savvy[3]. It is not the same as ignorance, incompetence, or folly (although it often leads to foolish behavior). Stupidity is a kind of intellectual stubbornness where people have access to all the information necessary to make an appropriate judgment, to come up with a set of reasonable and justified beliefs, and yet fail to do so – they believe only what they want to believe. Not only do they not have any good reason for thinking that what they believe is true, there often are very good reasons for knowing that what they believe is false. They are not acting in a rational manner.

Facts remain facts regardless of beliefs to the contrary. Failure to accept those facts when provided proof of correctness constitutes irrational stupidity.

That’s what I think, what about you?

[1] Isaac Asimov was an American writer and professor of biochemistry at Boston University known primarily for his works of science fiction and popular science. A prolific writer, he wrote or edited more than 500 books and an estimated 90,000 letters and postcards. His books have been published in 9 of the 10 major categories of the Dewey Decimal Classification.

[2] Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gödel%27s_incompleteness_theorems.

[3] Nadler, Steven. How to Fix American Stupidity, Time, http://time.com/4937675/how-to-fix-american-stupidity/?utm_source=time.com&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=the-brief&utm_content=2017091317pm&xid=newsletter-brief, 12 September 2017.

About lewbornmann

Lewis J. Bornmann has his doctorate in Computer Science. He became a volunteer for the American Red Cross following his retirement from teaching Computer Science, Mathematics, and Information Systems, at Mesa State College in Grand Junction, CO. He previously was on the staff at the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, Stanford University, and several other universities. Dr. Bornmann has provided emergency assistance in areas devastated by hurricanes, floods, and wildfires. He has responded to emergencies on local Disaster Action Teams (DAT), assisted with Services to Armed Forces (SAF), and taught Disaster Services classes and Health & Safety classes. He and his wife, Barb, are certified operators of the American Red Cross Emergency Communications Response Vehicle (ECRV), a self-contained unit capable of providing satellite-based communications and technology-related assistance at disaster sites. He served on the governing board of a large international professional organization (ACM), was chair of a committee overseeing several hundred worldwide volunteer chapters, helped organize large international conferences, served on numerous technical committees, and presented technical papers at numerous symposiums and conferences. He has numerous Who’s Who citations for his technical and professional contributions and many years of management experience with major corporations including General Electric, Boeing, and as an independent contractor. He was a principal contributor on numerous large technology-related development projects, including having written the Systems Concepts for NASA’s largest supercomputing system at the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. With over 40 years of experience in scientific and commercial computer systems management and development, he worked on a wide variety of computer-related systems from small single embedded microprocessor based applications to some of the largest distributed heterogeneous supercomputing systems ever planned.
This entry was posted in Beliefs, Climate Change, Denial, Environment, Facts, Gödel, Incompleteness Theorem, Intellectualism, Kurt Gödel, Lamar Smith, Office of Technology Assessment, OTA, Personal, Religious, Science, Septicism and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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