On Monday, I spoke to the Greenwood Rotary. Unlike my usual topics, I’d been asked to expand on the theme of a recent IBJ column I’d written, on the costs of rejecting science. In today’s post, I’m sharing the talk (apologies for the length). Tomorrow, I’ll share reactions. (Hint: Earth is doomed.)
Recently, I devoted my IBJ column to the assault on science, and the costs—both financial and social—of ignoring what science tells us. Most people who deny or reject science are people who feel threatened when empirical evidence conflicts with their particular prejudices or worldviews. Rather than modify their worldview, they reject the evidence.
What has been called the War on Science is one of the few bipartisan assaults of an unbelievably partisan age—it is being waged by people who have very little else in common, either politically or philosophically. There are business interests, like tobacco companies and Big Oil, who see a particular scientific consensus as a threat to their bottom line; there are “back to nature” liberal activists who are suspicious of GMO foods; there are some religious folks—certainly not all—who see science as incompatible with belief in their particular version of God; and there are conspiracy theorists who are sure that vaccinating their children is part of some nefarious government plot with which medical scientists are colluding…presumably to enrich pharmaceutical companies.
Let me be clear: These sorts of assaults on the scientific enterprise itself are very different from ongoing debates within the scientific community about methodology, or arguments about the conclusions that can legitimately be drawn from any particular data. Those latter debates both advance our understanding of the world we inhabit, and remind us that all human knowledge is tentative—in scientific jargon, falsifiable.
Falsifiability is what distinguishes science from other kinds of inquiry—it’s what makes science, science. Falsifiability means that a hypothesis can be tested by empirical experiment. Just because something is “falsifiable” does not mean it is false; it means that if it is false, then testing, observation or experiment will at some point demonstrate that it is false. All kinds of things can be true without being falsifiable. A woman or a sunset may be beautiful, people may be happy or sad or in love and those statements can absolutely be true. They just aren’t science, because they cannot be empirically proved nor disproved. Similarly, God cannot be dragged into a laboratory and His existence tested. You either believe or you don’t. That’s why religious belief is called faith.
Thorny policy problems arise when we fail to distinguish between science and faith, or science and ideology. Let me just give a few examples:
- Recently, Bill Nye—the “Science Guy”—debated Ken Ham, a prominent creationist, at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. Ham used Genesis and the bible as his sole “evidence” for his rejection of evolution and his belief that the universe is only seven thousand years old. Nye explained that scientific propositions must be “testable” and falsifiable–that reliance on the literal accuracy of scripture is simply not science. That’s the reason that the courts have unanimously ruled that creationism cannot legally be taught in public school science classes. It can be taught in classes on comparative religion, or philosophy, or classes on the history of science, but it can’t be taught as science. As a practical matter, when school boards insert “creation science” in science curricula, they end up spending lots of tax dollars defending and losing the inevitable lawsuit.
- Religious beliefs aren’t the only motivation for ignoring science—not even close. In my IBJ column, I referenced the debate over the medical and recreational use of marijuana as another example of the way ideology distorts rational policymaking and ignores relevant scientific evidence. Drug warriors insist that marijuana is a “gateway” drug and the cause of multiple health problems, but these are just a different kind of “faith-based” beliefs. Science tells us that dangerous or fatal outcomes from marijuana use are virtually nonexistent. As one scientist wrote: “Two recent reviews examine results from approximately one hundred randomized placebo-controlled trials involving over 6,100 patients with a variety of medical conditions. The results show that marijuana is useful in treating anorexia, nausea and vomiting, glaucoma, irritable bowed disease, muscle spasticity, multiple sclerosis, symptoms of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and Tourette’s syndrome. It is also useful in providing modest relief of pain. In this latter regard, it seems to reduce chronic pain by about 30 percent, a benefit achieved with fewer serious side effects than encountered with commonly used opiates (codeine, morphine, etc). Thus there is ample evidence to support the legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes.”
Estimates put the annual cost of the Drug War at something north of sixty billion dollars a year, much of which is spent on marijuana prohibition. Drug warriors continue to reject the science that distinguishes between marijuana—which is less harmful than tobacco or alcohol—and more dangerous drugs.
- Drug warriors tend to come from the political Right. From the political left, there is the growing movement against GMOs–Genetically Modified foods. This is an issue that drives my cousin, a cardiologist and scientist, up the wall. He has written extensively on the subject, pointing out–among other things–that foods made with GMO crops have been consumed by hundreds of millions of people around the world for more than 15 years with no discernible ill effects; that virtually all processed foods sold in the U.S. contain GMO ingredients; that genetic engineering simply “speeds up” the conventional cross-breeding and hybridization that we humans have done for thousands of years. He also points out that genetic manipulation allows us to produce plants more resistant to insects and disease–which in turn allows us to reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides that really are harmful. He also points to the promise of better nutrition for people in third-world countries. The scientific community is solidly in my cousin’s corner on the issue, but that hasn’t slowed down the opposition.
- Policies built on bad science or rejection of science are often costly, and often create problems, but the consequences of most bad policy decisions pale in comparison to the costs of climate change denial. There are multiple motives driving denialism, and we can talk more about climate change during Q and A, but I just want to make two points: first, there is no real scientific controversy. Something like 99% of the scientific community agrees that climate change is real, that it is occurring, and that human activity is contributing to it. There may be quibbles about the extent to which climate change is anthropogenic—the extent to which our human activities are causing and/or accelerating it—but on the basic premise, scientists are all on the same page. Second, let’s look at the logic. If all of these scientists are right, we clearly have to address the problem, and do so aggressively. But even if they are all wrong, and we attack carbon emissions, provide incentives for clean energy, promote conservation and take similar steps, the worst case scenario is that we will have cleaned up our air, reduced our reliance on foreign oil, and conserved resources that everyone understands are finite. Given the stakes, this seems a no-brainer to me.
There are obviously plenty of other examples, but the real question is: What is driving the rejection of science and empirical evidence?
Some is intentional. There was a fascinating article in the LA Times last month titled “The cultural production of ignorance.” It talked about the tobacco industry’s effort to erode public acceptance of the science that showed a link between smoking and various diseases. The chosen tactic wasn’t to “debunk” the science; it was to create doubt by insisting that there was a “controversy” and both sides needed to be heard. That’s same tactic has subsequently been employed by the anti-vaccine folks, the anti-evolution folks and the climate-change deniers. As the article noted, once misinformation—or disinformation—takes root, it becomes very difficult to dislodge. There’s also a growing body of research showing that people who are invested in a particular belief often react to information contrary to the belief by clinging to it more strongly than before, which is a pretty depressing finding.
So, how did we get here? Americans used to have a love affair with science—what happened?
Media bears considerable responsibility. Ironically, in the “information society” we inhabit, it has become easier to propagate ignorance. As issues become more complicated, they also become easier to confuse. And in the place of accuracy–what used to be called “the journalism of verification”–today’s media has substituted “balance.” Rather than objectivity, we get “both” sides of issues that may actually have six “sides” or only one. In place of real reporting, we get stenography–”he said, she said.” As I tell my students, America has a bipolar culture—we frame issues as right or wrong, good or evil. Increasingly, things aren’t so clear-cut. And the fact that so many policies are complicated makes it easier to manufacture controversies and complexities and to muddy the waters.
The biggest culprit may be something I call our civic deficit. Americans as a whole are shockingly ignorant of basic constitutional, economic and scientific principles and definitions.
Let me share an anecdote that illustrates why I am concerned.
When I teach Law and Public Affairs, I begin with the way our particular legal framework limits our policy options, and how “original intent” should be understood to guide our application of Constitutional principles to current conflicts. I usually ask students something like “What do you suppose James Madison thought about porn on the Internet?” Usually, they’ll laugh and then we discuss how Madison’s beliefs about freedom of expression should guide courts faced with contemporary efforts to censor the Internet. But a couple of years ago, when I asked a young woman—a junior in college—that question, she looked at me blankly and asked “Who’s James Madison?”
Let me share with you just a tiny fraction of the available research. Only 36 percent of Americans can correctly name the three branches of government. Fewer than half of 12th grade students can describe the meaning of federalism. Only 35% of teenagers can correctly identify “We the People” as the first three words of the Constitution. Anecdotal surveys such as these, as well as the few formal studies that have been completed on civics, point to what has been called a “civics recession”. The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) 2006 report on civics competencies indicated that barely a quarter of the nation’s 4th, 8th and 12th graders are proficient in civics, with only five percent of seniors able to identify and explain checks on presidential power. Only 43% of high school seniors could name the two major political parties; only 11% knew the length of a Senator’s term; and only 23% could name the first President of the United States. I could go on and on. Other research has shown equally depressing results for basic economic and scientific knowledge. One scholar reacted to the 2010 NAEP results by worrying that the amount of civic knowledge in this country may be “too low to sustain democratic governance.”
A little over a year ago, I secured a grant and established the Center for Civic Literacy at IUPUI. My colleagues and I represent different disciplines—law, business, social work, science, religious studies, political science, bioethics and education—because we are painfully aware that all of our disciplines are adversely affected by low civic literacy. Although deficits in civic literacy are widely understood to be corrosive to democratic institutions, scholars have increasingly recognized that such deficits have damaging consequences for fields as diverse as business, science, religion, and public education, as well as for the personal empowerment and agency of individuals.
The Center has a website, an online clearinghouse for research, and in July, we will publish the first issue of a peer-reviewed journal, focused on the causes and consequences of our civic deficit. We are also conducting original research on a large number of questions: we want to identify programs and curricula that have demonstrated effectiveness in producing civically-literate students; we want to know why previous efforts at reform have lacked staying power. We want to investigate the theorized consequences of civic ignorance. And we want to develop a set of recommendations for basic civic education that can be both implemented and sustained.
Here’s the thing: At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if I think the Establishment Clause requires a certain result and you think it requires a different one. What matters is that we both know what the Establishment Clause is, and what value it was meant to protect.
It doesn’t matter whether I think Freedom of the Press extends to bloggers and you disagree. It matters a lot that we both know what Freedom of the Press means, and why it was considered essential to the maintenance of trustworthy government.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican and I’m a Democrat, but it matters a lot that we both know what Nazis and Socialists are, and why the President can’t be both at the same time.
It doesn’t matter if I think the scientific evidence for the safety of GMOs is persuasive and you don’t, but it matters a lot that we both understand what science is and isn’t, and the difference between a scientific theory and our casual use of the term “theory” to mean “best guess.”
Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said we are all entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts. If I think this is a table and you think it’s a chair, we aren’t going to have a very productive discussion about its use. We don’t need citizens who all agree about the implications of our founding decisions, or who even agree with the decisions themselves. But we desperately need citizens who share an understanding of what those decisions were. We don’t need citizens who agree about economic policies, but we desperately need citizens who understand basic economic principles.
And we desperately need citizens who understand what science is and isn’t.