Day 14: Why do so many people distrust scientists?

From anti-vaxxers to climate change deniers to Covid-19 scoffers, fact-resistant humans are everywhere and they are wreaking havoc on society. When did people become so distrustful of scientists and professionals? When did humans start opting for non-professional propaganda that panders to their opinions and long-held beliefs? At times, these people are just a nuisance, like the flat-Earthers. Everyone’s free to believe what they want, right? But in the middle of a pandemic, denying science is a serious issue. What is causing this and how do we address it?

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It’s not hard to notice the parallels between science resisters and their political affiliation. According to a 2019 Pew Research Survey “More Democrats (43%) than Republicans (27%) have “a great deal” of confidence in scientists” and “Most Democrats (73%) believe scientists should take an active role in scientific policy debates.” It’s especially evident when discussing climate change, a topic consistently denied or minimized by most Republicans. This doesn’t surprise me at all considering the GOP gets a great deal of funding from the oil industry. Demonizing fossil fuels is, after all, bad for business, but it’s not just politics that encourage people to distrust science. A set of studies conducted by the writers at Aeon concluded that in addition to political ideology, there are three other major predictors of a person’s acceptance or resistance to science including religious affiliation, morality, and their knowledge about science. The site goes into detail about these differences and the spectrum of science denial in relation to each.

“People can be skeptical or distrusting of science for different reasons, whether it is about one specific finding from one discipline (for example, ‘The climate is not warming, but I believe in evolution’), or about science in general (‘Science is just one of many opinions’).”

Studies like these make it apparent that science denial is more complicated than a person’s faith or how they vote though both can have a serious impact on their perception of scientific studies. Aside from what causes this phenomenon of anti-education, we must ask the question of when to intervene. At what point does a person’s denial of facts become a threat to the larger society?

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In TIME’s article “Science isn’t always perfect but we should still trust it” they discuss the value of the scientific method and the lengthy process in which scientists come to agree upon a hypothesis. The importance of trusting the experts is not lost on a person going to a professional to say fix their car or get dental work, but when it comes to politically hot topics like climate change, suddenly the expert’s opinion is undervalued.

“Modern society relies on trust in experts, be they dentists, plumbers, car mechanics, or professors. If trust were to come to a halt, society would come to a halt, too. Like all people, scientists make mistakes, but they have knowledge and skills that make them useful to the rest of us. They can do things that we can’t. And just as we wouldn’t go to a plumber to fix our teeth or a dentist to fix our car, we shouldn’t go to actresses or politicians, much less industries with a vested interest or ideologically-driven think-tanks, for answers to scientific questions. If we need scientific information, we should go to the scientists who have dedicated their lives to learning about the matters at stake. On scientific matters, we should trust science.”

Leapsmag makes some suggestions for when we encounter people spreading false information. It is important to counter their arguments with the facts, not so much with the intention of changing their mind, but to prevent the spread of misinformation to others, noting “…science deniers whose arguments go unchallenged can harm other people’s attitudes toward science. Many people read discussions without actively engaging themselves, and some may not recognize erroneous information when they see it. Without someone to point out how a denier’s statements are false or misleading, people are more likely to be influenced by the denier’s arguments.” The article goes in great detail about techniques for rebutting faulty claims.

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In short, all I can do is plea with people to thoroughly do their own research before regurgitating what they see online, check all sources for bias, consider the motives behind the spread of false information (like an oil industry denying climate change), and above all to use one’s common sense:

If 97% of climate scientists agree about the seriousness of global warming, but oil industry billionaires Dan and Farris Wilks fund videos like Prager U to cast doubt on climate change…

TRUST THE CLIMATE SCIENTISTS!!!!

If nearly every medical doctor can confirm that vaccines do not cause autism, but Kayleigh on Facebook starts an anti-vaxxer campaign because her son got sick after getting a shot…

TRUST THE MEDICAL PROFESSIONALS!!!

If your doctor says stay indoors and don’t gather with large groups of people, but the pastor of your church says get together anything because God will protect you….

TRUST THE DOCTOR!!!

If the CDC says that the quarantine will probably last longer than we’d like in order to have the best outcome, but the president says we should end the quarantine sooner so as not to hurt the economy further…

TRUST THE CDC!!!

If your religious views conflict with the scientific community…

TRUST THE SCIENCE!!!

It wasn’t that long ago that the church was burning people at the stake for believing the Earth revolved around the sun. Humans make mistakes, but we can correct that. Trust the people who have put in the time to know what they’re talking about. Check your sources, check their motives, and please, please, PLEASE for the love of God, start trusting science because when you don’t, you put others in jeopardy.

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