The Golden Age of Scientific Denial
I certainly didn’t think that I would ever have to write a blog about this topic, but the cover story of the March issue of National Geographic told me otherwise. The War on Science is real, and scientific illiteracy may have a greater impact on society now than ever before.
That’s right, we’re talking about those who deny that humans ever landed on the moon, those who hold strong in their conviction that evolution never happened (or my favourite: that it’s just a “theory”), those who are vehemently afraid of genetically modified foods, those who believe in the psuedoscience of astrology, and those who choose not to vaccinate their children in fear that they will somehow develop autism.
I guess living in Toronto and attending the University of Western Ontario has spoiled me — I rarely come across a person that doesn’t subscribe to the theory of evolution. So that’s why it was such a shock when I learned that in a representative survey conducted by the National Science Foundation:
…48% of respondents said they thought it was true that “human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals,”(1)
You read that correctly — less than half of all Americans accept evolution as the mechanism by which humans came to be on this planet. This result is also strikingly similar to the proportion (44%) of people who pick blue as their favourite colour(2). Coincidence?
When I saw this number I originally gave the respondents the benefit of the doubt: “Maybe they were never introduced to the theory of evolution, so it’s natural that they wouldn’t accept it.” But then the National Science Foundation released this stat as a follow up:
but 72% gave this response when the same statement was prefaced by “according to the theory of evolution.”(1)
I’ll tell you why this discrepancy is unsettling. This jump in acceptance illustrates that there are people who remotely understand what the theory of evolution claims and what the “evolutionists” state to the public, but still choose to not accept it. That is, only when “according to the theory of evolution” prefaces the original question do respondents answer correctly — exposing their blatant disregard for mountains of scientific evidence and research. I would have much preferred that both questions had similar proportions of correct responses. At least then we would have been faced with the much simpler task of introducing the ignorant to the concept of descent with modification, rather than our current situation where we stand against the large camp of people who willingly brush the evidence under the rug.
Don’t for a second think that the people of the United States of America are the only ones who score poorly on these tests. Us Canadians fared slightly better than our southern cousins, but it is extremely disturbing to find out that 13% of Canadians do not know that the earth orbits around the sun(3). These are people that maintain a worldview consistent with the scientific community of over 500 years ago. I wouldn’t be surprised if these same individuals spent their free time trying to turn lead into gold.
On a less extreme and more comical side are the astrologists. And in a rudimentary effort to disprove astrology, I’d like you all to read the following passage regarding the Libra (born between September 23 to October 22):
When it comes to professionalism and traditional values, Libra wins hands-down. This practical sign loves to tackle life in the most conventional of ways, leaving no stone unturned. Considered the most serious-minded of the signs, the Libra possesses an independence that allows for considerable progress both personally and on the job.
If you know a Libra, this describes them perfectly. The problem is that this passage was originally written for a Capricorn (December 22 to January 19). Don’t believe me? Follow my citations(4). Now, astrologers don’t pose a literal threat to science, but do so in a metaphorical sense. Astrologers aren’t rioting, book burning, or jailing — but their beliefs do undermine scientific discovery and remove personal responsibility by putting one’s fate into the hands of astronomical alignment.
Arguably the most damaging scientific denial that takes place today is through the anti-vaccination movement (known as anti-vaxxers). They hold the conviction (based on a retracted study published in 1998 that I refuse to cite in an effort to get this notion out of popular discourse) that vaccines are in some way linked to the development of autism in children, and new statements even claim that vaccines are physically harmful to children in general. They completely ignore the data showing that vaccinations eradicated smallpox(5), nearly all incidences of polio(6), have reduced bacterial meningitis infections by 99%(7), and prevent 14 million infections annually(8). However, like cancer, the anti-vaxx campaign spread and metastasized with the aid of celebrity endorsements and spokespersons — and its damaging effects are now beginning to be realized.
Measles, a disease once declared “eliminated” by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention(9) has now reemerged as an impending threat as more parents deny their children life saving vaccinations(10). In an effort to reason with the unreasonable, a website was created that aimed to quantify the amount of humans that have been diagnosed and died from a preventable disease as a result of the anti-vaxxer movement(11). Drastic? Yes. But it is unfortunately necessary as this body count will only increase as the anti-vaccination movement continues to spread.
Scientific literacy has created such a dichotomy in society that stating your subscription is no longer a testament to how you reason as a person; rather, it is a statement regarding what camp you belong to, what groups you’re apart of, what table you can sit at during lunch, and what school of fish you swim with(12).
As scientifically literate individuals, our triumph has the ability to be our downfall. The strict adherence to the scientific method is what has, and will continue to, allow us to achieve monumental successes in science. However, it is this constant second guessing, revision, and skepticism that allows for the scientifically illiterate to make headway. In his book, Mortals and Others, philosopher Bertrand Russell states:
The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.(13)
Despite this, I do not blame the scientific method — doing so would be ridiculous. The scientific method has facilitated innumerable discoveries and paradigm shifting realizations. Science has taken many blows in the past — it has been jailed, excommunicated, executed, and set ablaze. Yet after each disaster the pillars of discovery were rebuilt stronger than before. The amazing thing about science is that even if you deny it, it’s still true. The only way to remove the blemish on people’s minds is to calmly educate and continue to push forward with research. If two people yell, neither is heard — and it is our camp’s duty to remain calm.
Original story idea: The Age of Disbelief, written by Joel Achenbach, photography by Richard Barnes
- S&E Indicators 2014 – Chapter 7. Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding – Highlights – US National Science Foundation (NSF) . http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind14/index.cfm/chapter-7/c7h.htm
- List of USA Survey Results. http://awp.diaart.org/km/usa/survey.html
- Council of Canadian Academies | CCA | Science Culture: Where Canada Stands. http://www.scienceadvice.ca/en/assessments/completed/science-culture.aspx
- Capricorn Profile by Horoscope.com | Get your Free Capricorn Profile. http://my.horoscope.com/astrology/horoscope-sign-profile-capricorn.html
- Fenner, F. 1988. Smallpox and its eradication. World Health Organization, Geneva
- Sutter, R. W., and C. Maher. 2006. Mass vaccination campaigns for polio eradication: an essential strategy for success. Current Topics in Microbiology and Immunology 304:195–220
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 2002. Progress toward elimination of Haemophilus influenzae type b invasive disease among infants and children–United States, 1998-2000. MMWR. Morbidity and mortality weekly report 51:234–237
- Park, A. 2008, June 2. How Safe Are Vaccines? Time.
- Orenstein, W. A., and M. J. Papania. 2004. Defining and Assessing Measles Elimination Goals. Journal of Infectious Diseases 189:S23–S26
- Measles — United States, January 1–May 23, 2014. http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6322a4.htm?s_cid=mm6322a4_w
- Anti-Vaccine Body Count. http://www.antivaccinebodycount.com/Anti-Vaccine_Body_Count/Home.html
- The Age of Disbelief. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2015/03/science-doubters/barnes-photography
- Russell, B. 1998. Mortals and Others Volume II: American Essays, 1931-1935. Psychology Press
- Darwin, L. 1874. Photograph of Charles Darwin taken around 1874 by Leonard Darwin
- Anthony5429. 2007. This is a photo I took on 2 June, 2007 at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, United States
- Kübelbeck, A. 2007. Insulin type syringe ready for injection. Patients view
- Ferguson, O. 1893. A “flat-Earth” map drawn by Orlando Ferguson in 1893