Saturday, April 9, 2016

Dogmatism in Science and Public Perception of Science

Over the last few weeks I have not had much personal time, but I have managed to take a few minutes here and there to peruse Internet sites from antivaxers, climate change deniers, anthropogenic climate change extremists, people against conventional agriculture, people opposed to genetically-modified crops, and activists opposed to nuclear energy. Given the polarized political environment, I have sought to understand how good people come to conclusions that could be so apparently inconsistent with evidence. All of us have drawn conclusions based on false pre conceptions, and the confirmation bias leads us to accept flawed or inconclusive evidence for our beliefs and to reject good evidence against those beliefs. Each of us cannot possibly understand the details of every important issue. In that light, it is easy to understand why political views have become so correlated with some vexing beliefs, such as why many political conservatives reject the role of human activities in climate change or why many on the left tend to question profound evidence with respect to the safety of genetically modified crops. Quite simply, we are dogmatic creatures.

Science has transformed the world, but it does not completely obliterate dogmatism from the layman or the scientist, nor does it efficiently convince the masses to discard cherished and harmful beliefs. Eric Hoffer put it well: “An empty head is not really empty; it is stuffed with rubbish. Hence the difficulty of stuffing anything into an empty head.” We reject correct principles not because we are stupid, but because our preconceptions are wrong. None of us is immune. Science and logic are partial treatments, much like taking over-the-counter cold medicine can alleviate some symptoms without curing the cold. When scientists reach conclusions, they might not have considered all aspects of the problems, and biases might mislead them. Scientists are not completely immune to these biases, and false conclusions similar to those perpetuated over decades or centuries in the past can still occur today (though it is apparent that the extent to which we are wrong tends to decline with time). Peer review, which is simply the act of requiring other sets of eyes beyond the original authors to view and consider conclusions, helps treat the problem but can also perpetuate it when reviewers can be equally dogmatic. Yet, I see science as the best way we have to reach correct conclusions.

My opening comments included both climate change deniers and anthropogenic climate change extremists as dogmatic. Both sides see the other as dogmatic, but not themselves. Both sides perpetuate some false claims in support of their views. I use the term "denier" here carefully. Scientists should be skeptical (that's core to being a scientist), but a denier is different: Deniers reject evidence contrary to their beliefs. Any such contrary evidence is often treated as part of a conspiracy. I see laypersons who are climate change deniers as more egregiously dogmatic, but that in no way lets pundits on the other side off the hook, some individuals among whom can be just as bad or worse. Yet, as I see it, most climate change deniers are not simply evil people lying for money (although a few of them might be). I think that most of them actually believe their claims. Perhaps it is easier for them to swallow when they combine rubbish with a few correct claims. For example, their argument that increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has some benefits to some people and to some biological systems. Similarly, not all scary claims raised by proponents of the concept of anthropogenic climate change will ultimately prove to be true, and recent science has suggested that some of them are false. For example, some types of violent storms, such as the strongest tornadoes, might be becoming less common with time. Moderate intensity hurricanes may be becoming less frequent as well (though many studies suggest that the frequency of the strongest hurricanes may increase). The narrative that all things will get worse for all people and for all ecosystems is a fetish of the media and left leaning politics. 

We are all prone to dogmatic views. It is wise to take a step back and to ask ourselves why we believe some of the things we do, and to not simply demonize those who believe differently. That the crowd seems to agree with us is an insufficient argument in support of a belief. Oftentimes, those who are most sure of themselves are most wrong.  A nice quote, perhaps poorly attributed to Mark Twain says it well: “Education: The path from cocky ignorance to miserable uncertainty.”  I have personally undergone a profound transformation in the ways I view the world, based on relaxing my level of surety in my beliefs. It has led me to a better sense of self, and a more positive view of others. Science education, similarly, should include at its core the notion that science is not simply a set of conclusions or concepts with which most scientists agree, but a turbulent quest for understanding in light of evidence, seeking for wherever that evidence might lead.