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Anti-Science On The Rise

This sort of thing has been going on for a long time. However three examples that I came across within a week or so inspired me to write. I speak of the disturbing, growing trend of anti-scientific thinking.

In late June, the Texas GOP adopted the policy that they "oppose the teaching of higher order thinking skills, critical thinking skills and similar programs … which focus on behaviour modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority."1

On July 1, 2012 Alan Jones told a group protesting against the introduction of a carbon tax in Australia that, "The notion of climate change is a hoax. This is witchcraft."2

A tweet lead me to an image, which unfortunately I cannot find, of a page from a text book, purporting to be a science text-book (as opposed to religious) arguing for biblical creation over evolution.

It’s all so desperately, desperately sad. But I suppose it might bearable if it was just sad. But it’s not. It’s frightening. This sort of thinking is growing in popularity. Perhaps overall it’s still in the minority, but on some issues the majority of a population is wrong.

At some point science seems to have become a choice. That is, it’s something that you can dismiss if it doesn’t conform to your worldview, rather than informing your worldview.

This is a disaster in the making. The rate of technological change is increasing. Who knows what will be possible in the next 10, 20 or 30 years. How are we going to be able to process these changes, decide whether we want them, and absorb them into our ethics if we cannot understand them?

How did we get into this mess? What is the solution? I suppose that in order to solve this problem we need to understand it causes. At these I can only guess:

  • Politics (on all sides of politics) that focuses on fear to generate turnout and/or votes. Opposition for its own sake.
  • The unsettling pace of change.
  • The busyness of our lives that limits time for reflection.
  • The growth in limiting oneself to only associating with people (either in person or via media) from one’s own side of an argument / debate.
  • The failure of scientists to successfully communicate with the general public. This seems destined only to increase as the breadth and depth of scientific knowledge grows and becomes increasingly inaccessible to the layman.
  • The lack of scientific education amongst the media and the general public. Most people do not have an education in science beyond school level. Nor do they keep that up-to-date. Overall this means science is poorly (even incorrectly) explained to and understood by the public.
  • An overall short-term attention span, which means no-one takes the time to explain or understand difficult concepts.
  • The WWW has made it possible for everyone to be a publisher. Any point of view, no matter how incorrect, can be put out there for all to see.

There are, no doubt, many other causes. It’s difficult to see how much of this can be undone even if we wanted to. The body of scientific knowledge will always grow at an ever-increasing pace. The WWW is here to stay and freedom of speech and thought demands that most content be permissible.

So what can we do? A few things to try:

  • Make time for reflection and deep thinking. Prioritise it.
  • Seek out people that you disagree with on a regular basis.
  • Learn to listen to the other side of the argument. This does not mean, however, giving equal time to opinion. Work on compromise while never forgetting that we cannot compromise on fact.
  • Learn and understand the scientific method and critical thinking. Teach your children the same.
  • Make an effort to understand complex scientific issues. Use science-based resources rather than the general media.

Will this be enough? I hope so. A world where anti-science rules is unthinkable.

I should add that this is not at anti-religious point of view. It is perfectly possible to have a religious faith (eg. Christianity, Islam, Judaism) and be scientific (although you’re going to run into problems if you take the relevant sacred texts literally). Science doesn’t have answers to the big questions, like, “Why are we here?” It is evident that humanity has a spiritual dimension and I’m not seeking to overturn that in any way. However it seems to me that our existence on Earth is threatened by making scientific belief optional.