Saturday, November 24, 2012
A few thoughts on science denial
Now that the election is over, we can finally start to talk about stuff that's real. I perceive a modest burst of assertiveness by scientists and the defenders of science. All of a sudden we're allowed to talk about climate change, Marco Rubio gets an actual hard time from the corporate media over the age of the earth, even Ross Douthat excoriates the Republican party for cozying up to creationism.
So I'm inspired once again to ponder why so many people are alienated from reason and reality. Now, this gets tricky. Obviously there are legitimate disagreements in this world, and the route we got from finding truth in ancient fables to figuring out that the universe is more than 13 billion years old, the earth about 4.5 billion years old, and the life we see around us and partake of results from the process of evolution by mutation and selection. If you haven't studied these matters in depth, it seems as though you're simply being asked to choose between justification from the authority of your preacher, or the authority of some snotty kid who got into Harvard whereas you never had the chance.
There isn't any magic ruler that tells us what's true. We can learn enough about a small part of science to convince ourselves, but to a considerable extent we do have to trust authority. The real heuristic we need is to choose between authorities. I can't prove to you the credibility of the standard model of particle physics or the pathogenesis of atrial fibrillation, although I can make a pretty good case for evolution.
I think there are a few different varieties of denialism. People cling to homeopathy for different reasons than they cling to creationism, or global warming denialism, or holocaust denialism, or AIDS denialism. We call these by the same term but they aren't quite the same phenomenon. I'll try to sort it out in the next post.