My academic background is in ecology and environmental science, and like all other fields of study, science is not immune to politics; many scientific camps are divided by political interests and personal beliefs. This may be surprising when you consider that a field based on such heavy empiricism such as science can still be subject to such polarized internal debate, but science cannot answer everything, and as humans, we are still vulnerable to our personal beliefs, choices, and emotions. I was aware of this issue (I even took a course in my undergrad called Political Biology), and yet I was still surprised by the number of anti-science beliefs held by people who work in the environmental scene. I soon discovered that this is not an isolated scenario; an entire culture of anti-science has been steadily growing in recent decades, and much of it is masked in pseudoscience or scientific myth.
The political left has a large distrust of industry, corporations, and is primarily opposed to capitalism as a whole. Due to the destruction of our environment thanks to widespread industrial activity around the world as a result of capitalism, the left is also heavily concerned with environmental issues. What is often conflated with the negative effects that capitalism has on the environment is industrial science. Common examples of this include opposition to genetically modified foods, opposition to certain pesticides, or opposition to western medicine & vaccination programs.
While the political left may be the dark horse in the anti-science race, the political right has long been the front-runner. With its fair share of pervasive anti-science beliefs such as creationism or climate change denial, citizens with strong conservative beliefs have long been ridiculed by the scientific community. What has become clear in recent years is that our culture is becoming largely untrustworthy of science no matter what our political affiliation or good intentions align with. Where did this widespread mistrust of scientists and the scientific industry come from? A change in cultural tastes combined with cognitive bias.
Once the Industrial Revolution forever altered the pace of production capabilities, skilled labour was the commodity most in demand. With all of this new technology becoming widely available, the world needed people to operate it. Within a few decades, the blue collar labour market was satiated, so the economy progressed towards the acquisition of knowledge and information. We had the technology to create a variety of products and services, so science and technology took massive leaps forward during the “knowledge economy”. Major innovations such as home appliances, the automobile, and space travel emerged from our quest for knowledge and its application. The field of marketing was invented at this time to inform, educate, and persuade consumers to purchase certain products over others. Above all else, information was the driving force behind the economy.
Once the Internet was developed, knowledge became widespread – so widespread that information began to lose its value. The professions that gained the most prestige during the knowledge economy – scientists, professors, and even physicians saw their value dwindle in the face of the abundance of knowledge, despite the fact that the overall intelligence of general population had not changed. For example, despite the wide availability of knowledge, average SAT scores have not changed in decades (see figure below). However, when you combine the abundance of knowledge with a growing culture of narcissism and a cognitive bias known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, you get the current anti-science state of today. This is not to say that the world is overwhelmingly against science, but notable cases of anti or pseudo science are much more common today thanks to the rate at which information can spread*.
*This historical evolution of the economy is largely based on ideas from The Fourth Economy by Ron Davison
How does narcissism influence distrust of scientific authorities? Recall that SAT scores haven’t changed much in decades, yet the percentage of students on the honor roll has. University enrollment has also ballooned. In essence, we now have an entire generation who think that they’re much smarter than they actually are due to the grades they achieved or the school they attend. What this generation chooses to ignore is the unfortunate position that many high school teachers are in: competition to attend university and be rich and successful is more intense than ever, so more students than ever need high grades to compete. The pressure falls onto the shoulders of their teachers to be complacent with the demand. With a grossly inflated sense of intelligence comes an overestimation of one’s abilities.
The Dunning-Kruger effect describes the cognitive bias associated with those who score low on various intelligence tests, who overestimate their abilities, are unable to recognize their incompetency, and are unable to accurately recognize the extremity of their inadequacy. Inversely, highly competent individuals underestimated their abilities and also underestimated the complexity of tasks for others that they themselves found easy. To put it bluntly, stupid people think that they’re smart and talented and don’t realize how stupid they actually are, and smart people are humble, but incredibly poor judges of how easy things are for the general public. Combine this cognitive bias with a healthy dose of narcissism and an abundance of information and you have a recipe for disaster.
Instead of placing their trust in their doctor, many people think that their doctors are stupid and that they know what’s best for their health, or their children’s, all because they “did their research” using WebMD and a few articles written by a guy with an undergraduate degree philosophy. Because information is widely available, people don’t place the same value in the “keepers” of knowledge like scientists or physicians that they once did. For example, instead of listening to overwhelming scientific consensus on the safety of genetically modified foods for consumption, some people would rather listen to bloggers whose relevant credentials include a computer and hands.
Trust is often placed in the alternative, because the alternative is viewed as exciting, honest, and free of corruption. Sometimes society fails people, and instead of accepting the fact that sometimes bad things happen to people regardless of how they conduct their lives, they blame “the system” and seek out the alternative in a quest for salvation. This is what leads people to make irrational decisions like foregoing chemotherapy in favour of coffee enemas, only consuming organic food to cure allergies, cancer or autism, abstaining from vaccinations, or becoming a Scientologist.
So why do people place their trust in sources who have professional level credentials (MD, PhD, etc…) who promote alternative solutions to their problems? The answer lies in a different appeal of the alternative: its moral superiority and “cool” factor. Going to the doctor to get a prescription isn’t cool. Getting vaccinated isn’t. Neither is undergoing chemotherapy treatment. But undergoing a detox program is! So is beating cancer with wheatgrass enemas and a raw vegan diet. Eating green coffee bean extract or going on the paleo diet to shed pounds is also cool. Because of the susceptibility of people in today’s world for narcissism and status, they will be more likely to compete and participate in activities that make them appear morally superior and cool, which is precisely why these anti-scientific practices have been gaining steam in recent decades. Science is boring and uncool, but raw juice detox programs aren’t.
Because information is so pervasive – we are constantly bombarded with hordes of it every day – it becomes quite difficult to pick apart the correct story, because its often buried under a landfill of sensationalist junk. It is not the content of information that we base our choices on; it is how the information attracts our attention. Unfortunately, this often leads people down the incorrect path, because agencies that peddle misinformation are adept at constructing headlines or concepts that are attention-grabbing. This is the same reason why conspiracy theories are so popular. Facts are often mundane and boring; real news is created through excitement. The concept of virality is heavily based in attention and triggering emotions such as fear or anger, not in the quality or truthiness of the article’s content.
This attention-based economy is primarily the reason why the environmental movement is so frustrating and convoluted; there are great causes at work, but there are just as many causes that are hypocritical or simply based on fictitious premises. Alarmist campaigns get the most attention, and due to preconceived notions about capitalism or political affiliations, most supporters of these types of campaigns will not yield in the debate on the issue. What is fallacious about this scenario is the fact that there should not be a debate in the first place. A debate is based on two differing opinions; perhaps a new policy on economic reform or education, or where tax dollars should be spent. What is so confusing of today’s anti-science culture is that we are debating issues that are explained by overwhelming scientific consensus using nothing but opinions and anecdotal evidence erroneously attributed to causation, when it is merely correlation at best.
Due to the culture of narcissism and the Dunning-Kruger effect, opponents of science are exceptionally unyielding because they are unaware of how flawed their argument is, or they simply have too much pride in their perceived intellect to admit that they’re wrong. Education and intelligence has an established importance and value in society, so no one wants to admit that they’re wrong, let alone unintelligent. In an ever-increasing population and society that values self-expression, promotes uniqueness, and breeds narcissism, we will continue to see people abandoning the boring world of science in favour of cool and exciting alternatives, which can often have fatal impacts.
What opponents of science need to understand is that there is no scientific industry conspiracy: all physicians are not pill-pushing industry shills, GM crops are not dangerous, and you can’t cure cancer with turmeric and a prayer. We all like to think that we’re well-educated, special people who deserve no wrong, but we all must remember a few things to help correct our behaviour: i) we’re not that special; we’re not that smart; we’re wrong more than we think; ii) we need to place more trust in the consensus of esteemed scientific professionals who have made it their career to better understand problems in our world and stop thinking that we know better than they do just because we don’t agree with them; iii) stop listening to dangerous and poorly-researched advice wrapped in a veil of “truth” or “enlightenment” that is created for the financial benefit of a few people at the expense of thousands. Eventually, opponents to contentious scientific topics may come around; after all, Galileo was once thrown in jail for believing that the Earth revolved the Sun.