I just don’t get it.  We have the best science available in the world for studies of climate.  It tells us that humans are changing the climate and warming the Earth.  We have a large set of economists who say that this will be costly to society.  We’ve got engineers that say we have alternatives to fossil fuels. Yet a substantial fraction of the public believes all this is a hoax, that the climate has always changed. We have elected some of these folks to high office.

So it is with the theory of evolution, tested rigorously for the past 150 years by those who stood to gain great fame if they could disprove Darwin in favor of something better. Evolution has stood the test of time, but 30% of Americans believe in the alternative theory of creationism, for which there is essentially no scientific evidence.

So too is the belief that fluorine in drinking water is bad for your teeth, that milk pasteurized with x-rays is harmful, and that brassieres cause breast cancer.  In each case, a small vocal minority gains traction with an opinion that has no scientific basis.  We have a problem in this country: not with the science but with the public’s perception of it.  In the face of “alternative facts,” nothing I have written in this blog in the past 2½ years and nothing I am likely to write in the future will have much significance.  It will be labeled as “fake news.”

Americans are not alone in this behavior. Nearly a century ago, a European rose to power with the supposition that the Aryan race was superior to all others, without scientific evidence to support it. About 25 million people died in the effort to erase this disbelief, and perhaps an equal number perished indirectly. That was about 3% of the world’s population at the time—a level of purposeful carnage that questions the sapient nature of our species.

We can blame the aloof nature of scientists, the failings of the educational system, and the fundamental role of ego in human nature.  If we do not want to be a bug on the windshield of life, we must do more.

Those who enjoy understanding about science need to do more than bask in that pleasure. They must speak out.  But the outreach must be deliberative discourse.  One cannot dismiss disbelievers as deplorable.  We need to start by listening to their thoughts and the basis for them. Then, present arguments, based on science, that do not simply counter the disbelief, but which carry the argument to a new level.  Witness:

Gases in the atmosphere act as a blanket for the Earth.  A clear night is colder than a cloudy night.  We have raised the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by about 30% in the past 150 years.  High school science can show that carbon dioxide gas absorbs heat radiation.  Carbon dioxide comes from burning fossil fuels. Are there alternatives?  Yes: why not pursue them?  This is not like fighting communism. In many cases the alternatives are cheaper and less dirty to breath.

The Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stones; we simply thought of something better.

2 thoughts on “Disbeliefs

  1. I drafted this is response to your piece on Disbeliefs. It is the foundation of my approach to disseminating the information of your blogs in my various volunteer activities. It summarizes my experience with the Alt-Right, and I should point out it is a work in progress

    Getting through to the Alt-Right
    It appears to me that the rejection of science, climate change denial and Trump support all go hand in hand. Here are some things to think about.

    A. Issues of Self Esteem of the Alt-Right.

    There is antipathy towards the culture and especially intellectuals of both coasts. Coastal folks are viewed as being s “arrogant and disinterested”. In part this may be the result of a long standing view of intellectuals towards the Midwest and the South. I distinctly recall the late Abe White * (of the National Academy) making disparaging comments about the Midwest, completing his commentary with “I guess they love living there.” This attitude seemed to be common in Palo Alto and trickled down. Furthermore, those of us from competitive universities were infused with the academic status game, at least we were at Duke. Application of these notions outside of the Academy can have a devastating effect on an out of work auto worker. In dealing with the alt-right I make no reference to my professorial status or academic background. You mention that, and their eyes glass over and you lose them.

    B. Emotional contagion and the social network

    In social settings you can see the Alt-Right pass memes back and forth, validating misinformation and enhancing their self-esteem. This reinforcement process is visible in the Emails and Facebook references. Their emotional resonance enhances their self-worth to such an extent alternative facts become axiomatic truths. The notion of the network has been well described in a TED lecture**

    C. Some suggestions

    a. Realize their rejection of your notions may be an emotional response and not an intellectual one.
    b. Dump the “fly over” and “rust belt” and other demeaning adjectives.
    C. Realize that being a “Deplorable” is a badge of honor.
    D. Dump the academic status crap.
    e. Listen to them, and build their self-esteem.
    f. Don’t pontificate, it makes them feel inferior
    g. Go after them in the social network, and target their grandchildren.
    h. I am afraid that only a major calamity and/or the technologies of cyber warfare will convert the majority of them.

    *White, Handler and Smith, Principles of Biochemistry, **https://www.ted.com/talks/nicholas_christakis_the_hidden_influence_of_social_networks/transcript?language=en#t-1074714

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