Are We Guilty of ‘Pathologizing’ Science Denial?
The argument that we and others are treating science denial "like a disease" doesn't seem to hold water
A recent article in The Guardian by Daniel Sarewitz touched on the concept of treating science denial like a “disease.” In Denying to the Grave, we argued that people who refuse to accept scientific evidence do not do so because of ignorance or pathology but rather because of deeply rooted psychological processes common to all of us.
In what seemed to us like a page out of our book, Sarewitz writes: “Amidst the bruising debates over issues like climate change, GM crops, stem cell research, vaccines, and so on, a number of social and behavioural scientists have begun to investigate the question of why people come to the beliefs they have about science. The larger agenda here is to understand how our cognition limits our capacity to act in the way that the Enlightenment model of rationality tells us we should be acting.”
But what then does Sarewitz make of the work of these social and behavioral scientists who are trying to understand why we have so much trouble accepting scientific fact? Sarewitz accuses these scientists of taking the position that “we’re all dumb but it’s not our fault; we’re born that way.” He concludes that this work ultimately demands that people recognize their own “ignorance” and ultimately accept what experts tell them. He goes on to say that he finds this “problematic on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to start.”
In his most damning claim about what people like us at Critica are trying to do he goes so far as to make a comparison to eugenics: “The effort to provide a behavioural explanation for why people might not accept the opinions of experts strikes me as not entirely dissimilar in its implications from the early ambitions of eugenics, in that it seeks in the biology of the individual an explanation for complex social phenomena.” Since among other deplorable aspects, eugenics was an exercise in abject racism, this charge is particularly hurtful.
Sarewitz believes, in fact, that “a little science denial is actually in order these days.” According to him, this is because much of modern science is actually low quality. He rehearses several of the charges against science that are common these days, including: research is driven by “fads” and “gaming” the system to get funding or advance particular agendas; publication rates are growing at alarming rates without an increase in the amount of quality new information provided; and there is a reproducibility problem in science. Against this gloomy background, Sarewitz seems to be concluding that instead of “pathologizing” science denial, we should in fact not believe most of what science tells us.
And it is here, of course, that we find ourselves in complete disagreement. In no way is the attempt to understand the ways in which our brains process risk estimations, complexity, and paradigm shifts akin to eugenics. Nor is it pathologizing science denial. It is in many ways quite the opposite, as everyone has the same impulses to deny science. It is instead an effort to demonstrate that merely throwing more facts at people who do not accept a scientific consensus won’t work.
There is no question that one of the reasons people have trouble accepting science stems from problems inherent in science itself. Conflicting scientific reports confuse people and make us want to ignore all of it. Predatory journals publish nonsense under the guise of science. Too many studies are underpowered or make exaggerated claims, the latter made worse by press releases from scientists’ institutions that further overvalue what has been found. There are serious problems with scientific and medical institutions in this country, and we have absolutely no problem uncovering and exploring that.
But most of us fighting science denial are talking about things about which there is no debate among scientists. Vaccines are safe, effective, and necessary. Human activities are leading to climate change. Pasteurization does not destroy nutrients in food. Genetically modified foods do not cause cancer. Political arguments related to these facts, like how to deal with climate change, may be legitimate but fights about whether or not these facts are actually true are not. Weeds are becoming resistant to herbicides from which genetically modified crops are designed to be spared. This might raise a legitimate argument about the secondary effects of these herbicides on the environment. It does not controvert the fact that GMOs are not harmful to human health and can in fact reduce the burden of some devastating scourges like starvation and blindness. Not accepting that is politically-driven science denial. Of course, saying it like that will arouse even more resistance from those who insist that GMOs are toxic, so if we want to make the point we have to find better ways of doing so.
There is no question that scientists need to institute substantial reforms in how their findings are published and advertised. But the reason for this is again at least in part because of the ways in which our brains process information. When we are confronted with conflicting information, like whether or not foods high in cholesterol increase the risk for heart disease, our default position is to ignore the controversy and eat whatever we want. We do not naturally delve into the source of the controversy, figure out who are the right voices to listen to, and make an informed decision about the current status of the field. Figuring out how to help people become more discerning consumers of science is precisely one of the things that those of us fighting science denial hope to accomplish.
We, and most responsible people in the battle against science denial, certainly agree that it is not a disease. But bashing science and encouraging science denial are not responsible positions. Rather, we must continue to fathom the reasons why it is hard for us to accept what science says. Some of those reasons have to do with evolutionarily conserved aspects of human cognition. Others have to do with misleading representations of scientific findings. There are others. Let’s not just throw up our hands and bury our heads in a science denial hole.