Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Price of Distrust

By Keith McDowell

According to a recent study by Gordon Gauchat entitled Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere: A Study of Public Trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010, thirty-five percent of “new right” conservatives have a “great deal of distrust in science” and this distrust is especially true for well-educated conservatives! And even worse, the distrust has been growing since 1974. How can this be? Has the putative “war on science” by the “new right” and their continuing denial of evolution, global climate change, and many other major tenants of modern science truly gone viral in that segment of American society? Sadly, the answer appears to be yes!

And what explains this reversal in the trust of science by conservatives since the early part of the twentieth century as shown in the chart below from Gauchat? Indeed, does the answer lie in the emergence of the “new right” or are there other forces at play? Gauchat posits three themes to be tested by his data: (1) cultural ascendancy, (2) alienation, and (3) politicization. And the winner is – politicization!

Are you surprised? I wasn’t. Nor am I surprised that well-educated “new right” conservatives distrust science. It’s all part of a game being played by some very intelligent people. What did surprise me at times in the study was the rather myopic and uninformed discussion by Gauchat, although the study is a well-written and must-read contribution to the “trust in science” debate. For example, Gauchat seemed to imply that politicization of science is a new thing. Tell that to those engaged in the great scientific racism debate of the nineteenth century where “science” was used to defend slavery, or to the eugenics movement of the early twentieth century designed to breed improved humans through self-direction of human evolution, or to the Bell curve debate supported by Nobel Laureate William Shockley, or to the shocking comments by Nobel Laureate James Watson in 2007 that led to his resignation as Director of Cold Springs Harbor.  History is replete with examples of the politicization of science. It is not new.

And for that matter, exactly what do we mean by the term “science” in the context of the “trust in science” debate? Gauchat delivers a clear and concise presentation of the “What is science?” question pointing out the conventional definition of “science” as a methodology and a body of knowledge, but also recognizing “science” as being a social system encompassing such issues as diversity in the STEM workforce and gatekeeping by the scientific establishment (Gauchat eschews this term) with respect to grantsmanship and publication. Of course, conservatives clearly believe the establishment is suppressing those scientists who support intelligent design or oppose global warming. Gauchat further points out the role of science as a cultural authority in the formation of public policy and in the government regulation of industry and other sectors of American life. Curtailing such regulations, considered intrusion by the new right, is near and dear to conservatives.

But exactly what is it that the conservatives distrust? Is it conventional science and its body of knowledge? Is it the scientific establishment and its functioning as a social system? Is it the regulatory and public policy outcomes founded on scientific data? Or is it the scientists themselves, portrayed by some as atheists and liberals actively engaged in changing the world as we know it and living off the largesse of the American taxpayer? Unfortunately, it’s all of the above! And that cannot be good for America as we strive to compete in a global economy where innovation founded on reality will be an essential driving force.

Whose reality will it be? According to Gauchat, “… conservatism in the United States has become a cultural domain that generates its own knowledge base that is often in conflict with the cultural authority of science.” Okay. It conflicts with the “cultural authority” but what about the body of scientific knowledge? Is this a verbal distinction by Gauchat without a difference? Are we playing games with the definition of “is” again ala the Clinton impeachment proceedings? And why is there seemingly no penalty for creating a false reality not based in science or provable facts? Is Dylan Ratigan right in his book Greedy Bastards that the world is populated with some very clever people playing a ruthless and cynical game to maximize personal gain and benefit by extraction from the other 99%?

And that begs another question: is science the only cultural authority suffering a decline in trust? Gauchat introduces the question, but provides no analysis. And furthermore, how valid is his data and his presentation? Should it be trusted as an affirmation of what we obviously see in the body politic? I think yes, but with a proviso. At the risk of trivializing an important debate, I hasten to point out that a survey in 2010 found that 1 in 5 global citizens believe in aliens. Other surveys indicate that many Americans believe that dinosaurs and man coexisted at the same time. Folks, we must face the fact that far too many of our fellow citizens are scientifically illiterate, not to mention the silly “chapter seven” brouhaha caused by the National Science Board’s redaction of data on science literacy in its annual report of 2010.

I accept that distrust of authority in moderation is possibly a good thing, although likely a pernicious step onto a slippery slope leading to abject cynicism and even rebellion against established authority. On the other hand, questioning and testing authority and dogma against known facts and through continued observation and discovery of new facts is at the heart of the traditional liberal philosophy and at the core of the scientific method. It is a systematic and reality-based process founded on rational analysis and not an act of distrust. Ultimately, over time, such discovered truth prevails even in the face of ideological truculence, misanthropy, politicization, or subversion for financial and personal gain.

But progress can be erratic and even retrograde as experienced during the period of the Dark Ages and more recently with the rise of Islamic radicalism. And progress, whether it leads to modernity or not, can be frightening and challenging to some people as the accelerating pace of technology changes our lives and the so-called “culture war” yields a growing acceptance of “gay marriage” as one example of what some people perceive as a decline in our moral behavior. Clearly, progress for some is interpreted by others as a decline in civilization.

But notwithstanding the vicissitudes of life under the inevitable march of progress driven by innovations, whether technological or cultural, we have a responsibility to ourselves and to our children to adhere to a principle of rational thought based on provable truths and not to worship false gods. Such a principle does not eliminate or conflict with a belief in God nor does it require one to forgo religious beliefs. Furthermore, it doesn’t favor a conventional liberal or a conventional conservative point of view. But it does challenge extremism founded on falsehoods, no matter from the left or from the right.

We cannot allow distrust in science to become a cancerous growth on American society. I challenge everyone to engage the debate. Become fluent on global warming, alternative energy, contraceptives as a medical tool, and all the other important issues of our day. Don’t accept the argument that cellphones cause cancer just because someone said so on the Internet. If you don’t become engaged, the prosperity that you envision for the future of America will be poisoned by the bitter pill of distrust. 

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