The Threat of Anti-Scientific Thinking to Modern Society

Never before have we had the kind of immediate access to information our modern society – with all of its new technologies and expanded channels of communication – provides. A single click turns up vast resources from quantity that scholars of eras past would never have believed possible.

But for all of its genuinely revolutionary perks, there is a dark side to this unparallelled access. The spread of information is agnostic; both good and bad ideas circulate freely. Echo chambers develop and tribalism increases as consumers enjoy easy access to information that supports their beliefs – whether they’re right or wrong.

It is these concerning effects that led German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a trained quantum chemist, to warn “that Western societies are faced with a ‘post-fact world in which emotions and ideology threaten to suppress scientific knowledge and evidence.” Her concerns are real, especially with the threat posed by anti-scientific thinking to the environment, to health and well being, and to democracy overall.

The Threat to the Environment

One of the most compelling examples of anti-scientific thinking can be seen in resistance to the idea of climate change. The position of the Australian Academy of Sciences is clear:

“Earth’s climate has changed over the past century. The atmosphere and oceans have warmed, sea levels have risen, and glaciers and ice sheets have decreased in size. The best available evidence indicates that greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are the main cause. Continuing increases in greenhouse gases will produce further warming and other changes in Earth’s physical environment and ecosystems.”

Despite mountains of scientifically-validated evidence supporting these statements, skepticism persists regarding both whether climate change is truly occurring and which of its impacts can actually be attributed to human actions.

Reticence to accept the work of the scientific community – not just in Australia, but around the world at large – delays pursuing changes that could prevent against irreparable damage.

The Paris Agreement, for example, is attempting to keep global temperature rise this century to below 1.5- 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Some scientists, however, are concerned this doesn’t go far enough.

Research shared by The Independent’s science correspondent, Josh Gabbatiss, suggests global sea rise of 1.2 meters has already occurred, despite the agreement. Quartz’s Megan Darby shares estimates that we’re currently on an emissions track that will result in 3-4 degree Celsius warming, even if the agreement is followed through in full (which looks unlikely, given the departure of the United States).

Every day anti-scientific thinking persists, and time is spent debating whether or not climate change is occurring, we are losing time focusing on what we should be doing to prevent or limit it. That’s a threat worth watching.

The Threat to Health and Wellbeing

A world in which recommendations from social media influencers carry as much weight as those given by board-certified medical doctors is a world in desperate need of greater health literacy.

The Need for Greater Health Literacy

In an article for The Guardian, contributor Melissa Davey cites the recent controversy over the presence of nanoparticles in Australian infant formula products as an example of this need. The situation was driven in part by ‘research’ by Friends of the Earth, which drew on rat studies to suggest that these nanoparticles were ‘potentially dangerous’ and even ‘toxic.’ This created panic on the part of parents whose children had consumed the formula.

As Davey notes, however, “Nanoparticles are simply microscopic particles less than 100 nanometres in size. The nanoparticles being demonised by Friends of the Earth were calcium phosphate crystals, a normal and natural component of human tissue, teeth and bones.”

Further, she explains, “A look at the study Friends of the Earth based its scare campaign on reveals rats were injected with the nanoparticles through their abdominal cavity at extremely high concentrations, far greater than those found in baby formula, which is obviously ingested by babies, not injected into them. There is no way conclusions could be drawn between the rat study and the nanoparticles in the infant formula – which dissolve in digestive acids anyway – on supermarket shelves.”

One of the tolls the insidious increase in anti-scientific thinking has taken on our society is a lack of rigour when interpreting new stories like these. Though the blame can be placed equally on a sensationalised news cycle as it can be on individual consumers unwilling to investigate the veracity of its claims, the need for stronger health literacy is clear.

Davey summarises the issue, stating, “While all parties share the blame and must be held to account and do better, I say we also need to put some of the responsibility back on consumers, and health literacy education is key to this. There’s no reason why this kind of education couldn’t start in health education or science classes in primary schools.”

Combating Anti-Scientific Thinking

Though improving health literacy has the potential to create better informed consumers in the future, it doesn’t address the issue of reaching those who are already firmly entrenched in anti-scientific perspectives.

Dr John Cook and Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, two Australian cognitive psychologists, have some solutions to offer, courtesy of their 2011 Debunking Handbook. New Yorker contributor Atul Gawande summarises the key takeaway from this work, that: “The evidence is that rebutting bad science doesn’t work; in fact, it commonly backfires. Describing facts that contradict an unscientific belief actually spreads familiarity with the belief and strengthens the conviction of believers.”

The answer, according to Dr Cook and Professor Lewandowsky isn’t to rebut. It’s simply to expand. As Gawande describes:

“Rebutting bad science may not be effective, but asserting the true facts of good science is. And including the narrative that explains them is even better. You don’t focus on what’s wrong with the vaccine myths, for instance. Instead, you point out: giving children vaccines has proved far safer than not. How do we know? Because of a massive body of evidence, including the fact that we’ve tried the alternate experiment before.”

Though we’re fortunate the anti-vaccination movement hasn’t taken off in a meaningful way in Australia, the way it has in other countries, the recent formation of the Health Australia Party (HAP) – which some say diminishes the importance of good science in favour of unproven alternative medicine – suggests it’s safe to say that we still have a ways to go in combating anti-scientific thinking.

But as Dr Cook and Professor Lewandowsky make clear in their work on debunking anti-scientific thinking, ignoring or rebutting movements like HAP isn’t enough. Real change requires that logically-thinking voices speak as loudly as those spouting fallacies. It requires constant communication and diligence in the face of frustration. It isn’t easy work, but it’s necessary.

The Threat to Democracy

It isn’t just our climate or our health and well-being that are at risk due to anti-scientific thinking. This overarching lack of rigour puts the very foundations of our democratic societies in danger.

When we fail to practice critical thinking, we fall victim to incorrect information – even outright manipulation. Take the election of Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines, which Bloomberg’s Lauren Etter suggests was driven in large part by a coordinated social media messaging campaign.

“The phenomenon, sometimes referred to as ‘patriotic trolling,’ involves the use of targeted harassment and propaganda meant to go viral and to give the impression that there is a groundswell of organic support for the government. Much of the trolling is carried out by true believers, but there is evidence that some governments, including Duterte’s, pay people to execute attacks against opponents.”

Though Duterte’s government is pushing back on claims that it paid for data or worked with beleaguered firm Cambridge Analytica, the abuse of social media to undermine democratic processes isn’t unique to the Philippines. Similar instances of intentional misinformation may have influenced both the U.S. election of Donald Trump and the U.K.’s ‘Brexit’ vote, according to ongoing investigations.

Facing the Threat of Anti-Scientific Thinking

The problem of anti-scientific thinking is obvious; the best approach for addressing it and minimising the threats associated with it are not.

While we’ll continue to fight in our own way – by advancing critical thinking and challenging intellectual comfort – but we recognise that we can only be one part of a larger solution.

That’s why we want to hear from you. What experiences have you had with anti-scientific thinking? Have you had any success pushing back against it? Leave us a comment below sharing your experiences:

 

Image Source: NPS.gov

 

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