Alia E. Dastagir , USA TODAY , TEGNA 12:48 PM. EDT June 02, 2017
Members of the Union for Concerned Scientists pose for photographs with Muppet character Beaker in front of The White House before heading to the National Mall for the March for Science rally in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Jessica Kourkounis, Getty Images)
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in April. It has been updated to include the latest on the Paris climate agreement.
Thousands of scientists and their allies filled the streets of the nations capital onEarth Day for theMarch for Science, advocating for the importance of scientific truth in an era weve ominously been told doesnt value the truth any longer. Just a week later, the People’s Climate March in Washington, D.C., demanded policymakers not only respect science, but that they also act on it.
And now, drawing global dismay and condemnation,President Trump has announced that the U.S. willno longer participate in the landmark Paris climate agreement.
Advocates say science is under attack. President Trumps Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt doesnt accept evidence that shows humans are causing climate change.Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’2001 commentson wanting to advance Gods kingdom through education have educatorsworried she could undermine the teaching of evolution in public schools.Trumps budget blueprint slashes funding for the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.
Esteemed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, in an impassioned video on hisFacebook page, said he fears people have lost the ability to judge what’s true and what’s not.
“That is a recipe for the complete dismantling of our informed democracy,” he says.
The scientific community is alarmed by the Trump administration, and by whatthey see as the diminishing role of objectivescience in American life. But theGeneral Social Survey, one of the oldest and most comprehensive recurring surveys of American attitudes, shows that although trust in public institutions has declined over the last half century, science is the one institution that has not suffered any erosion of public confidence. Americans who say they have a great deal of confidence in science has hovered around 40% since 1973.
Many scientists say there is no war on their profession at all.
According to the 2016 GSS data released this month, people trust scientists more than Congress (6%) and the executive branch (12%). They trust them more than the press (8%). They have more trust in scientists than in the people who run major companies (18%), more than in banks and financial institutions (14%), the Supreme Court (26%) or organized religion (20%).
So why all the headlines about the “war on science”?
Though science still holds an esteemed place in America, there isa gapbetween what scientists and some citizens think a rift that is not entirely new on issues such as climate change, nuclear power, genetically modified foods, human evolution and childhood vaccines.
Americans dont reject science as a whole. People love the weather forecast. They love their smartphones. When people reject science, its because theyre asked to believe something that conflicts with a deeply held view, whether political (myparty does not endorse that), religious (my god didnot say that) or personal (that’s not how I was raised).
Manyconservatives reject the science of man-madeclimate change, just as manyliberals reject the science that shows nuclear energy can safely combat it. The views we express signal which politicalgroup we belong to. The gap between what science shows and what people believe, sociologists say, is about our identity.
The issue of climate change isnt about what you know, said Dan Kahan, a professor of psychology and law at Yale and a member of the universitysCultural CognitionProject. Its about who you are.
Polarization has exacerbated our differences, andwe know some of whats to blame:Therise of social media. A more partisan press. A dearth of universally-accepted experts. And greater access to information, which Christopher Graves, president and founder of the Ogilvy Center forBehavioralScience, said does not tug us toward the center, but rather makes us more polarized.
A human being cannot grasp something as a fact if it in any way undermines their identity, Graves said. And that is animmutable human foible. These things have always been there, but not at scale.”
The GSS data show confidence in institutions overall has been in decline since the 1970s, though political scientists are quick to caution that this is animperfect benchmark.
Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist atDartmouth College, said trust in the mid-20th century was unnaturally high and polarization was unnaturally low,bolstered by unusual growth in middle class income and a reduction of inequality, which is when the “20th century version of the American dream and the trust in government to produce it was fully mythologized.”
There was an usually high level of trust that came out of World War II, before the turn towards a more cynical view ofthe institutions of society especially politics and media after Vietnam and Watergate,”Nyhan said.
So how much more polarization can we expect?
Social scientists aren’t sure, but they agreeTrump complicates things.
“He really is an us-versus-them figure,” Kahan said. “People arent thinking about the arguments. Theyre thinkingaboutwhat side they’re on.”
Think about the way you search for information. If youre a new mom who believes vaccines cause autism (and a number of women in your mommy group do, too) are you searching for research that shows whether they actually do, or are you Googling vaccines cause autism to find stories to affirm your belief? (Studies show there isno link between vaccines and autism.)
The mother above is probably motivated by fear. Suchmotivated reasoning,says political scientistCharles Taberof Stony Brook University, shows that we are all fundamentally biased.
You have a basic psychological tendency to perpetuate your own beliefs, he said to really discount anything that runs against your own prior views.
It gets even more complicated.Once weve convinced ourselves of something, research suggests factsdont appeal to us.A studyco-led by Nyhanfound that trying to correct a persons misperception can have a backfire effect. When you encounter facts that dont support your idea, your belief in that idea actually grows stronger.
So what if we did a better job teaching people how science works? Doesn’t help, Kahan said. Research shows peoplewith the most science intelligence are also the most partisan.
Its not knowledge but curiosity, Kahan says, that makes us more likely to accept scientific truths. Arecent studythat Kahan led found people with more scientific curiosity were more likely to be open-minded about information that challenged their existing political views.
And arguing helps, too. ScientistsHugo Mercier and Dan Sperber contend in their new book,The Enigma of Reason,that reason isn’t somethingthat evolved sohumans could solve problems on their own. It developed so we could work together.
Instead of forcing someone to agree that climate change is caused by humans, Graves said, you can stop once you agree that, for example, flooding in Florida is a problem, and that you have to fix it (the bipart
isanSoutheast Florida Regional Climate Change Compactcan teach us about that).
Marcia McNutt, an American geophysicist and president of the National Academy of Sciences, said she isnt worried about a crisis of science, though she hopes more people would understand science is about the unbiased search for truth” and that benefits everyone.
Being a scientist only means that when I have an intuition about something, I test that intuition, and see if Im right, she said. A very, very smart mentor told me once, I don’t trust anyone who hasn’t at least changed their mind once in their career.
Science, it appears, may havemore lessons for usthan we think.
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