Distrust of Science

I ran into a news item suggesting that at least in paranormal matters, public distrust of science is quite strong. Indeed, in a study done on belief in ESP, people informed that the scientific community was skeptical about ESP ended up more likely to think that ESP was real.

People like me, who are deeply involved in science education, often think that all we have to do is improve scientific literacy (whatever that means), and a better educated population will come to see that trust in science is well-warranted. Then we’ll have fewer people believing in ghosts and psychic powers, creationism, occult conspiracies, anti-vaccination paranoia, climate change denial, Scientology, etc. etc. Some of us extend such hopes to science literacy working against the popularity of religion—or at least the forms of religion that lean heavily on explicit supernatural bullshit rather than obscurantist metaphysical bullshit.

But such hopes themselves might be more faith-based than empirically well-supported. Substantial acquaintance with science is impractical to achieve beyond a small percentage of even a modern population. And inclinations toward supernatural belief are too deeply rooted in the nature of human cognition. If people trust science, it’s in the context of a general trust of established expertise, even perhaps trust of authority. The professional classes do this quite well. But those of us who live lives revolving around trust in expertise have also been more than willing to screw over lots of people in the name of established expertise. If trust in expertise erodes—and it is easy to suspect that now is such a time—a lot of people are not going to distinguish between economists and other modern witch doctors and natural scientists. I wonder if the present wave of distrust of science has a lot to do with a general rising “fuck the ‘experts,’ what do they know anyway?” attitude.

If so, it doesn’t bode well for science-inspired criticism of supernatural beliefs. It might be best to hunker down, pretend that science plays perfectly nice with religion, and hope that religious populism finds more enticing targets than boring people wearing glasses and funny lab coats.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University


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