Guest Post: “Why do some people have trouble believing science?”

Guest Post: “Why do some people have trouble believing science?” February 8, 2016

The following is a guest post for Dr. Peter Coppinger:

Why do some people have trouble believing science?”

I’m hardly an expert on this, but I can lend my experience as a college professor. From moon-landing hoaxers to anti-vaxxers to creationists to 9/11 conspiracists, there has always been—and will always be—people that dismiss science and hold irrational beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Here is an important point: I don’t think that disbelief in the efficacy of vaccines and disbelief in the Apollo missions are equivalent. People who think the moon landings were a Hollywood production or 9/11 was a conspiratorial choreographed event buy into the myth of the “hyper-capable government.” That is, they believe that the government is some super intelligent force that is able to orchestrate a highly-coordinated mass deception of billions of people spanning several generations. The interesting question is why they hold these beliefs. There are a number of good books that probe this question, including Michael Shermer’s book, “Why do people believe weird things?”

Here is my take: A native Michigander, I was born and raised a Detroit Lions fan, because, of course. Everyone I knew, everyone I loved, all the friends I had, were Lions fans. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, I clung to the belief that the Lions were the greatest football team (part of me still does). People’s beliefs are shaped heavily on their upbringing and their community. The easiest and most comfortable route is to join the office party. If one’s community hates the ‘guvmint’ there is a realistic probability that they will, too. I’m not saying that all dismissal of science is simply peer pressure. I do think, however, that conspiracy theories like moon-landing hoaxers are.

But what about vaccines or GMOs or evolution or climate change? Again, I don’t think these are necessary are equivalent. Allow me to address vaccines and GMOs first. I am a plant molecular biologist. I received a PhD in plant molecular biology from Berkeley in 2005. A substantial proportion of my education and research interests are in agricultural biotechnology (i.e. GMOs). Here is the fact: GMOs are safe. Despite cries to the contrary, GMOs have been tested, they are always tested, and they are safe. Yet it surprises me how many of my colleagues denounce GMOs. Some of this has to do with ignorance—they once heard that GM corn kills Monarch butterflies but they never read the peer-reviewed published literature that intensively investigated those claims and showed them to be baseless. When I try to explain the science of GMOs to these friends, it always ends with them eventually saying, “Well, Monsanto is evil.” As if that is an argument. But their argument does provide some insight into the background of their belief. I will assert that it is not the science of GMOs they have trouble believing; rather, it is a political or economic issue. I will also assert the same is true for global warming denialists, but on the other end of the political spectrum. Often anti-GMO people are left of center, while climate change denialists are right of center.

I think the same is true for vaccines but with a slight ‘moon-landing-hoax-esque’ twist. In the mess left behind by the anti-vaccine fraud Andrew Wakefield (who claimed vaccines caused autism) and support from celebrities like Jenny McCarthy, there are thousands if not millions of parents who refuse to vaccinate their children. When confronted with data these people reject it outright. They are far more vocal than the anti-GMO crowd. Right off the bat they shout, “BIG PHARMA CONSPIRACY MONEY is buying scientists and buying publications!”

Having followed some anti-vaccine blogs over the years, I have also noted one common theme to the rejection of science: confirmation bias. Gardasil is a genital wart vaccine now recommended for teens and preteens. It will no doubt save thousands of women from dying of cervical cancer. Yet when one young girl shows an adverse reaction the anti-vaxxers use it as evidence that vaccines are nothing more than profit-driven poison.

Finally, evolution. This is an easy one and an issue that I as a biology professor have to deal with every year with a new class of incoming freshman. Why do people have trouble believing in evolution? First, they never learned it. Take a look at a katydid or leafhopper. How in the world did those insects know how to evolve into a leaf??? Of course, that’s not the way evolution works. But to anyone who hasn’t actually learned about mutation and natural selection it is completely reasonable to be incredulous. But what about the people that have properly learned about evolution but still reject it? Answer: fundamentalist religious belief.

I have had more than a few students in the last decade tell me matter of fact that they cannot believe in evolution because to do so would be to question the validity of the Bible, specifically Genesis. These students tell me that if they can’t trust Genesis when it comes to the creation of life, they cannot trust the Gospels when it comes to salvation. It’s straight out of Ken Ham’s playbook (Answers in Genesis creationism museum guy). This is an automatic conversation stopper. When a person comes right out and admits that they are consciously and willfully denying a scientific fact, there is nothing you can say.

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