February 2, 2015 | David F. Coppedge

Big Science Faces Credibility Gap

Many people skeptical of scientific consensus are not uninformed or scientifically illiterate, study shows.

Secular scientists and reporters are wagging their heads over public intransigence about evolution and climate change, but a new study shows the skeptics are not the dodo-heads some pro-consensus folk make them out to be. The divide is prompting some science leaders to encourage their ranks to listen to the vox populi.

Reporters’ headlines seem reluctant to admit any ignorance or wrongdoing by scientists:

  • Evolution Deniers Believe in ‘Smorgasbord’ of Science (Tia Ghose in Live Science)
  • Poll Reveals Rift Between Scientists, Regular Folks: When it comes to food, energy, and education, Americans don’t follow experts‘ lead. (Dan Vergano in National Geographic)
  • Many religious people view science favorably, but reject certain scientific theories (PhysOrg)

The traditional boilerplate response by mainstream media would be to say that “deniers” pick and choose the science they like based on their religious bias.  Tia Ghose relayed the party line:

“Folks are taking almost like a cafeteria approach or a smorgasbord approach,” O’Brien told Live Science. “They’ll take a little bit from science when it suits them. They’ll take al [sic] little bit from religion when it suits them, and combine them into a personal narrative that they find appealing.

But can one blame them, when less than a year after scientists and reporters (including big names at Caltech) celebrated a proof of cosmic inflation, their story collapsed?  Nature now says, “Gravitational waves theory now officially dead.”  National Geographic reports, “Discovery of Big Bang’s Gravitational Waves Goes Bust, Due to Dust.”  The BBC News states, “Cosmic inflation: New study says BICEP detection was wrong.” Positivists may counter-argue that this shows science is self-correcting. But the public observers of this fiasco are not gullible. They remember all the hype about it. There was precious little restraint in the news or journals last year. It wasn’t just a minor slip, either; the claim was believed by some of the top names in science. The three “discoverers” of cosmic inflation even won the million-dollar Kavli Prize, and were said to be on the fast track for a Nobel.

It seems that mainstream scientists and their uncritical reporters are just as human as the rest of us.  Maybe it’s because of their evolutionary past that they tend to follow the herd instead of whistleblow (see just-so story on PhysOrg). But wait; wouldn’t that undermine their claims to rationally follow the evidence? It would be silly to say, “Herd instinct from evolutionary past leads to consensus on evolution.”

That’s but one example challenging the credibility of Big Science consensus. Another example is “climate change.” People remember the sudden, suspicious, uniform switch in terminology from “global warming” to “climate change” in the media. They know that the switch prevents the consensus from being held accountable (i.e., no matter what happens, the “climate changed”). People see the record snowfalls. They read about scientists and reporters making outlandish claims about all the unrelated things that will be affected by warming. They see the consensus vs skeptics divided along party lines. How are they supposed to trust the consensus, when hardly a week goes by without some new factor coming to light that casts doubt on the climate models (see 1/16/15)?

Yet reporters continue to lambaste skeptics as dummies for not following an alleged 95% consensus on the topic. Piles of scientific papers are referred to en masse, sanctified by peer review, without anyone in Big Science asking questions like (1) did funding motivate the research to affirm the consensus? (2) did fear of persecution motivate the researchers? (3) how many of these papers actually contributed to the consensus view instead of raising concerns that need further study? (4) is it even possible to know what the consensus is claiming? (5) are the political biases of the consensus known? (6) is fair consideration being given to qualified skeptics? In a 2010 article in The American, Jay Richards (no slouch on scientific education) argued that “climate change” is a catch-all term for at least four separate claims, each requiring different kinds of evidence. Among the most controversial (and hardest to prove) is the primary question that could affect our lives: that warming is human-caused.

The same questions should be asked of Big Science and Big Media’s obsession with the “fact” of evolution, the Big Bang, the origin of life, human evolution, and other issues. Sometimes, it’s not the facts that are the problem. It’s the hype. Outlandish claims that defy common sense can backfire, leading some observers to doubt that scientists can know such things. Another tendency that can backfire against scientists and reporters is their patronizing air of superiority.

Balance is needed. Some in the public arena can be overly skeptical in harmful, illogical ways. There’s been an alarming rise in measles and whooping cough recently. Some of it stems from fear of vaccination based on reports of a possible link between vaccination and autism in children. That claim has been strongly discredited, but it gets repeated uncritically by social media and irresponsible bloggers who don’t understand the evidence or refuse to consider it objectively. But if it’s right to question cosmic inflation based on last year’s news (now debunked), it should be right to question fears about autism based on old, discredited claims. Some libertarians and conservatives are fearful of government mandates. That’s a separate issue, but as members of society in close physical contact with very contagious diseases like measles, each individual must take responsibility for the safety of their neighbors.

Uninformed skepticism is just as bad as uninformed agreement. Science is a huge tent with a variety of vendors, not all at the same level of reliability. The article by Jay Richards referenced above provides useful guidelines on “when to doubt a scientific consensus.”

The study: Back to the survey. Tia Ghose writes, “Well-educated religious people are just as scientifically literate as their more secular counterparts — yet most still overwhelmingly reject theories of human evolution and the Big Bang, new research finds.” This implies that reporters can no longer consider them ignorant. Ghose must have grit her teeth when writing, “Despite near-complete consensus among scientists, about half of Americans reject the notion that humans evolved from earlier primates and about four in 10 believe the Earth is less than 10,000 years old.” If the doubters are not ignorant, what are they? The survey shows that the religious people respect science and appreciate science, yet they continue to reject evolution in spite of its complete dominance in the public schools and secular media. This is true even when their religious leaders (particularly among Catholics and Jews) accept the big bang and human evolution, or both.

Of the 2,901 respondents the researchers analyzed, about 43 percent were labeled traditional, meaning they preferred religion over science. About 36 percent were classified as moderns, meaning they privileged science over religion, and 21 percent were post-secular, meaning they viewed both religion and science favorably. Of these categories, the post-secular group most consistently rejected the Big Bang and human evolution.

About 21 percent and 33 percent of traditionals believe in the Big Bang and human evolution, respectively. The modern and the post-secular respondents had roughly the same level of schooling and science knowledge, but differed greatly in their belief in evolution and the Big Bang. About 88 percent of moderns thought humans had evolved from earlier species, versus 6 percent of post-secular respondents; 68 percent of moderns believed the universe began with a big explosion, while only 3 percent of post-secular individuals agreed.

So while there are populations at the extremes, a large segment (1/5th, or 21%) of the respondents are scientifically literate and favorable to science, but reject human evolution and the big bang by the largest margin. It’s not a knowledge deficit. They appear to have well-formed opinions. “It’s almost a uniform rejection,” O’Brien pointed out.

Half of the post-seculars were evangelical Protestants, whose leaders reject the Big Bang and evolution. But the category also included Catholics, Jews and mainline Protestants, who similarly rejected the Big Bang and evolution even though many of their religious leaders support these scientific theories, O’Brien said.

Overall, however, post-secular respondents viewed science positively. The findings suggest that simply educating the public is unlikely to drive greater acceptance of these theories, O’Brien said.

“The difference between the post-secular and the modern group is not a matter of a knowledge deficit,” O’Brien said. The post-secular people “understand genetics and experimental methods and statistics,” he said.

What explains their rejection of evolution?  Some responded that they view evolution and the Big Bang as “corrupted science.”  Science is good, in their view, when it is pure and uncorrupted—when it doesn’t venture outside its limits. John Evans at UC San Diego had some thoughts on this:

One reason the educated religious may be skeptical is that they think scientists are overstepping the bounds of purely naturalistic explanation. Instead, the theories seem to address philosophical questions, such as why humans are here and what the purpose of the universe is, said Evans, who was not involved in the study.

Scientists like to portray what they’re doing as making fact claims about the natural world,” Evans told Live Science. “I think that the public doesn’t view that quite so cleanly. They see scientists as making moral or meaning claims about the world at the same time.

The survey prompted Alan Leshner, the Chief Executive of the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) and chief publisher of Science Magazine, to write an editorial titled “Bridging the opinion gap.” He offered some additional reasons for the gap:

These findings should come as no real surprise, given increasing public attention to relatively rare events that, even though infrequent, undermine the public’s trust of science, such as conflicts of interest, the failure to replicate certain results, or “silly-sounding” grant titles that imply wasteful spending. Among scientists, life is seen as being much more difficult than it appeared to be 5 years ago, when Pew Research conducted a similar survey. Only 52% of scientists say this is “a good time for science,” down from 76% in 2009.

It should be noted in passing that this steep decline occurred during the Obama administration that campaigned on its support for science. Leshner calls the events “rare” that lead to public distrust, and doesn’t imply the other faults are real. But he can’t ignore the gap. What’s the answer? Nudging? No, a new report says that the “nudge” strategy doesn’t work (Medical Xpress); “robust evidence and conscious decision making is better.”  Thankfully, Leshner avoids manipulation, advocating instead: Respect – dialogue – understanding:

Speaking up for the importance of science to society is our only hope, and scientists must not shy away from engaging with the public, even on the most polarizing science-based topics. Scientists need to speak clearly with journalists, who provide a great vehicle for translating the nature and implications of their work. Scientists should also meet with members of the public and discuss what makes each side uncomfortable. In these situations, scientists must respond forthrightly to public concerns. In other words, there needs to be a conversation, not a lecture.

The public’s perceptions of scientists’ expertise and trustworthiness are very important, but they are not enough. Acceptance of scientific facts is not based solely on comprehension levels. It can be compromised whenever information confronts people’s personal, religious, or political views, and whenever scientific facts provoke fear or make people feel that they have no control over a situation. The only recourse is to have genuine, respectful dialogues with people.

This sounds good, but something’s missing: humility. Leshner’s plan, respectful as it may be, is to convince people on the other side of the gap that science is right; it’s just the public’s “perceptions” of scientists’ trustworthiness that need correcting. But is it respectful to look at the public as resistant merely because of emotion or religion?  Leshner’s “conversation” seems like a disguised lecture. How much is Leshner willing to yield on his side? After all, he’s not free of conflict of interest himself. He’s a Big Science insider, constantly promoting more taxpayer funding for science (never specifying exactly what “science” includes). What “silly-sounding grant titles that imply wasteful spending” would he admit really are silly and wasteful?

Many outside the Big Science tent, as the survey indicated, understand and enjoy science. Those individuals are arguably more unbiased, more free of conflicts of interest, than Leshner and his peer group. Their skepticism of certain theories could be interpreted as praiseworthy. Maybe “consensus scientists” could learn a thing or two from them: the value of critical thinking, the desire for keeping science pure of ideology and waste, and the courage to stand against the tide.

The public might warm up to scientists if they heard some contrition: some apologies, some acknowledgement that scientists are human, that they make mistakes, that they have a herd instinct themselves, and that—on questions of origins—they step far beyond the bounds of science.

Too little too late. The respect that insiders like Alan Leshner advocate is like saying, “We’ll listen to your vain words quietly, and then will explain politely why you are misinformed about how good we are, biased by your religion, and fearful for no good reason, without calling you morons. Now will you bow the knee to the consensus? Please?”

You can see the scientists’ lack of humility in each of the three reports about the survey. None of them say scientists were guilty. None say they need to apologize for misleading the public. Instead, we are told, they need even more funding. The problem was lack of data, you see. If they just had more money, you could trust that their motives and character are as pure as the climate-driven snow. Nowhere do they admit that science can be corrupt, and is corrupt sometimes. Nowhere do they allow for the possibility that evolution or the big bang might actually be wrong.

What we advocate here is respect for the FACTS of science—not the claims of science, but the factual evidence that would lead a reasonable, informed person to make a wise decision about what to believe: e.g., that taking this vaccine is a better risk (and a more responsible one for society) than not taking it. A rational person knows that it is dangerous to take the word of quacks who have something to sell over the word of scientists whose tangible results, based on careful observation and testing, appear reasonable, and appear to be free of conflict of interest. A wise person perceives sources of bias behind alleged scientific claims and weighs them fairly. A rational person knows the limits of science. A rational person knows the difference between scientific discovery and scientific explanation. A rational person knows that “scientific” reasoning is not a separate animal from “logical” reasoning. A rational person continues to learn with an open mind, weighing beliefs against new evidence.

You know what all that takes? Honesty. Wisdom. Logic. Do any of those come out of big bangs or unguided natural processes? To think so would be very irrational.

So: a sizable percentage of the public is scientifically literate and appreciative of science, but rejects evolution and the big bang as corruptions of science. CEH is here to serve you and increase your numbers! Spread the word.




  • Russell says:

    I once attended a lecture at a public university on global warming by a scientist, around 2009. He said he lamented the fact that the purely scientific question of global warming had become so partisan, supported by Democrats and opposed by Republicans. After all he said, facts are facts and we should be able to explain this to people on both sides of other issues. Then he peppered the rest of his talk with eye-rolling allusions to how dumb Sarah Palin was. This guy had obviously no contact with anyone outside of the left wing of the left wing in his faculty lounge centric career.

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