Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach

Why Smart People May Deny Science

Today’s technological world is remarkable but it’s also complicated and intimidating. Most of us can’t even explain the workings of everyday household items like the lightbulb or microwave, let alone understand complex systems like global warming.

So if the experts tell us that genetically modifying an apple in a lab is no more dangerous than traditional breeding, we should accept that. Except we often don’t. 

The idea of inserting a gene from a banana into an apple gives us an image of a scientist stitching a banana peel onto a granny smith while lightning is ominously thundering outside the laboratory window. 

The world is rife with real and fake dangers. And us normies can barely distinguish the two.

Should we be afraid that microwaves radiate our food by ‘nuking’ it? No. The machine simply shoots non-toxic radiowaves that excite the water and fat molecules. Making the molecules vibrate and rub up against each other causing heat.

Pretty simple stuff. Yet type “are micro” into Google and due to popular demand the search engine automatically fills in the rest of your query with “are microwaves bad for you.”

Which goes to show that most of us lack a basic understanding of our tech savvy world.

To quiet our confusion, we need to look at experts for guidance.

The problem is that we don’t all agree on which expert to turn to.

You’d think we’d place our trust in the people trained in finding the truth, scientists. But because the scientific method defies common sense, we often lump scientists together with swindlers, frauds and snake oil salesmen.

Go back a few hundred years and you’d see how we treated scientists as devil worshippers.

Giordano Bruno, although not a scientist by today’s standards, was burned at the stake for believing the Earth was not at the center of the universe. 

A fact we accept as truth almost 450 years later, even though we can’t confirm it with our intuition—we don’t feel the Earth spinning, and we always see the Sun move across the sky.

This intuitive disconnect is why science is so difficult to accept.

We’re simply not open-minded.  

A study by cognitive psychologist Andrew Shtulman shows that even students of science have to fight their instincts when asked if humans are descendants from sea creatures. The less intuitive a scientific discovery, the slower the students answered the question.

Shtulman’s findings reveal that our ignorant instincts are not replaced by scientific findings, but exist alongside them. 

Which is why we prefer to base decisions on our statistically meaningless personal experiences rather than carefully collected statistics.

That said, statistical evidence is no guarantee we’ll draw the right conclusions.

Not only are we bad at understanding statistics, we’re also susceptible to confirmation bias—the tendency to interpret information in a way that supports our pre-existing beliefs.

That’s why every emerging truth is reviewed by a group of skeptic peers who are more than happy to poke holes into a rival’s scientific findings.

If the findings stand up to the assault, we’re left not with an absolute truth, but a provisional truth. Which may grow stronger over time, or may get overturned by a future observation.

This provisional quality of science is a large contributor to doubt.

If you look at the evidence for any scientific discovery, you’ll always find a few observations that point into another direction. A handful of papers written in the ‘60s and ‘70s found signs the earth may be entering an ice age.

Although eventually debunked, some skeptics still use these papers to deny global warming today. Whereas roughly 97% of actively publishing climate scientists agree that the earth is heating up and we’re to blame.

So it seems like sceptics just aren’t scientifically literate.

Does that mean increasing scientific literacy would help people accept human-caused global warming as truth?

Psychology professor Dan Kahan of Yale thinks the answer’s not that simple. In a study where he measured the views of 2,000 American adults on climate change, Kahan found a direct link between scientific literacy and polarizing views.

Instead of using their scientific know-how to find the truth, participants used their knowledge to bolster their political identities.

People who supported big government saw the risks as real. While people in favor of small government rejected or minimized risk of climate change to prevent new ‘oppressive’ legislation.

In other words, the participants used scientific literacy as a tool to shape the facts to fit their beliefs—cognitive dissonance at work.

Not exactly reasonable, until you realize that our family and friends usually share the same beliefs as us.

Which raises the question:

Would you embrace a scientific fact if it potentially meant losing your friends and family?

Of course not.

As long as ignoring science doesn’t clearly affect your life, your desire to be part of a tribe beats scientific truth.

Fitting in always matters, science only matters when the world is on fire.

By Jeroen Elsing
Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach