The cover story in the March 2015 issue of National Geographic contains many insights into why seemingly intelligent people doubt the overwhelming scientific evidence about climate change, evolution, vaccinations, and even the moon landings.
The article, written by Washington Post science writer Joel Achenbach, appears on pages 30 – 47 of the print issue of the magazine under the title The Age of Disbelief. The article is also available on the National Geographic website under the title, Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?
According to the article, “Skepticism about science is on the rise, and polarization is the order of the day. What’s causing reasonable people to doubt?”
It’s an old problem that has risen to prominence again because the scientific method leads us to truths that are not self-evident. Achenbach uses the example of the early 17th century when Galileo was put on trial by the Church because he claimed that the Earth spins around its axis and orbits the Sun.
Neither one of those scientific facts is intuitive. As we stand on the Earth’s surface, we cannot feel the Earth spinning, and to anyone standing on Earth it certainly looks like the Sun is moving around the Earth. But just because it isn’t intuitive, doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
Millions of scientific measurement and observations have proven beyond a doubt that the Earth orbits the Sun, and all of our modern space missions are based on that knowledge.
Today, unlike the early 17th century, the Earth orbiting the Sun is no longer a religious issue, and that’s one of the reasons why there are so few people who still insist that the Sun revolves around the Earth. But it helps explain why seemingly reasonable people reject scientific facts.
Science appeals to our rational brain, but our beliefs are motivated largely by emotion, and the biggest motivation for maintaining our beliefs, rather than embracing scientific reality, is remaining tight with our peers.
Geophysicist Marcia McNutt, editor of the prestigious journal Science, puts it this way: “Science is a method for deciding whether what we choose to believe has a basis in the laws of nature or not.”
“Science is a method for deciding whether what we choose to believe has a basis in the laws of nature or not.”
But the scientific method doesn’t come naturally to most people, so some people choose to ignore it.
According to Dan Kahan of Yale University, people use scientific knowledge to reinforce the beliefs that have already shaped by their world view. Kahan divides Americans into two groups, those who are “egalitarian and communitarian” and those who are “hierarchical and individualistic”.
People who are “egalitarian and communitarian” tend to be suspicious of the corporate world, with its emphasis on profit, and they tend to favor government regulation. So they are very likely to see the risk of climate change,
On the other hand, people who are “hierarchical and individualistic” respect the corporate world and are leery of the government interfering in their affairs.
According to Joel Achenbach, this second kind of people are, “Apt to reject warnings about climate change, because they know what accepting them could lead to – some kind of tax or regulation to limit emissions.”
Less than half of all Americans believe the Earth is warming because humans are burning fossil fuels.
In short, climate change deniers will reject any data that shows that climate change is real no matter what, because it would put them at odds with their peers.
An article printed in the February 25, 2015 issue of the journal Nature describes how scientists from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California have been able to measure the greenhouse effect directly for the first time.
There is no more guesswork, the direct measurements of the greenhouse effect were done at two long-running atmospheric research sites owned by the Department of Energy: one in Oklahoma and the other near Barrow, Alaska, above the Arctic Circle.
The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory researchers were actually able to measure the surface temperature increase caused by radiative forcing on the Earth’s surface due to carbon dioxide.
The scientists were able to make these direct measurements because their instruments can detect the “fingerprint” of carbon dioxide’s infrared signal because the carbon dioxide’s molecule emits and absorbs infrared energy at distinctive wavelengths.
But even though the “greenhouse effect” caused be human emissions has now been measured directly, climate change deniers will continue to ignore the scientific data because it clashes with their beliefs which have already been shaped by their world view.
For example, one climate change denier said recently that the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change finding that The Earth’s surface temperature has risen by about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit in the past 130 years couldn’t possibly be true because we don’t have temperature data going back to the 1880’s.
What garbage. Thermometers are a fairly simple piece of scientific equipment and scientists have been recording temperatures all over the world for centuries. But the climate change denier had to find a reason to reject the science, so the climate change denier decided to claim that the temperature measurements don’t exist.
The climate change denier could not admit that scientists have the data to show that the average mean temperature of the Earth has increase by about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit in the past 130 years, because that would conflict with climate change denier’s world view.
All of us have a circle of friends and associates that we trust, and those people almost always think in much the same way that we do. Kahan uses the analogy of the tribe. In effect, he says, we belong to the tribe of our peers.
According to Kahan, accepting that temperature data exists going back to the 1880’s “wouldn’t change the world, but it might get him thrown out of his tribe.”
As Joel Achenbach writes in the National Geographic article, “For some people, the tribe is more important than the truth; for the best scientists, the truth is more important than the tribe.”
Which is more important to you? The crowd of people you associate with (the tribe), or the truth?