Science has achieved marvellous things. It’s sent people to the moon, It’s reduced disease and the impact that disease has on people. It’s given us transistors, computers, the Internet and cell phones. It’s given us non-stick frying pans.
Science and its descendants, like biology, physics, and chemistry, and their descendants, like engineering, agriculture and medicine, have been an immense boon to the human race, to the extent that the human race would not have achieved the majority of things that we see around us. Railways, planes, roads and cars have all been achieved by the applied use of science.
Why then are people beginning to reject science and all that it has done for us? Why is there this anti-science, anti-rational groundswell, and does it really matter?
There have always been flat-earth proponents – people who disbelieve science, and bend the predictions of science almost to breaking point to favour their point of view. While they in general accept the facts, they do not like the conclusions drawn from the facts and build their own convoluted theories and explanations instead.
Then there are those who attack the theories of relativity. Here at least there is some justification as relativity is not easy to get your head around. It is not intuitive, and that is a weak way to some extent excuses the attacks on it. However the relativity opponents are generally unwilling to throw some maths at the problem – and without the maths, their objection do not stand up to scrutiny. In fact if they were to apply the maths, and were able to understand the maths, then probably the only conclusion they could come to is that the theories of relativity apply.
Many of those who oppose scientific theories do not understand what a theory is. A typical case is where someone declares that “evolution is only a theory“! What they don’t understand is that everything is a theory.
It is a theory that the sun “rises” because the Earth spins in its orbit, causing the Sun appear to rise in the East. (I’ve lost the Flat Earthers by this point of course). It’s a very good theory and one that is incredibly unlikely to be disproved, but it is still a theory.
A theory is something that explains the known facts, and trying to dismiss something as “only a theory” pretty much amounts to dismissing all of science, as science is a network of interconnected theories.
This ignorance of what science is and theories are goes hand in hand with the simplified and cartoonish way that science is taught in schools. Here is an atom is behaves in so and so way, it reacts with these other atoms, and so on. Very little of the history of the development of the concepts is done, and unless someone gets interested and studies the roots of science, much of science becomes merely didactic and not fundamentally informative in any way.
Students do get told a little about how one theory may supplant another theory, but very often the concept doesn’t really sink in. A scientific theory is taught authoritatively – students are told that the ancient Greeks had some weak ideas which could barely be called theories, but Newton tossed that junk aside and used Reason to develop his theories. Then Einstein came along and “disproved” Newton’s theories.
There is an idea that theories can be discarded, but the next part, where another theory takes its place is skipped over or ignored. Inconvenient facts are ignored, or “explained” as errors or bias. It may often be implicitly or explicitly asserted that scientists have a vested interest or that there is a conspiracy to suppress the true theories.
There is one huge example, the tobacco industry, where bias and vested interests have had a negative influence on the science, and this, one can see, seems to validate the point of view that scientists are regularly distorting the results of science for their own ends.
So, it is not uncommon to have a case where people refuse to accept the science and go with their own views. One case that I saw recently was in a discussion of the so-called Supermoon on November 14th 2016 and the earthquake in North Canterbury, New Zealand early that same morning.
In the discussion several people were looking at the coincidence of the two events and linking them in their minds. After several people had pointed out that the science shows that there is no noticeable correlation between “supermoons” and big earthquakes, people were still saying that there must be something in it.
They had replaced the current scientific theory with their own thinking, without really explaining the facts away – there is no known or even noticeable link, and that lack of any apparent evidence should be explained by any replacement “theory” before any new theory can be put in place.
Similarly, I’ve come across people who oppose the use of fluoride and chlorine in public water supplies, and those who refuse to inoculate their children against diseases. In past decades people died from water-borne diseases, children have died from childhood diseases and whole populations have been wiped out. Children’s’ teeth have rotted in their mouths.
Why do these people do these things? In general they are fairly well-educated, fairly well read, and not unintelligent. Of course there’s a fear factor, but in previous generations fear was the thing driving people towards chlorination and fluoridation and inoculation against diseases.
However, I think that there’s more to it than that. There’s a rejection of rational thinking. They realise that science has done so much for them, yet they only pay it lip service. “Proof” of their views is obtained by scouring the Internet for the few dissenting voices. Any establishment voices are dismissed as biassed or merely toeing the establishment line. This is not a rational argument. A single or even a small set of dissenting voices is not proof of anything.
This worries me. We have always had the “alternative” views, the crystal gazers and the iridologists, but those people completely reject science as a world view. That’s OK. We don’t expect science from such people.
The antivaxers and the fluoride opponents however pay lip service to science while rejecting it, which is not logical. They know something of how science works, as evidenced by their rejection of current evidence of the benefits of fluoride and chlorine in the water, but they don’t follow through with meaningful data to support an alternative theory.
(Coincidentally I came across this article after publishing my post. http://www.irishtimes.com/news/education/teach-philosophy-to-heal-our-post-truth-society-says-president-higgins-1.2875247)