TV detective Joe Friday asked for “just the facts.” Today, facts are under siege as science and pseudoscience wage war to win the public’s confidence.
Atul Gawande, a former surgeon and public health researcher writing for The New Yorker, explores why science has gotten a bad rap, even as scientific knowledge has exponentially expanded, producing health breakthroughs, breathtaking discoveries in space and practical advances that have improved our everyday lives.
“People are prone to resist scientific claims when they clash with intuitive beliefs,” Gawande writes. A mom who says her child was fine until he was vaccinated and then was diagnosed as autistic becomes more believable than scientific evidence rejecting any causal relationship.
Gawande cites “deeply alarming trends” unearthed by sociologist Gordon Gauchat who tracked survey data from 1974 and 2010 that reflected an increase in distrust of the scientific community. The increase was most marked among political conservatives, even those with college degrees. “In 1974, conservatives with college degrees had the highest level of trust in science and the scientific community,” Gauchat found. “Today, they have the least.”
Gauchat explained cultural domains “generating their own knowledge base that is often in conflict with the cultural authority of the scientific community.” Some of the homespun “science” comes from religious groups. But increasingly, industry manufactures pseudo facts as part of disinformation campaigns to discredit scientific findings on climate change or the evidence behind new regulations.
And Gauchat says this isn’t just a conservative phenomenon. Political liberals are skeptical of the medical establishment and challenge data showing genetically modified crops have done more good than harm.
“As varied as these groups are, they are all alike in one way,” Gawande concludes. “They all harbor sacred beliefs that they do not consider open to question.”
In the world of pseudoscience, conspiracy theories reign. There are fake experts. Data is cherry-picked. Logical fallacies abound. And real research is mocked as inadequate or insufficient. Real science doesn’t make facts easy to discern with clunky peer review processes, obscure journals and out-of-context press releases.
Gawande notes that attacking pseudoscience has the perverse effect of strengthening the resolve of the disciples of false facts. He points to research that shows efforts to debunk bad science backfires, in part because it helps to spread the false facts more broadly.
A better approach to bolster credible scientific findings, he says, is to point out their benefits. Instead of disputing the autism-from-vaccination claim, focus on the positive outcomes of vaccines to eliminate many childhood diseases, which can be demonstrated by localized situations where vaccinations decline and diseases such as measles recurred.
Gawande says it also is important “to expose the bad science tactics that are being used to mislead people.” This requires teaching people – all people – to have a scientific perspective on weighing facts.
“Having a scientific understanding of the world is fundamentally about how you judge which information to trust,” Gawande says. “It doesn’t mean poring through the evidence on every question yourself. You can’t.” You can’t simply trust someone with credentials. Good science, Gawande explains, is social science where a hive mentality swarms findings, tests and retests theories and inches toward factual understanding. Or as Max Planck dryly observed, “science advances one funeral at a time.”
More than ever before, Gawande concludes, “how you think matters.” Facts aren’t rooted in ideology and aren’t confirmed by intuition. Facts emerge from ”curiosity, inquisitiveness, openness and discipline.” In other words, from healthy skepticism and real scientific inquiry.