Anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, evolution skeptics: the way we deal with alternative facts is disconnected and impractical
I remember when I sat down at my laptop one evening to watch Brian Cox debate the climate change denier cum Australian senator, Malcolm Roberts, I was, of course, excited to see a superstar physicist from my university tear this misinformed politician to shreds on national television.
But as the debate stretched on my elation faded, and I was overcome by a nagging feeling that I also developed watching Bill Nye debate evolution against Ken Ham. It came with the realisation that scientists and our most visible science communicators do not know how to deal with science rejectionists.
The present looks bleak for scientists. We’ve seen the popularity of politicians whose views reflect a rising rejection of expert opinions, and an increased hostility in the intersections between politics and science (e.g. women’s reproduction, sexual education, creationism in school curriculums, climate change etc.).
However, it’s not likely that people are just plain ignorant of basic scientific facts; the gap in knowledge, I’d argue, is much more profound and difficult to address. People do not know how science, as an institution of knowledge, works.
Good scientific literacy is not just about the knowledge of scientific concepts, but the understanding of how that knowledge is derived and the applications of that empirical methodology in everyday experiences. This is where scientific education and communication fails; there’s no real practical benefit of telling the public how auroras are formed when they aren’t given any indication of how we came to know that.
It’s not particularly surprising that alternative facts have come to have such a strong hold on political culture in status quo. Scientists, like Bill Nye and Brian Cox, seem to be bewildered by the sincere belief people have in ‘anti-science’, and their response to creationists or anti-vaxxers is just to re-assert scientific evidence without truly engaging how their opponents came to form their convictions.
Why does any individual who does not have a doctorate in a STEM subject believe that the Earth is round, or that the Big Bang happened? It is because their high school science teacher told them so, and so did their textbooks and the people around them.
Even I, as a physics undergraduate, am hard-pressed to recite the equations and empirical studies that prove climate change is real, but I trust that my lecturers would not lie to me. This is exactly how anyone forms their conception of the world — they are told by their family, friends, teachers, pastors, and politicians that something is necessarily true, and they take it in good faith until that knowledge becomes an integral part of their world view.
The convictions of people that aren’t necessarily experts stem from their trust in certain sources and their intuitions about how the world works. This explains why alternative facts have so much traction in society; the mechanism by which they are understood by the public is nearly indistinguishable from other institutions of knowledge. To many people, scientific fact is no different from opinion because they understand it in the exact same way.
This is why the ‘Carl Sagan’ age of scientific communication is over. It’s no longer enough to have a scientist explain how stars are formed if the goal is to win the contest for public opinion. If the way people come to know science is through trust, the distrust sowed by special interest lobbying groups, contrarian internet forums, or religious doctrine is all that it takes to break down that entire system of communication.
This is especially true when we consider that science is now involved in controversial political arenas: environmentalism, genderqueer rights, reproductive rights, etc. When the image of impartiality of science is removed, our capacity to campaign for pro-science policies suffer because people now see science as an attack on their core ideological beliefs.
Internet forums were flooded by users disowning their childhood hero, Bill Nye, after he filmed a single episode on the science behind gender and sexuality spectra. That is how powerful the politicisation of science rejectionism has become.
This is not to say that science ambassadors like Brian Cox no longer have a place. It is still essential to have communicators that aim to inspire and excite future generations of scientists, and convey the almost-spiritual wonder that science can provide. But if the goal of science communication is to increase scientific literacy, it is by far more important to ensure that people know how science works.
It’s important to educate students about how the scientific method means that trusting a scientist is fundamentally different from trusting a pastor or even an economist on certain issues. People need to learn about the checks and balances within the scientific community that make it incredibly difficult for invalid scientific theories to gain credibility; checks and balances like scientific journalism, peer-reviewing, and the replication of crucial results.
Instead of having a single face represent science, viewers should be given insight into how vast the entire global scientific community is, and that to undermine the views of one scientist quoting a significant paper would be to undermine the views of us all. Alternative facts have rapidly adapted to be more effective and persuasive, it’s time that science does the same.