Celtic Riverside – The Online Journal of James Keenan

Scientific Literacy and Tolerance for Those Who Lack It

Pop culture, mainstream media – however one wants to refer to it – has seen a proliferation of ideas that, in my youth, one might think had long expired.

  • Vaccines are bad – they cause autism
  • The Earth is flat
  • Global Warming is a myth
  • ChemTrails
  • Politics rooted in racial superiority/inferiority

I feel I need to start with a statement that undercuts the entire point of the piece: the scientific consensus is in on many matters. Yes, they use words like “theory” which suggests to the layperson some margin for error. In the scientific community though, “theory” is “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt”. Evolution is a theory, but science is as certain about it as they are that if you were to release an object from your hand it would fall to the ground.

Scientific illiteracy is a rampant issue right now, and part of that, I believe, speaks to a misunderstanding of the nature of science itself. Some see it as an ideology or belief system, the natural enemy of the realm of faith. Science is a thing that has beliefs and then uses all sorts of fancy tech talk to justify it and demand the obedience of everyone.

Science is not a belief system though. Science is a process specifically designed for immunity to ideology. One begins by observing, by perceiving the natural world.

Newton under the apple tree – it did not begin with a belief in gravity. It began with the observation that objects with nothing to support them fall to ground. Always and without exception – an object with no support will fall until it comes into contact with something. If it lands in water and is less dense, it will float. If more dense, it will sink until it finds the sea floor.

What compels an object to fall? Why shouldn’t an object remain aloft? The nature of objects would seem to be to maintain their state until something compels a change, so what compels this change?

Gathering of data, the formulation of a hypothesis: something, some force must compel the object to move.

Experiments formed with a control group and an experimental group. This controls the variables and eliminates the other possible causes for the phenomenon. If it happens 100% of the time in the experimental group, but also occurs regularly in the control group, then the variable controlled is not the compelling factor – at least not in and of itself.

These experiments should be reproducible by anyone, anywhere. The experiment should produce the same results. Other scientists will test the hypothesis exhaustively to identify failures in methodology or conclusion.

The point of this excruciating process is to describe what occurs naturally in a way that is immune to our cognitive biases. A thoroughly tested premise in the scientific community does not care about private interest or agenda. The process will fail when someone attempts to interject a subjective matter.

  • Objects at rest will remain at rest. Objects in motion will continue in a straight line. These states remain consistent unless the system in which the object exists impresses some force upon it.
  • Force determines the extent of the change in speed and direction, and that force is the product of the relationship between the mass and acceleration of the object.
  • Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

These are immutable laws of motion in nature. They exist at all times and in all situations. They do not exist because we believe they should. Human understanding of this reality is nothing more than our articulation of the observations made of these natural processes put to rigorous testing to eliminate human inclination towards misperception.

“I know what I saw/heard/smelled/tasted/felt.”

Except for when you do not. Optical illusions. A phenomenon where one hears garbled audio, then receives a clear message, and then is able to hear that message when the garbled message is played again. Magicians/illusionists.

The subjugation of our conscious mind to environment suggestion and cognitive bias, even among the sharpest minds of our society, is staggering. The littlest thing affects our senses and the way we perceive the world. No one is immune.

The scientific process is the objective answer to that lack of immunity.

What Debate?

What I want to discuss here though involves a degree of empathy, tolerance, and humanity that some will find, yes, objectionable. I opened with the undercutting points about science because I am not coming from a point of capriciousness. My views on the matters fall in line with that of science, which is to say that I entrust the individuals responsible for providing society with the official conclusions of science with a dedicated adherence to the process.

Individually scientists may fail, but the process, described previously, involves multiple parties testing in a transparent manner and disclosing the full details of their process and findings. For the entire scientific community to fail in its conclusion one would have to entertain such a lack of faith in humanity that I’m not sure any point matters.

Vaccines do not cause autism. The entire idea derives from one faulty study and scientific illiteracy. That is, one might see a different study come to the same conclusion using different means, but those studies contain the same fatal flaw: they all begin the supposition that vaccines cause autism. That is not the scientific process, that is confirmation bias wearing the costume of formal review.

Earth is not flat. The Earth is spherical (not quite perfectly round), rotates on an axis, and revolves around the sun in a solar system that itself moves in a galaxy that is also moving. One cannot feel this movement for the same basic reason one does not feel like one is moving quickly on a aeroplane. Speed exists in a relative sense, and humans experience travel through space-time relative to the Earth on which they stand – one feels they are standing still because the plot of land on which one stands moves at the same speed.

The planet is warming and the ice is melting. That will mean increased cold in some places because it relates to the Earth being round – the shape, movement, and location of the Earth drives its physical geography. It drives air currents and ocean currents – those carry warmth from the Equator towards the poles, and the ice at the poles provides a cooling effect. The warming of the planet disrupts these processes and causes the climate to change. All science.

The chemical trails behind aircraft are just condensation. They occur due to changes in air pressure – the mechanism behind lift in air travel. Aircraft do not climb into the sky because air “pushes up the wings”. More air travels over the wing than beneath it. It results in a pressure system that creates lift beneath the wings. Temperatures decrease, pressures change, and the aircraft itself expels water vapour.

All of these items belie the discussion at hand though: one could write a detailed explanation of the science behind the phenomenon, dispelling any notion of conspiracy. Some people will still not accept any less than a conspiracy though. Giving in easily to science, as I am, is the thing on which those behind these conspiracies rely to keep their practices in place.

Someone such as myself would reject that as confirmation bias. One already has a belief and anything contrary to that belief gets dismissed as part of the conspiracy no matter how compelling. In fact, despite how compelling it might be. The most compelling evidence against the belief becomes the most compelling evidence for the conspiracy. The evidence is so compellingly against their belief because the conspirators placed it there to keep people in the dark.

The Scientifically Illiterate Are Stupid/Crazy

What happens then? Members of the scientific community drone on about the evidence and the conspiracy theorists entrench in their beliefs. The arguments on both sides belabour the already held points, serving to drive each side further from the other. In the case of the scientific community, it frustrates individuals into wanting nothing to do with the scientifically illiterate. One feels a compulsion to “cut them loose and leave them behind”, but knows all too well that one cannot because of the real damage the lack of understanding can cause.

Has a flat Earther every caused any real injury? I don’t know. Those opposed to vaccinations though have brought about pandemics of diseases we believed eradicated. In their belief that vaccines will cause autism, they ceased vaccinations and we observe real outbreaks of measles. These measles outbreaks are not a fear of scientists if people do not vaccinate, they are events that most definitely are occurring.

Fear/beliefs. Reality.

My address today is not to those people though – I address members of the scientifically literate community who feel inclined to throw their hands up with these people.

“They are stupid. They are crazy. They will not listen to reason.” So on and so forth.

We face the challenge of bringing scientific reasoning, in some cases, to populations that reject the foundations of scientific reasoning. In other cases, the believers may support science but feel a particular area is a conspiracy. They engage in what they believe to be scientific processes of their own to test the phenomenon (see the Netflix documentary “Behind the Curve”).

From a scientific perspective, the interesting thing to me about the documentary is that each time those who believed in flat Earth would engage in an experiment that was scientifically valid, they would confirm the spherical nature of Earth. Those who believed in the flatness of Earth and pursued their study from that point of confirmation bias of course found no contradiction.

The more concerning feature was the ability of the scientifically minded believers to rationalise around the confirmation of a spherical Earth provided by their experiment.

Here is the key that I want readers to take away from this though: condemning people who believe these things as stupid, foolish, crazy, or any other matter of negative thing also condemns those people to persist in that belief.

I know the conclusion is wrong. You know the conclusion is wrong. That person will not entertain any of the hard, factual evidence to the contrary. I get all of that.

(Full disclosure, I do often question my cognitive bias in this process: Am I being too stubborn about my position on a matter? That is a healthy scepticism and critical to the scientific process, even by those who merely read the work of others and do not participate directly.)

Condemning those people, regardless of how one feels about their conclusion, guarantees that person will persist in their idea though. It runs contrary to our collective interest to allow that to happen.

A Religious Example and Moving Forward

I would love to appeal to people with scientifically illiterate beliefs to come around to the scientifically literate side. It will not work as effectively as appealing to the scientifically literate though – that’s the nature of the process, not how we want it to be but how it is.

It risks alienation to describe them as scientifically illiterate. This entire piece has been a challenge in that it, in the course of trying to solve a problem, contributes to the problem. “We have to be tolerant of people,” he said as he trashed their beliefs.

Allow me to relate a conversation I had with a friend about religion.

He proposed, in a sort of Pascal’s wager, “What if a particular religion is right about the nature of the universe?” What if God exists and God created everything, is behind the various phenomena, and so forth?

My personal answer is simple but unsatisfying to some: science will eventually reach that conclusion. This is why I regard myself as an agnostic rather than an atheist. The only thing I commit to in a religious sense is that no rational (that is, scientific) reason exists to support the existing religious explanation. The thing might be true, but the scientific process presents no reason to believe it to be true – the absence of that objectivity means that believing the thing to be true anyway means taking it on faith, which amounts to guessing.

That is our sticking point. I require that scientific evidence, others do not. Others consider their perception evidence enough, but I distrust it as inclined to bias and suggestion. In this sense, I find myself able to respect their belief on the subject to the extent that it does not cause harm to anyone else.

For example, I do not dislike someone for being Catholic or Protestant, but if one subjugates someone else, such as cruelty towards the LGBTQI community, I cannot abide those actions and feel compelled to intercede. I do not require that they change the belief, because I know I will not compel that sort of change, but I do require they change the action.

That relates to a specific occurrence. With regards to the greater ideology, I do want them to abandon beliefs that are harmful to others. That requires a different tact. One has to understand the person’s motivations for arriving at the belief in the first place and why one might be reluctant to change it.

The tact requires empathy, humanity, and patience for the other person, no matter how distasteful or disagreeable one might find the person’s views. Attacking, or anything perceived as attack (and this includes reliance on scientific reasoning they have already rejected) will only cause the person to retreat further, perhaps even become fanatical in their devotion to the idea. They will seek out acceptance from others who share the belief rather than attempt to engage with others, forming an echo chamber* (this is not unique to any one ideology or set of ideologies – they all tend this way) of confirmation bias to reiterate the belief.

I do not have concrete answers, but I must appeal to the empathy, humanity, and patience in others to work towards this tact, to work diplomatically and with civility towards reforming scientifically illiterate thought. They are people at the end of the day and one must remember that our problem is, “What is the shape of the Earth?” Our problem is scientific illiteracy and the problems caused by those who are scientifically illiterate. The solution is to make everyone literate and one cannot do that unless people are willing to learn, and people are not willing to learn from elitist teachers who take a tact-less approach towards engaging them.

As Herculean as it may feel at times, empathy, humanity, and patience towards others is vital to the betterment of our world. This is not about providing people an equal share of the time to promote their take on the “issue”. I’m not suggesting that we host debates like “Earth: Flat or Round?” I’m saying that we need to recognise the human behind the belief and find constructive ways to reach them.

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