The New Yorker:
Naomi Oreskes, a professor of the history of science at Harvard, has focussed much of her career on examining distrust of science in the United States. In 2010, she and the historian Erik M. Conway published “Merchants of Doubt,” which examined the ways in which politics and big business have helped sow doubt about the scientific consensus. Her most recent book, “Why Trust Science?,” examines how our idea of the scientific method has changed over time, and how different societies went about verifying its accuracy. Her work often addresses climate change and why Americans have rejected climate-change science more than people in other countries have.
I recently spoke with Oreskes by phone. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed the Trump Administration’s slow response to the pandemic, the Republican Party’s antiscientific propaganda, and strategies for convincing Americans that the threat of the coronavirus is real.
When you see the way people have responded to the new coronavirus, both in government and average people, do you think the response reflects what you’ve studied regarding the distrust of science?
There’s been a lot of loose talk about distrust in science. The reality is that, if we look at careful public-opinion polls, what we see is that most people do trust science on most things, and most people trust experts on most things. People trust their dentists. People trust their car mechanics. In general, people use experts all the time, and most of us don’t spend a lot of time second-guessing experts on most issues. There are some definite exceptions to that. If we have reason to believe that people are dishonest or incompetent, then we may be skeptical. But, when it comes to science, the big exception has to do with what I’ve written about, which is implicatory denial. That is to say, we reject scientific findings because we don’t like their implications.
All of the major areas where we see resistance to scientific findings in contemporary life fall into this category. So if you ask yourself, Why do people reject the evidence of evolution? It’s not because evolutionary theory is a bad theory, or a weak theory scientifically, or that we don’t have good evidence for it. It’s because some people think that it implies that there’s no God, or that it implies that life is meaningless and has no purpose, or that it’s all just random and nihilistic. If we think about vaccinations, it’s a similar sort of thing. It’s not that the science of immunology is a bad science or a weak science. It’s not that the people who reject immunization really understand immunology and have an intellectual critique. It’s a matter of, if their children are autistic, they feel upset that their children have a quite devastating disease and modern medical science doesn’t have an explanation for it. So they feel upset and they want an explanation, and so they turn to something like vaccinations, and they say, “Well, that’s the cause.” And so on and so forth with climate change, et cetera.
This is important because it means that you don’t persuade these people by giving them more scientific facts. But, in some cases, you can persuade them by, in the case of evolution, saying, “Well, actually, evolutionary theory doesn’t really disprove the existence of God, and it doesn’t mean that life is meaningless.” And it’s through engagement in that kind of conversation that sometimes you can actually make some progress.
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