The public opinion vs scientific opinion

Disclaimer: some words my offend the sensitive. Also- rant and arrogance level: high. Deal with it.

“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

Isaac Asimov

I’ve been reading lately quite a lot of articles about how the opinion of regular people and scientists differ. Most of these articles presented the facts (pretty startling graphs showing the difference between the acceptance of vaccination, evolution, climate change between the two groups), and then two things happened. The authors either refrained from analyzing or commenting these findings, or lamented on how the scientists lecture, and how they need to change their attitude to “convince the worried public”, and stressed the need of “bidirectional communication“.

What a bunch of bullshit.

Do these people seriously suggest that all the anti-vaccine “mom-scientists”, all the creationists, and young-Earth believers, all the climate change deniers are waiting for is an opportunity to be heard by those arrogant scientists living in the clouds? Is the problem just the scientists who find it distasteful to talk to the plebs? Really? Are we absolutely sure this so-called “public” (which is by no means an uniform entity, so please forgive me for the generalization if it does not apply to you) bases its decisions on rational grounds? They will collect data, read, think everything over using their skills in critical thinking, and then decide the best course of action based on the results? All a scientist would have to do is to sit down, and explain things to them, and bamm, they’d change their opinions? Are they seriously suggesting this, despite of all the contrary evidence since people started to gather in larger groups approx 10 000 B.C? Is this the same public that voted for George W Bush? Twice? Or Ukip, Tories, Fidesz or Jobbik? Are we sure these are the same people these authors are talking about? Are these the people we expect to engage with? Have they, just once, tried to reason with these people either online or on townhouse meetings about climate change, evolution or vaccines? Just watch this video, and read the comments if you really want to cry. Look up anything similar on climate change or evolution. So this is what the informed public supposed to look like? It feels more like a mob that had its religious icons desecrated, if you ask me. Hatred, hostility -not one shred of rational thinking. Are you sure rational arguments would reach these people? Based on my experience you cannot reach them with any sort of rational argument; the only way this conversation would go is a shouting match.

Or perhaps these authors are not stupid at all. They are simply worried or even afraid to say the obvious. They are worried to offend by saying: large part of the public is simply ignorant (willfully so), if not outright hostile to people who actually know best? That there is a culture of rampant anti-intellectualism, not only in the US, but everywhere else in the “Free World”? (Guess which movie made more money: the one about a brilliant scientist crippled by a terminal illness, or the one about a sociopathic murderer?) That people believe in light-eating, homeopathy, young Earth, UFOs, Uri Geller – practically anything that goes against science, just because. Because it’s anti-establishment, because it satisfies their needs of standing against those who conspire to hide the TRUTH (as if hundreds of thousands of scientists could conspire to hide the lie about evolution…), and because it does not fit with their own little world-view, so they do what a rational person should do: reject reality. And they do it while the very same science keeps them warm, fed and most importantly, alive. (Well, mostly. Measles is coming back because of these idiots; too bad their children suffer for their parents’ stupidity.)  It’s not just about the vocal minority of people who think everything is suspicious, everything has some hidden agenda, or worse, conspiracy. (The fact that it’s OK to be wrong in science, to change your opinion, seems to make things worse- apparently most of us trust people who stick to their guns.) The public, it seems, simply is not scientifically literate. They are unable to accept counter-intuitive scientific findings, or make sense of hopelessly complex scientific theories. The fact of the matter is, science is so complex already that many crucial findings -like climate change issues- are simply too difficult to understand but for a couple of experts, who themselves are struggling to make sense of their data. And this is where the matter of trust comes into play: you need to listen to the experts. You need to accept that they are not perfect, they can be wrong, but they still are your the best option. But the problem is, most people, it seems, would rather listen to absolutes. People who are certain of their truth, people who have no doubts, seem to be more convincing- and the media perpetuates this issue by giving them a megaphone.

I have a food for thought for you guys. Perhaps -bear with me for a second here; it’s a revolutionary thought-, the reason the public is not informed (to put it nicely) is not because those pesky scientists don’t bother to talk to those poor taxpayers. Perhaps the reason the public is so infuriatingly ignorant is because the educational system is -perhaps deliberately- shit, and the media (that’s right: YOU, my dear authors) perpetuate this crap by giving equal credence to a scientist who spent decades mastering his craft, and some lunatic imbecile, who had read a couple of webpages, all in the name of fairness. Not to mention you like to suck up to your donors, which also tends to warp the picture you are presenting. Maybe, but just maybe, our society would be better off having a school system, which teaches our kids critical thinking skills (although who would vote for your political donors?), and having actual journalists, who actually call bullshit out. Because at this stage we are fast approaching the edge of the chasm, and the only people who can drive, cannot get access to the controls. If we don’t get a grip on the looming environmental catastrophe, if we don’t take emerging diseases and possible influenza pandemics seriously, we don’t address the problem of growing inequality, the repercussions will be much, much worse, than just a couple of countries wrecked by illegal wars. Your other option is freedom fries. Your call.


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