Combating Thought Pollution: The case for scientific literacy

I’ve recently found myself in a bit of a verbal joust with a columnist in my local newspaper’s conservative-leaning op-ed pages. He, like so many others of his ideological bent, doesn’t believe global warming is real and, given North America’s unusually cold weather over the last couple of months, has devoted his column space to parading this opinion in the guise of misinformation and anecdotes.

Exasperated, I penned a quick letter to the editor dissecting the rampant fallacies in his column. My letter subsequently got shared by the Climate Reality Project as a “letter to the editor that cut deep” and that highlighted “the need for greater scientific literacy.” It was also retweeted by the famed climatologist Michael Mann, known both for his work mapping global temperatures as well as for being the target of relentless slander from well-funded global warming denial machines.

In my letter I introduced the term “scientific literacy” and described global warming deniers as demonstrably “scientifically illiterate.” Apparently the otherwise sensible columnist and quite a few of his readers found that phrase somewhat insulting, which made me wonder, do climate change deniers even know what it means to be scientifically illiterate? My hope was to encourage this cadre of contrarians to be intellectually honest with themselves and, rather than double down on the embarrassment of scientific illiteracy, consider why it was they were being accused of rejecting science in the first place.

So, what does it mean to be scientifically literate? And, conversely, what does it take to recognize and overcome scientific illiteracy?

Scientific literacy has two parts. The first and most obvious is knowledge of some science. How dogwood leaves convert sunlight into sugars for energy. How the moon’s gravitational pull creates the tides on the beaches we flock to during spring break. How the vaccines we give our children protect them, and us, from previously horrifying and deadly diseases. How evolution by natural selection explains the diversity of life on Earth. How carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. How the basic unit of life is the cell. How the basic unit of distinguishable matter is the atom. And so on.

The second and arguably more important aspect of scientific literacy is understanding how one knows stuff. If the first part is about knowledge, then the second part is about “epistemology,” or the way in which one adds to their knowledge. There is “good” epistemology based on reason and evidence, and there is “bad” epistemology based on bias, paranoia, myth, and superstition. To be scientifically literate, one has to value reason and evidence and then recognize that good epistemology is at the core of the scientific method. Then one simply needs to learn some science; that’s it. There’s no pretending to know. There’s no blind belief. There’s only honest inquiry.

What then does it mean to be scientifically illiterate? In the case of those who simply don’t know, it means that one is ignorant of scientific findings, a condition that can thankfully be remedied by a bit of determination and a library card.

In the case of those who are educated yet reject the evidentiary basis of scientific findings, as in climate change denial, it means that one is willfully ignorant, a condition much more difficult to cure. This group builds an ideological or irrational wall to separate what they want to believe from what’s true. In other words, one is rightfully called scientifically illiterate if he looks at a mountain of real, testable, repeatable, falsifiable evidence that all points to one conclusion, yet still rejects it. Such individuals have forgotten, as surely they were once taught, that the scientific method is not conditional depending on the scientific domain.

There are a variety of cognitive devices otherwise rational people use to trick themselves into rejecting scientific findings they find ideologically unpalatable. One is confirmation bias—when people actively seek only the evidence that validates their belief, irrespective of all other evidence. Those demonstrating confirmation biases will select small straws of data that might support their position while ignoring the massive cinder blocks of actual evidence showing their beliefs to be incorrect.

For example, the global warming denier is confirming his bias when he says, “This one paper, or this blog, or this news outlet, or this scientist rejects global warming, therefore global warming can’t be true,” while he simultaneously ignores the tens of thousands of papers published in scientific journals year after year that demonstrate how real global warming is.

Another trick people use to remain scientifically illiterate is to present junk-science or pseudo-science as equal to science. Junk-science sometimes requires a bit of critical inquiry to recognize and weed out, but should be easily identifiable because it basically works in reverse of actual science. Junk-science usually begins with a biased truth claim, and then attempts to fabricate evidence in support. It starts with the answer it wants and never asks any questions. There is no hypothesis testing. There is no scientific method. There is no peer review.

Also be aware that there are well-funded organizations devoted to polluting the marketplace of ideas with junk-science, so don’t be duped by their resolve and sophistication. These are the professional science deniers, setting up shop as “institutes” or “museums,” but whose actual goal is to provide bad evidence and to cast doubt on any real science that undermines their agenda. You can identify them by asking the following:

Did they believe their claim first and then set out to prove it, or did they derive the claim from the evidence they collected?

Is their claim falsifiable? Is their hypothesis something that can be tested, measured, or observed?

Are they asking us to disprove their claim without offering any evidence that it’s true? If so, they are shifting the burden of proof. Without evidence there is no validity.

Do their results contradict the rest of the scientific community in order to benefit a single industry such as cigarette manufacturing or oil production?

While confirmation bias and junk-science are two of the main devices in the scientific illiteracy tool kit, there are many others we must recognize and guard against, such as arguments that rely on small sample sizes, arguments that appeal to emotion, and arguments that conflate policy with science. Above all, good epistemology is the best way to keep any of these bad ideas in check.

The underlying point here is that proper science is not a political or ideological tool. It’s a way of using evidence to understand how things work. This is why scientific literacy matters so much. It’s not just that our economy, indeed our future, relies on an educated workforce capable of advancing ideas through innovation; it’s that our entire society needs to value reason and evidence as the inputs to our big decisions. Science, technology, engineering, and math are pillars of innovation, but one needn’t be a scientist, technician, engineer, or mathematician to be scientifically literate. If our society is to advance, we need to elect leaders who understand reality, we need to value knowledge over superstition, and we need to act based on what the data and evidence show rather than on what we want to believe is true.

In 1780 Thomas Paine wrote, “Where knowledge is a duty, ignorance is a crime; and if any man whose duty it was to know better, has encouraged such an expectation, he has either deceived himself or them.” Paine wrote this in a pamphlet called “Public Good.” Scientific literacy is not only a public good, it’s a public necessity.

Published in the March / April 2014 Humanist

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