Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science? (National Geographic)
We live in an age when all manner of scientific knowledge—from the safety of fluoride and vaccines to the reality of climate change—faces organized and often furious opposition. Empowered by their own sources of information and their own interpretations of research, doubters have declared war on the consensus of experts. There are so many of these controversies these days, you’d think a diabolical agency had put something in the water to make people argumentative. And there’s so much talk about the trend these days—in books, articles, and academic conferences—that science doubt itself has become a pop-culture meme. In the recent movie Interstellar, set in a futuristic, downtrodden America where NASA has been forced into hiding, school textbooks say the Apollo moon landings were faked.I don't agree with the anti-vax argument. Even if there were some correlation with something like autism, it is most likely that the recrudescence of the diseases that the vaccines fight would cause even more harm (like smallpox).
BUT, I can completely and totally understand why the public has lost faith with science. Science has betrayed the public trust, or, more accurately, the integrity of science has been compromised by its co-opting by for-profit corporations and it's misuse and abuse in the service of corporate profit. Science that contradicts the need for profit is either defunded, suppressed, or called into question by the Merchants of Doubt. This has happened so often that the public is starting to lose faith. Just look at the connotation of the words "artificial" and "chemical" today as compared to the 1950's.
Basically we're all unwilling guinea pigs in the chemical industry's experiments.
MANY Americans assume that the chemicals in their shampoos, detergents and other consumer products have been thoroughly tested and proved to be safe.This assumption is wrong.Unlike pharmaceuticals or pesticides, industrial chemicals do not have to be tested before they are put on the market. Under the law regulating chemicals, producers are only rarely required to provide the federal government with the information necessary to assess safety.Think Those Chemical Have Been Tested? (New York Times)
Let’s count some of the greatest hits. DDT is certainly one. So is asbestos. All sorts of “safe” drugs were given to people from phen-phen to thalidomide. Lead exposure ruined a generation and has been correlated with an increase in crime rates. We are bathed constantly with electromagnetic radiation of our own making. We swim in a toxic soup of artificial chemical compounds, almost none of which have been tested or the long-term results established. Plasticizers course through our blood. Amniotic fluid contaminated with endocrine disruptors bathes fetuses, and breast milk contains rocket fuels like perchlorate, which has been correlated with lowered IQ. Pregnant women and others cannot eat too much fish for fear of mercury, and our chicken and pork are laced with antibiotics and dioxins. Our glass of milk has bovine growth hormone. Our water is laced with antidepressants, birth control hormones and atrazine. Our wheat contains glyphosate and tomato cans are full of Bisephanol-A (tomatoes are acidic and therefore the chemical leaches into the can). We would have to eat eight oranges today to derive the same amount of Vitamin A as our grandparents would have gotten from one. Nearly every processed food on the shelf has corn syrup listed in its top 3 ingredients.
Forty-one million IQ points. That’s what Dr. David Bellinger determined Americans have collectively forfeited as a result of exposure to lead, mercury, and organophosphate pesticides. In a 2012 paper published by the National Institutes of Health, Bellinger, a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, compared intelligence quotients among children whose mothers had been exposed to these neurotoxins while pregnant to those who had not. Bellinger calculates a total loss of 16.9 million IQ points due to exposure to organophosphates, the most common pesticides used in agriculture.The Toxins That Threaten Our Brains (The Atlantic) Leading scientists recently identified a dozen chemicals as being responsible for widespread behavioral and cognitive problems. But the scope of the chemical dangers in our environment is likely even greater.
Last month, more research brought concerns about chemical exposure and brain health to a heightened pitch. Philippe Grandjean, Bellinger’s Harvard colleague, and Philip Landrigan, dean for global health at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in Manhattan, announced to some controversy in the pages of a prestigious medical journal that a “silent pandemic” of toxins has been damaging the brains of unborn children. The experts named 12 chemicals—substances found in both the environment and everyday items like furniture and clothing—that they believed to be causing not just lower IQs but ADHD and autism spectrum disorder. Pesticides were among the toxins they identified.
“So you recommend that pregnant women eat organic produce?” I asked Grandjean, a Danish-born researcher who travels around the world studying delayed effects of chemical exposure on children.
“That’s what I advise people who ask me, yes. It’s the best way of preventing exposure to pesticides.” Grandjean estimates that there are about 45 organophosphate pesticides on the market, and “most have the potential to damage a developing nervous system.”
None of chose this. We had no choice in the matter. And we cannot escape!
And modern society is making us sicker. Girls are hitting puberty earlier and earlier, sometimes before even their teen years, and breast cancer rates are rising correspondingly. Almost everyone over forty is being kept alive by a raft of drugs. Children as young as four are being medicated if they show any signs of curiosity or independence. Teenagers are being diagnosed with diabetes. Mental illness and suicide are epidemic. Antibiotic exposure is correlated with metabolic problems. New sicknesses like chronic pain are affecting ever more people, and the medical industry either has no explanation or tells us to ignore it!
Autism rates are soaring at the beginning of life and Alzheimer's disease at the end. As Naked Capitalism pointed out recently, “It is very clear Alzheimers is environmental, yet there has been a bizarre reluctance to look at this notion. Throughout history, some people lived into their 80s and 90s. Yet nowhere in biographies, other histories or fiction do you see descriptions of the sort of personality loss and eventual extreme loss of memory that you see with Alzheimers. It’s not at all the same as plain old senility.” Sheryl Crow recently pondered whether the use of an early model cell phone caused her brain tumor. A teenager recently started a grass-roots campaign to remove brominated vegetable oil—originally developed as a flame retardant— from sports drinks like Gatorade. Air pollution is a leading cause of cancer.
I think probably the biggest loss of faith in the combination of science and large-scale social engineering was the diet advice of the 70s and 80s. We were old that red meat and saturated fats were bad for us, and we should get the majority of our calories from "healthy whole grains" and eschew all fat and animal products. The industrial food system filled their concoctions with vegetable oils and polyunsaturated fats. We replaced meat with bread and butter with margarine. We stopped eating eggs for fear of cholesterol. We bought "fat-free" products. People got sicker, their health became worse, and mysterious illnesses cropped up.
Then people realized that the way people had eaten for thousands of years was actually correct after all. People noticed that what they should really eschew was the processed foods manufactured in the factories of agribusiness, which profited heavily from the food pyramid (is is it a coincidence that the pyramid reflects the most profitable production for agribusiness?). Now everything is "gluten-free" and "all natural" instead, yet still filled with trans-fats, salt, and sugar.
Apparently anyone without a lab coat is unqualified to make any observations about the world around us. Into the vacuum created by science we supply our own answers. So is it any wonder people don't believe the experts? As usual, the media blames individuals instead of the larger systemic problem.
IN a review of Average is Over, one writer says the following:
For [Tyler] Cowen much of science in the 21st century will be driven by coming up with theories and correlations from the massive amount of data we are collecting, a task more suited to a computer than a man (or woman) in a lab coat. Eventually machine derived theories will become so complex that no human being will be able to understand them. Progress in science will be given over to intelligent machines even as non-scientists find increasing opportunities to engage in “citizen science”.
Come to think of it, lack of intelligibility runs like a red thread throughout Average is Over, from “ugly” machine chess moves that human players scratch their heads at, to the fact that Cowen thinks those who will succeed in the next century will be those who place their “faith” in the decisions of machines, choices of action they themselves do not fully understand. Let’s hope he’s wrong on that score as well, for lack of intelligibility in human beings in politics, economics, and science, drives conspiracy theories, paranoia, and superstition, and political immobility.In a similar vein, John Michael Greer has written that the general public is losing their faith with science.
Cowen believes the time when secular persons are able to cull from science a general, intelligible picture of the world is coming to a close. This would be a disaster in the sense that science gives us the only picture of the world that is capable of being universally shared which is also able to accurately guide our response to both nature and the technological world. At least for the moment, perhaps the best science writer we have suggests something very different. To her new book, next time….
These days, the economic largesse that made it possible for the latest products of industry to reach most American households is increasingly a fading memory, and that’s made life a good deal more difficult for those who argue for science and technology as forces for good. Still, there’s another factor, which is the increasing failure of institutional science and technology to make that case in any way that matters.Given the above information, it's hard not to see that happening already. Americans are increasingly embracing the belief systems of their European peasant ancestors, even mimicking the appearance of the barbarians who brought about Rome's fall - long hair, beards, tattoos, leather, etc. (some sort of racial memory, perhaps?). Even more sinister is the march of Islamic fundamentalism in the middle east, which rejects all modernity. Certain factions within the U.S. are openly contemptuous of the Enlightenment, such as the Neoreactionary movement.While this movement is decidedly fringe, we see plenty of fellow-travelers at the polls who vote based on emotion rather than reason.
Here’s a homely example. I have a friend who suffered from severe asthma. She was on four different asthma medications, each accompanied by its own bevy of nasty side effects, which more or less kept the asthma under control without curing it. After many years of this, she happened to learn that another health problem she had was associated with a dietary allergy, cut the offending food out of her diet, and was startled and delighted to find that her asthma cleared up as well.
After a year with no asthma symptoms, she went to her physician, who expressed surprise that she hadn’t had to come in for asthma treatment in the meantime. She explained what had happened. The doctor admitted that the role of that allergy as a cause of severe asthma was well known. When she asked the doctor why she hadn’t been told this, so she could make an informed decision, the only response she got was, and I quote, “We prefer to medicate for that condition.”
Most of the people I know have at least one such story to tell about their interactions with the medical industry, in which the convenience and profit of the industry took precedence over the well-being of the patient; no few have simply stopped going to physicians, since the side effects from the medications they received have been reliably worse than the illness they had when they went in. Since today’s mainstream medical industry makes so much of its scientific basis, the growing public unease with medicine splashes over onto science in general. For that matter, whenever some technology seems to be harming people, it’s a safe bet that somebody in a lab coat with a prestigious title will appear on the media insisting that everything’s all right; some of the time, the person in the lab coat is right, but it’s happened often enough that everything was not all right that the trust once reposed in scientific experts is getting noticeably threadbare these days.
As more and more people worldwide are getting left behind by the march of progress, it doesn't matter how silly or irrational these ideas are, people will take them up. The impoverishment of the masses thanks to Neoliberal economic policies will boomerang in unexpected ways.
All acts of social creation are the work either of individual creators or, at most, of creative minorities; and at each successive advance the great majority of the members of the society are left behind. If we glance at the great religious organizations extant in the world to-day, Christian, Islamic and Hindu, we shall find that the great bulk of their nominal adherents, however exalted the creeds to which they profess lip-service, still live in a mental atmosphere which, so far as religion is concerned, is not far removed from a simple pagans. It is the same with the recent achievements of our material civilization. Our Western scientific knowledge and our technique for turning it to account is perilously esoteric. The great new social forces of Democracy and Industrialism have been evoked by a tiny creative minority, and the great mass of humanity still remains substantially on the same intellectual and moral level on which it lay before the titanic new social forces began to emerge. In fact the main reason why this would-be Western Salt of the Earth is in danger, to-day, of losing its savour is because the great mass of the Western body social has remained unsalted.Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, p. 253 (abridged)