Eugenie Scott, president of the Bay Area Skeptics and executive director of the National Center for Science Education. A physical anthropologist by training, Scott has spent the past three decades defending sound science and the teaching of evolution in schools. (Photo: Liza Gross)
A few weeks ago I wrote about what happens when people respond to well-established science with disbelief or mistrust. As I noted, this is an occupational risk for researchers who work on vaccines (and journalists who write about them), which is why I told a cautionary tale about rejecting science in the face of super-bugs. The piece resonated with readers, but not in the way I’d hoped. Of nearly 220 comments, the vast majority opposed vaccination, for various reasons, rejecting the science.
As I considered how to respond, I wondered how science educators might deal with the chasm between scientific facts and public opinion. Then it struck me: who better to consider rebukes of mainstream science than the Bay Area’s own Eugenie Scott?
Best-known for defending the teaching of evolution in public schools, Scott led NCSE into the climate wars in January, when the center launched its climate change education initiative to help educators under attack for teaching students about climate change.
I spoke with Scott last week about the challenges of communicating science when evidence runs headlong into ideology, belief, and denial.
Gross: One thing I noticed in some of the comments last week was a tendency to glom onto rare events, like adverse reactions to vaccines, to reject an entire body of science. NCSE hasn’t taken on the anti-vaccination issue, but do you see something similar with those who reject evolution and climate change?
Scott: This kind of anomaly mongering is something that we’ve dealt with for decades with evolution. We’re starting to learn more about it with climate change. One such anomaly is the fact that 1998 was an unusually warm year. So if you measure from 1998 to 2008--the line goes down--cooling has happened, therefore global warming is not taking place. Now, this is exactly parallel to the kind of anomaly mongering you get with creationism. Where they’ll point to the live mollusk that carbon 14 dating indicated had been dead for 3,000 years, and say, therefore radioisotopic dating is not valid, therefore the Earth is young, therefore, evolution didn’t take place. It’s a logical series of arguments in one sense except the premises are all wrong because these are anomalies.
In the case of the 1998 year, that’s cherry picking the data in a most egregious fashion, because if you pick just about any other year, you’ll find that the climate is getting warmer. And with the living mollusk, that article was not an attack upon radioisotopic dating, but a methodology article showing the difference between carbon absorption in lacustrine [lake] versus riverine environments and how you must consider the source of your sample.
You find the same thing with people who object to vaccines. They’ll pick some anomalous observation and say, “See, see, we told you vaccines are dangerous,” or “We told you they’re ineffective,” or something along those lines.
To understand this phenomenon you really have to dig deeper into what is motivating people. First of all, I’d like to distinguish between the people who lead these movements versus the people who follow them. They’re not the ones generating the vaccine anomaly, so to speak, but they’ve read this literature and they’re parroting what they’ve heard. And your heart goes out to them. They’re concerned about their children. They don’t want their kids to get sick. But as many admit, they don’t fully understand the science. And your decisions are obviously going to be influenced by your emotions. We’re human beings, not automatons. But you need to temper them with good information, empirical information, dare I say scientific information, in order to make the best decisions.
Gross: Another parallel with the evolution and climate change denial narrative, which seems to relate to motivation, is the changing rationale for doubting the science. The reasons change but the doubt doesn’t, as if doubt itself is a motivation. How do you counter doubt with science?
Scott: Well, I think one of the things to remember is that, like Gaul [Julius Caesar’s Gallic conquest], the public is divided into three parts. You have the people who are perfectly okay with vaccines. You have the people who are really, really concerned about vaccines, and you have the vast majority of Americans who are in the middle. They haven’t thought about it very much. They are reachable with information.
I think we are unwise as scientists or as people who want to help the public understand science to ignore motivation. But we have to remember that different audiences are open to a different kinds of information. And I just can’t imagine that knowledge and information and the empirical evidence and the results of good studies are immaterial, especially for that middle group. They may be less likely to persuade the people in the category of, “I’ve got my fingers stuck in my ears and I don’t want to listen,” who have a really strong emotional, ideological investment in a position.
NCSE has always aimed at that big middle. In the case of evolution, the people who are not conservative Christians, who don’t have a religious or ideological reason to object to evolution but who just don’t know very much about it and who are reachable. I think with vaccines that should be the target for those of us who want to improve the understanding of vaccines and help communicate the importance of why you need to vaccinate your child.
Gross: How do you reach the people in the middle when organized groups routinely perpetuate the myths? For a nonscientist it’s very difficult to figure out what to think, especially when the so-called “debates” on these issues become so emotionally charged. How do you cut through the emotions to help people think rationally?
Scott: Our experience with the evolution and climate change issues has been to recognize that there is a huge amount of dichotomous thinking going on. In the case of evolution you’re either a good guy Christian creationist or you’re a bad guy evolutionist atheist. Those are the packages that many students come into classrooms with. So breaking apart these dichotomies is very important because they’re false dichotomies.
With Christians, there’s really a huge range of views about evolution from the most extreme creationists to theistic evolution, which is a position that God created [humans] through evolution. This is actually mainstream Christianity. The most extreme creationism goes from flat-Earthism through geocentrism to young-Earth creationism to old-Earth creationism to theistic evolution.
There’s also dichotomous thinking going on in terms of climate change that doesn’t have anything to do with the science but with ideologies that prevent people from listening to the science. You’re either a good Republican, anti-global-warming person or you’re a pro-big-government, political liberal, global warming accepter.
Finding the people who think ideologically but still accept the science is what we would like to do. Our job at NCSE, at least in global warming and evolution, has been to point out that these dichotomies are false. And to find the people in intermediate positions who hold those ideological positions, find the conservative Christians who accept evolution, find the Republicans who accept global warming, find the libertarians who accept global warming and say, “See, you don’t need to let ideology get in the way to accept the science.”
Gross: There seems to be a similar dichotomy with vaccination.
Scott: Well, it’s different. It’s people protecting their kids. That’s the ideology. Go back to motivation. Why is it that people are rejecting vaccination for their kids? It’s obviously an emotional thing, I’m not criticizing that. People love their kids but they’re just hyper, hyper worried. I think that’s probably the motivator. So, when they hear something that is on the other side of standard science, they don’t know whether it’s credible or not but the more things they read they talk themselves into believing it. And, yes, there’s this kind of dichotomous reasoning: "You’re either a good guy who really loves your kid or you’re a dogmatic scientist trying to cram this stuff down our throats."
The intermediate position that we try to invoke in the other two controversies we deal with is in this case people whose children have autism or perhaps other conditions people ascribe to vaccines but who still support vaccination. They have a credibility with other parents that scientists don’t. A scientist who is a parent can obviously wear two hats, but parents who can speak the language, so to speak, parents who are coping with an autistic child or a child who has suffered one of the diseases that are attributed to vaccinations can have more credibility.
Again, I think we shouldn’t abandon the people who are in that one segment of society who are bound and determined not to accept vaccinations but we should really focus our attention more on keeping people from slipping down into that category. Certainly, that’s what we’ve done with evolution and that’s what we are likely to be doing with climate change as well.
Gross: Do you think the fact that scientists argue over some aspects of science, like when to get mammograms, feeds into people’s doubts, so they think scientists don’t really know any more than they do?
Scott: I think so much of what people misunderstand about science is this balance between science being very reliable in explaining the natural world yet it’s expandable. It’s the idea of core ideas of science, of frontier ideas, and then fringe ideas. We can expand our understanding of nature by testing new ideas against nature and throwing out the ones that don’t work, tentatively keeping the ones that do work because we need more and more tests before that tentative explanation goes into the core. But once we get that consensus, once scientists have arm wrestled over this new explanation and we’ve tested it up one side and down another and it goes into that core, then we stop arguing about it. This is where we are with evolution and climate change and the basic theory of vaccination—the basic understanding of antigens and antibodies and how you can prevent antigens from causing disease by zapping them with antibodies, which you acquire by getting a vaccination or getting the disease. Which do you want? Believe me, a vaccination is much more benign.
That basic understanding about what makes vaccinations work is a core idea of science. We’re just not debating whether that works or not any more than we’re debating whether living things have common ancestors or the planet’s getting warmer.