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Science Understanding Doesn’t Equate Science Consensus

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[Originally published as Knowing Science Doesn’t Mean Following the Scientific Consensus]

Some people get distressed over the fact that there are those of us who don’t blindly follow whatever is advertised as the “scientific consensus.” The distress becomes so great that such people often have to come up with some kind of explanation for this non-sheep-like behavior. For example, in response to a 2014 poll that indicated Americans are skeptical about human-caused global warming, evolution, and the Big Bang, Nobel Laureate Dr. Randy Schekman said:

Science ignorance is pervasive in our society, and these attitudes are reinforced when some of our leaders are openly antagonistic to established facts.

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I read and hear this idea a lot. If you don’t automatically accept what the High Priests of Science say, you obviously don’t know or don’t understand science. While such an idea might be comforting to those who don’t wish to think for themselves when it comes to scientific issues, it doesn’t have any basis in reality. Indeed, some of the most intelligent, well-educated people I know do not believe in evolution (in the flagellate-to-philosopher sense), do not think the earth is billions of years old, and do not think that humans are causing significant global warming.

Of course, the people I know don’t necessarily make up a representative sample of the population as a whole. As a result, I was very interested to read a study that was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. The authors of the study analyzed the 2006 and 2010 results of the General Social Survey, which attempts to determine the views of the American people on a wide variety of issues. At the same time, it tries to get a general sense of each individual’s level of education on those issues.

The results of their study seemed very surprising to the authors, but they weren’t at all surprising to me.

Because the General Social Survey not only asks the participants about their education but also asks specific science-related questions, the authors were able to rate each person on a “scientific literacy” scale. The higher the person’s score on that scale, the more educated he or she was on scientific issues. The authors then correlated the scientific literacy of the person with his or her beliefs about the Big Bang, human evolution, climate change, the safety of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), the safety of nanotechnology, and stem cell research. As far as I am concerned, here is their “take-home” message:

Participants’ general educational attainment and science education were at best weakly related to their acceptance of the scientific consensus.

In other words, those who know the science don’t necessarily agree with what is advertised as the “scientific consensus.”

Instead of scientific literacy, the authors found that political and social views correlated strongly with whether or not a person accepted the scientific consensus on four of the issues studied. Conservatives were less likely than liberals to agree with the scientific consensus on the Big Bang, human evolution, climate change, and stem cell research. There was no statistically significant difference between the two groups on GMOs and nanotechnology.

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But here’s the really interesting result: the more scientifically literate the person was, the more polarized he or she became on those issues. In other words, liberals became more likely to accept the consensus the more scientifically literate they were, while conservatives were more likely to reject the consensus the more scientifically literate they were. This, of course, argues strongly against the notion that only ignorant people reject the scientific consensus.

Indeed, the biggest effect that scientific literacy had was on the issue of global warming. Liberals and conservatives with low scientific literacy were equally likely to believe the consensus that global warming has been significantly amplified by human activity. However, as scientific literacy increased, liberals became more likely to believe in the consensus, and conservatives became less likely to believe in the consensus.

Of course, this distressing news had to be interpreted, so the authors suggested two explanations

Perhaps, they mused, people first decide what they want to believe, and then the more scientifically-literate people feel more comfortable in arguing for that position. The authors also suggested that people with more scientific knowledge might be able to find a few obscure facts that help them hang on to their beliefs, despite what the majority of the data indicate.

I think I have a better explanation, however.

Those with more scientific literacy are more likely to investigate issues for themselves and come up with their own conclusions. Those conclusions then help to inform their political and social beliefs. That’s certainly how it works for me. It would be much easier for me professionally if I blindly followed the scientific consensus on each issue. However, I can’t do that and maintain my scientific integrity. Thus, I investigate the issues myself and come to what I think is the best scientific conclusion. Those conclusions then affect how I live and how I vote.

If nothing else, research like this argues strongly against the absurd notion that those who reject what is advertised as the “scientific consensus” are ignorant when it comes to science.

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Dr. Jay Wile

Written by Jay Wile

As a scientist, it is hard for me to fathom anyone who has scientific training and does not believe in God. Indeed, it was science that brought me not only to a belief in God, but also to faith in Christianity. I have an earned Ph.D. from the University of Rochester in nuclear chemistry and a B.S. in chemistry from the same institution.

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