In an op-ed piece in the New York Times entitled “Welcome to the Age of Denial,” physicist Adam Frank whines about the fact that creationism and “anthropogenic global warming denial” has actually become significantly more popular since the early 80s. He bemoans that the steady march of scientific progress has not stamped out the last remnants of religious superstition and political bias, as so many “scientists” had hoped and expected.
Frank assumes the main reasons for this are the disengagement of the scientific community from the cultural debate, the falling standards of science education, and the “scientization of politics.”
I don’t disagree with him that scientists have lost the battle for the heart of the culture. I don’t disagree that educational standards in the United States are beyond pathetic. And I also think that science and politics have become dangerously codependent, though not in the way he supposes.
But I don’t believe those things really explain the rising popularity of denying the “majority opinion.” I think the main reason for that trend has to do with the decentralization of intellectual authority and the politicization of science (not the “scientization of politics,” as Frank mentions).
In the fifties, the smart men in white lab coats told us what was true. And we believed them. They were the source of truth. They had no biases. They weren’t on anyone’s side. They could be trusted as harbingers of naked fact. The scientist (like the police officer, the president, and the corporation) was a lily white representative of perfectly selfless dependability.
Those days are long gone. Stories of police abuse, corporate corruption, and electioneering have nearly destroyed any trust we once placed in authorities. These stories are widely distributed almost instantly through the internet. The internet also allows for a nearly infinite number of dissenting minority voices. These voices challenge everything, using the vast resources available in our age to scrutinize even the most well-established theories. The lab technician and college professor no longer hold unassailably unique positions of intellectual authority.
We simply don’t believe authority figures anymore. When my generation considers corporations, politicians, and scientists, we think of how much we have been lied to in the past. And we won’t allow ourselves to be led down another blind alley. We don’t believe they have our best interests at heart.
Because, mostly, they don’t. For years, science has leeched off of the taxpayer rather than fuel itself by independent passions and private funds. This dependence on civil government funding (the politicization of science) has debilitated the scientific community’s neutrality. In order to get funding, scientists have been pressured to tow the line. They have done this enough in the past that we just decided to stop believing in the process. In our eyes, science became just another authoritarian power grab. And we aren’t having it.
Frank’s solution is for scientists to re-engage. He believes Carl Sagan to be a good example of cultural engagement. I agree with Frank that scientists need to take creationism and climate change denial seriously, but I don’t think it will work out like he thinks. Carl Sagan enjoyed the tail end of the Leave it to Beaver optimism and trust of a more docile American public. That public doesn’t exist anymore. And it is going to take more than a few television spots to convince us that scientists care about the truth more than they care about growing their credentials or securing a paycheck.
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