The Age of Denial, or the Age of Skepticism?

Last Thursday’s New York Times published an op-ed article, “Welcome to the Age of Denial,” by Professor Adam Frank. He condemns a very real and very dangerous trend in American society of denying scientific facts, both on the political stage and in households. He writes that we live in a climate in which it is “politically effective, and socially acceptable to deny scientific fact.” I agree, and Frank’s own evidence below is very supportive of this disappointing statement:

Meanwhile, climate deniers, taking pages from the creationists’ PR playbook, have manufactured doubt about fundamental issues in climate science that were decided scientifically decades ago. And anti-vaccine campaigners brandish a few long-discredited studies to make unproven claims about links between autism and vaccination.

The list goes on. North Carolina has banned state planners from using climate data in their projections of future sea levels. So many Oregon parents have refused vaccination that the state is revising its school entry policies.

But I don’t agree with his next statement:

And all of this is happening in a culture that is less engaged with science and technology as intellectual pursuits than at any point I can remember.

Personally, I do not find much evidence as to our culture as being “less engaged with science and technology as intellectual pursuits,” and the author did not seem to provide any specific information concerning this cultural character. STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields are burgeoning and our everyday lives seem to become intertwined with scientific and technological advancements at an accelerating rate. However, I do find that the very evidence of scientific denial may also be evidence of a specific effect of the popularization of scientific engagement itself.

Essential to the scientific mode of thought is skepticism – that is, a reluctance to accept the validity of a claim until we are satisfied with the evidence available to prove its truth. I do not doubt that the “denial” we find in American politicians, legislation, and households may arise partly out of fear, religious belief, or other causes, but perhaps it, or certain instances of it, could also be the result of skepticism.

Frank’s article criticizes “deniers” for going against general consensus within the scientific community in regards to climate change and vaccination which run contrary to the deniers’ beliefs.  He also has the following  values:

1) a society that embraces (rather than being “ambivalent or “skeptical of”) “the fruits of science”

2) “an understanding that science’s open-ended, evidence-based processes — rather than just its results — are essential to meeting [the] challenges” facing society

I suppose that #1 should be interpreted to complement his critique of deniers who do not accept certain consensuses within the climate community. Again, as a stated above, certain “deniers” may not revere science and doubt the veracity of scientific findings, perhaps in favor of religion or pandering to a certain political demographic.  These people may not think skeptically and prefer to accept studies contrary to consensus if they better fit their own personal beliefs or desires. However, if Frank criticizes these people for being “ambivalent, even skeptical of the fruits of science,” then it seems that he would prefer they embrace scientific consensuses (the “fruits” in question) at face value.

However, I find it difficult to reconcile this interpretation of #1 with #2. For society to value “science’s open-ended, evidence-based process,” it will have to value the skepticism that goes along with this empirical process. Perhaps those who “deny” but have embraced the skepticism of the scientific process can be converted by becoming more effectively educated about thorough explanations and data concerning the scientific issues, but they can hardly be expected to embrace “the fruits of science” presented to them unquestioningly.

Frank continues to explain scientists’ expectations for consistent progress towards a “world where science was embraced by an ever-larger fraction of the population…never implied turning science into a religion.” He begins his conclusion writing that “science is a way of behaving in the world. It is, simply put, a tradition. And as we know from history’s darkest moments, even the most enlightened traditions can be broken and lost.” While society’s embrace of science may not mean embracing it as a religion, it can have similar effects on human social development as religion – as a “way of behaving in the world” and a “tradition.” Skepticism, as an element of scientific thinking, has most likely been encouraged in human behavior as the tradition of science has gain traction over the years. It is possible that these deniers are skeptical beyond the evidence currently presented to them, that the mere presence of contradictory studies is reason enough to paralyze their desire to disrupt their status quo. The examples of climate-deniers and parents who refuse vaccinations represent static stances, which means taking these stances only requires to not act. For the “deniers,” or maybe extreme “skeptics,” their decisions may take some time to be disproven, perhaps until they really experience empirical results first-hand, rather than taking the words of others on faith. Indeed, it is even possible that the “deniers” who may act, or choose not to act, based on critical and skeptical thinking better exemplifies “scientific” behavior than those “non-deniers” who unquestioningly accept scientific conclusions provided to them by others. If we believe there is a trend of “denying” science, threatening to beak and lose this “enlightened tradition,” we should consider that the skepticism promoted by scientific behavior and tradition could be partly to blame.

***

This skeptical mode of thinking, that both drives scientific inquiry and may contribute to the decisions of climate-change-deniers and parents’ refusals of vaccinations for their children, was what I was attempting to analyze in the context of Friedrich Nietzsche’s discussions of religion and science in “Origin Horror Stories.” In this piece, I sought to analyze Nietzsche’s philosophical writings as an example of an examination of how humanity’s theory concerning its origins, including how the Divine relates to this theory, affects society. Nietzsche was concerned that science would take the place of religion’s role in human existence, and that scientific thought, specifically its skepticism, may have the consequence of paralyzing the human will for moral value creation. People do not need to be work in scientific fields to adopt some of the traits of scientific thinking. In adopting skepticism with neither other calculative qualities typical of scientific methodology nor accurate scientific knowledge, a human being is at risk of making poor decisions, especially concerning long-term consequences for which there is increased uncertainty.

In my opinion, scientific study is one of the most valuable resources for aiding us in our personal, social, and political decisions. Interacting with our environment and each other in healthy ways is central to our own subsistence. In our very interconnected human society, we are all at risk to suffer the consequences of the ill-informed decisions or inaction of others, whether they are government officials or our neighbors. Making these decisions is tricky though, as, to modify the words of Homer Simpson, skepticism could represent “the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems.”

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