Will America’s disregard for science be the end of its reign?

Confirmation bias is baked into the DNA of America, but it may soon be the nation's undoing.

MICHAEL SHERMER: Because of the internet, especially, this whole idea of what we now call fake news, alternative facts has gotten bigger and bigger.

KURT ANDERSEN: You look at this history and it's like, "Oh, we should've seen this coming."
We were softened up as a people to believe what we want to believe.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: This is irresponsible. Plus, it means you don't know how science works.

MARGARET ATWOOD: People do not want to give up their cherished beliefs, especially cherished beliefs that they find comforting.

ANDERSEN: We have this new infrastructure, that I think is new, that I think is a new condition. In 1860, southerners didn't say, "Oh, no, there are no slaves. No, no, no, there's no slavery."

BILL NYE: The United States used to be the world leader in technology, but when you have this group of leaders, elected officials, who are anti-science, you're setting the US back and then ultimately setting the world back.

KURT ANDERSEN: Americans have always been magical thinkers and passionate believers in the untrue. We were started by the Puritans in New England who wanted to create, and did create, a Christian utopia and theocracy as they waited for the imminent second coming of Christ and the end of days. And in the South by a bunch of people who were convinced, absolutely convinced, that this place they'd never been was full of gold just to be plucked from the dirt in Virginia. And they stayed there looking and hoping for gold for 20 years before they finally, finally faced the facts and the evidence and decided that they weren't going to get rich overnight there.

So that was the beginning. And then we've had centuries of 'buyer beware' charlatanism to an extreme degree and medical quackery to an extreme degree, and increasingly exotic, extravagant, implausible religions over and over again from Mormonism, to Christian science, to Scientology in the last century. And we've had this anti-establishment, "I'm not going to trust the experts. I'm not going to trust the elite," in our character from the beginning. Now, all those things came together and were supercharged in the 1960s when you were entitled to your own truth and your own reality. Then, a generation later when the internet came along, giving each of those realities, no matter how false or magical or nutty they are, their own kind of media infrastructure.

We had entertainment, again, for our whole last couple 100 years, but especially in the last 50 years, permeating all the rest of life, including presidential politics, from John F. Kennedy through Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton. So, the thing was set up for Donald Trump to exploit all these various American threads and astonishingly become president. But then you look at this history and it's like, "Oh, we should've seen this coming."

TYSON: The power of journalism: A mistake becomes truth. The print journalism is taking what I said and turning it into an article, so it has to pass through the journalist, get processed, and then it becomes some written content on a page. One hundred percent of those experiences, the journalist got something fundamentally wrong with the subject matter. And just as an interesting point about the power of journalists, I had people read the article and say, "Neil, you must know better than that. That's not how this works." They assumed the journalist was correct about reporting what I said, not that I was correct and that the journalists was wrong. This is an interesting power that journalists have over whether you think what they're writing is true or not. That was decades ago. In recent years, what I think has happened is that they're more journalists who are science fluent that are writing about science than was the case 20 years ago. So now I don't have to worry about the journalist missing something fundamental about what I'm trying to describe. And reporting has been much more accurate in recent years, I'm happy to report. However, there's something that has not been fixed in journalism yet. It's their urge to get the story first, the science story. The breaking news about a discovery. The urge to get it first means they're reporting on something that's not yet verified by other scientific experiments. If it's not yet verified, it's not there yet. And you're more likely to write about a story that is most extraordinary. And the more extraordinary the single scientific result is, the less likely it is that it's going to be true. So you need some restraint there or some way to buffer the account. I don't want you to not talk about it, but say, "This is not yet verified. It's not yet this, it's not yet that. And it's been criticized by these other people anyway." So be more open about how wrong the thing is you're reporting on could be, because otherwise you're doing a disservice to the public. And that disservice is that people out there say, "Scientists don't know anything." But what gives you that idea? "Well, one week cholesterol is good for you and the next week it's bad for you. They don't know what they're doing!" That's on the frontier. On the frontier, science is flip-flopping all the time. Yes, if you're going to report from the frontier, it looks like scientists are clueless about everything. You take a few steps behind the line, where experiments have verified and re verified results, that's the stuff for the textbooks. That's the stuff that is objectively true. That's the stuff you should be paying attention to. That's the stuff where you should be thinking about laws and legislation related to that. If you speak to journalists, they say, "We need a fair and balanced article. So if you say this, we will go to someone else with the opposite view and that way it's fair and balanced." Where do you draw the line? You realize Earth goes around the Sun, right? "Oh yeah. Of course." If someone says the Sun goes around the earth, are you going to give them equal time? "Well, of course not because that's just ridiculous." Fine. Now, how about how much column space you're giving to climate change. "Well, there's scientists who say it's real, there's scientists are not. So we're giving them equal time, equal space." Are they equal in the literature? No. Are they equal in impact? No. Are they equal in any way? No. Except in your journalistic philosophy, you want to give more column space to something that is shown to be false by the consensus of observation and experiment that's out there. And you think you're honoring your journalistic credo, but you're not—not on that level. It's like saying the Sun goes around the earth, as far as I'm concerned. That's patently absurd to you. So you got to know where you draw that line because with matters of science, it's not simply, 'What's the other opposite opinion I can get on it?' Look to see how much scientific agreement has descended upon that statement. And if there's not much agreement, then fine, talk about the whole frontier. There's plenty of that. Just go to any scientific conference. You want to get multiple views on something? That's where you'd get it. But the moment something enters the canon of objective knowledge and objective truths, that's the kind of emergent truth that we have with climate change. Humans warming the planet. That's the kind of agreement we have in scientific research. Oh, you think it's some other way. You want it to be... That's odd. If you went to your doctor and you have some ailment and the doctor says, "You can take this pill, which three percent of all research says will cure you, or you can take this pill, which 97% of all research says will cure you." Which one are you going to walk away from the doctor's office with? The 97% pill, of course. Yet, you walk out of there and say, "Oh, I believe the three percent who say we're not warming the planet." This is irresponsible. Plus it means you don't know how science works.

SHERMER: Because of the internet, especially, this whole idea of what we now call fake news, alternative facts, has gotten bigger and bigger and it just gets unfolded in real time, online, within minutes and hours. And we have to jump on it fast. What the skeptical movement has developed is a set of tools with particular claims that are on the margins of science, like creationism, intelligent design theory, the anti-vaccinations, the Holocaust revisionists. All these conspiracy theories and so on, all these alternative medicines. And there are hundreds and hundreds of these claims that are all connected to different sciences but the scientists in those particular fields are too busy working in their research to bother with what these claims are, because the claims really aren't about those fields. They're just hooked to them. They're about something else, because back in the '80s when I first saw some professional scientists debate Duane Gish, the young-Earth creationist, they did not fare well. And I saw some Holocaust historians debating or confronting Holocaust so-called revisionists or deniers. They did not fare well because they didn't know the special arguments that are being made by these fringe people that have nothing to do with the science, really. They have an agenda and they're using these little tweak questions to get at the mainstream and try to debunk it for their own ideological reasons. So, for example, like Holocaust revisionists, they make this big deal about why the door on the gas chamber at Mauthausen doesn't lock. I mean, if it doesn't lock, how are you gassing people, if you can't lock the door? So they must not have gassed people in there. So if they didn't gas people at Mauthausen they probably didn't gas people at any of the death camps, and if they didn't gas people at any of the death camps, then there must not have been a Holocaust. What? Wait a minute, what? All from this door that doesn't lock? Well, I eventually went and found out that that wasn't the original door, that took me a couple of years. But that's the kind of specialty thing that skeptics do that mainstream scientists, scholars, historians don't have time to do.

ANDERSEN: The idea of America from the beginning was that you could come here, reinvent yourself, be anybody you want, live any way you wanted, believe anything you wanted. For the first few hundred years, like everywhere else in the world, celebrity and fame were a result of some kind of accomplishment or achievement, sometimes not a great accomplishment or achievement, but you did something in the world to earn renown. America really was the key place that invented the modern celebrity culture which was, beginning a century ago, more and more, not necessarily about having won a war or lead people or written a great book or painted a great painting, but about being famous. Fame for its own sake. We created that. We created Hollywood, we created the whole culture industry and that then became what I call the fantasy industrial complex where, certainly in the last few decades, more than ever, more than anybody thought possible before, fame for its own sake, fame itself—however you got it—was a primary goal for people. And again, as so many of the things I talk about in 'Fantasyland', not uniquely to America, but more here than anywhere. And then you get reality television, which was this unholy hybrid of the fictional and the real for the last, now, generation, where that blur between 'What's real and what's not?' is pumped into our media stream, willy nilly. There are now more reality shows on television than there were shows on television 20 years ago.

ATWOOD: If you look at the history of what happened to Darwin when he published. What would you call that? Yes, he was hugely attacked at the time. And it's often a case of people do not want to give up their cherished beliefs, especially cherished beliefs that they find comforting. So, it's no good for Richard Dawkins to say, 'Let us stand on the bold, bare promontory of truth and acknowledge the basically nothingness of ourselves.' People don't find that cozy. So they will go around the block not to do that. And that's very understandable and human. And religious thinking, the idea that there's somebody bigger than you out there who might be helpful to you if certain rules are observed, that goes back so far, we probably have an epigene or something, or a cluster of epigenes, for that. And you see it a lot in small children. There is a monster under the bed and you can't tell them there isn't—they don't find that reassuring. What you can tell them is, "Yes, there is a monster under that bed. But as long as I put this cabbage right in this spot, it can't come out."

ANDERSEN: Like all humans, Americans suffer from what's called confirmation bias, which is, "Oh, I believe this. I will look for facts or pseudo-facts or fictions that confirm my preexisting beliefs." Americans long before psychologists invented that phrase, confirmation bias, had that tendency. Again, at the very beginning: 'I've never been to the new world. Nobody I know has been in the new world. I've never really read any firsthand accounts of the new world, but I'm going to give up my life and go there because it's going to be awesome and perfect. And I'm going to get rich overnight and/or create a Christian utopia.' So we began that way and that has kept up. I just want to believe what I want to believe. And don't let your lying eyes tell you anything different.

ATWOOD: When science is telling you something that you really find very inconvenient, and that is the history of global warming and the changes that we are certainly already seeing around us. First of all, it was denial. 'It cannot be happening.' Now, there's grudging admission as things flood and droughts kick in and food supplies drop, and the sea level rises, and the glaciers melt, big time. I have seen that, been there. You can't deny that it's happening, but you then have to pretend that it's nothing to do with us. So we don't have to change our behavior. That's the thinking around that.

WADE CROWFOOT: If we ignore that science and put our head in the sand and think it's all about vegetation management, we're not going to succeed together protecting Californians.

DONALD TRUMP: Okay, it'll start getting cooler. You just watch.

CROWFOOT: I wish science agreed with you.

TRUMP: Well, I don't think science knows, actually.

ATWOOD: And that can get very entrenched until people see that by trying to solve the problem, jobs can be created and money can be made. And that will be the real tipping point in public consciousness in this country. Other countries are already there.

ANDERSEN: Believing whatever nutty thing you want to believe, or pretending you are whatever you are, or having even kooky conspiracy theories or speaking in tongues, whatever it is, fine—if it's private. The problem is when that, as it has in the last couple of decades especially, leaches into the public sphere and the policy sphere and like, "Nah, there's no global warming. We don't have to worry about the seas rising," or "Nah, scientists say that vaccines are safe but I think they cause autism, so I'm not going to vaccinate my children." And so on and so on and so on. That's when the rubber hits the road—will hit the road—and people will start saying, "Wait a minute." Not until then, not until there's a consequence and not until there's a price to pay.

NYE: By having a population of people who don't really understand germs and how serious they are, the germ gets spread really readily. There is a faction of our leaders, elected officials, who continually cuts the budget for the Centers for Disease Control, which to me reflects an ignorance of how serious germs can be. In my opinion, we should be supporting that research full bore—but at the same time, don't curtail research in other germs, which is going on at the Centers for Disease Control, for example, all the time. That's not where you save your money, Congress. But if you don't believe in the seriousness of it, and you have a mistrust of scientists, if you have a mistrust of engineers, you're not going to help us out with that, are you? So it's a very serious concern of mine. I mean, the United States used to be the world leader in technology, but when you have this group of leaders, elected officials, who are anti-science, you're setting the US back and then ultimately setting the world back.

SHERMER: Let's address the college campus issue these days. I really think this goes back to the 1980s. I noticed it first when I was in graduate school the second time when I got a PhD in the history of science. My first round was in the '70s in experimental psychology, graduate school, and I didn't notice any of this campus stuff. In the late '80s, when I was in my doctoral program, because history deals a lot with literature, the kind of post-modernist deconstruction of what texts mean was really taking off. And so I initially thought, "What is this? But, okay I'll give it a shot. I'll keep an open mind here and just try to follow the reasoning." And I can kind of see where they were going. So what is the true meaning of Jane Austen's novel here, or Shakespeare's play there, or this novelist or that author? And I can see that there may not be one meaning; maybe the author meant it as provoking you to think about certain deep issues and you have to find your own meaning in the text. Okay, I can understand that, but then it kind of started to spill over into history and I was studying the history of science. And I like to think of science as progressing towards some better understanding of reality that I believe is really there. And it's not that science is perfect and we're going to get to a perfect understanding of reality—I know that's not going to happen. But it's not the same as literature. It's not the same as art and music. It's different than that. If Darwin hadn't discovered evolution, somebody else would have—in fact, somebody did: Alfred Russel Wallace discovered natural selection as the mechanism of evolution. And if Newton hadn't discovered the calculus somebody else would've. Well, they did: Leibniz. And so on. These are things that are out there to be discovered, and I see that differently than art and music and literature, which is constructing ideas out of your mind.

So, I don't think that the post-modern deconstruction of the text applies completely to history. And you can see immediately why it fails, because this is what led to, in the '90s, the whole Holocaust denial movement, so-called revisionists. They call themselves revisionists and the argument was: 'All history is text. It's just written by the winners and the winners write themselves as the good guys, and the losers are the bad guys. And this is all unfair. And, look, maybe the winners here have unfairly critiqued Hitler and the Nazis.' and so on. Yeah. But what about that Holocaust thing? It looks pretty bad. 'Yeah. Yeah. Well, maybe it didn't happen the way we have been led to believe it happened because, again, the history of the Holocaust is written by the winners.' You can see immediately why this kind of textual analysis can cascade into complete moral relativism and insane ideas like Holocaust denial. That's when I thought, okay, this is wrong. This has gone too far. And in the mid-'90s, after we founded the skeptics and Skeptic Magazine in '92, this is one of the earliest things we started going after because it was around '95 or so that the so-called 'science wars' took off. And that science is just another way of knowing the world, no different and no better than any other way of knowing the world. Wait, wait, wait, time out. What was that part about, we're just like everybody else? Science has its flaws, but it's not just like art or music. It's different.

So then, by the 2000s, I think this really trickled down into all of the social sciences: anthropology, biology, evolutionary biology, and just attack, attack, attack to the point where any particular viewpoint that an oppressed minority finds offensive—or anybody finds offensive—can be considered a kind of hate speech or a kind of violence. And you can sort of see the reasoning from back in the 1980s all the way through to today. You can see how they get there, but we should have drawn that line and stopped—well, a bunch of us tried to stop it back in the '90s. And well, it had a momentum of its own.

ANDERSEN: What has been enabled in the last 30 years, first through deregulated talk radio where you didn't have to be fair and balanced anymore, then national cable television—FOX News comes to mind—and then, of course, the internet as well, where these more and more not just politically different points of view, but these alternate factual realities could be portrayed and depicted. We've been in that state now for 20 years or more. Again, we were softened up as a people to believe what we want to believe, but we have this new infrastructure that I think is new, that I think is a new condition. So, there's a history of, "Oh, I believe this," or "I believe this." Or "Slavery is good." "No, slavery is bad." Those are disagreements, but in 1860 southerners didn't say, "Oh, no, there are no slaves. No, no, no, there's no slavery." That's the condition we have now, that is the Kellyanne-Conway-Donald-Trump situation—and Republican Party situation before Donald Trump ever came along—where we say, "No, no, there's no climate change." Or, "Oh, this factual truth is not true." That's the new thing. And this new media infrastructure is a new condition. Now it may not be the end of things as a result, but we don't know yet. We're only 20 years into it. And maybe we'll learn new protocols of what to believe and whatnot, and we'll grow up and be able to accommodate ourselves to this new media situation. But I'm worried that we won't, and I'm worried that a significant fraction of us—for now, mostly on the right, but there's no reason it should be limited to the right—will be in their bubble and their silo and with their own reality and not be able to be retrieved into the reality-based world.

  • From America's inception, there has always been a rebellious, anti-establishment mentality. That way of thinking has become more reckless now that the entire world is interconnected and there are added layers of verification (or repudiation) of facts.
  • As the great minds in this video can attest, there are systems and mechanisms in place to discern between opinion and truth. By making conscious efforts to undermine and ignore those systems at every turn (climate change, conspiracy theories, coronavirus, politics, etc.), America has compromised its position of power and effectively stunted its own growth.
  • A part of the problem, according to writer and radio host Kurt Andersen, is a new media infrastructure that allows for false opinions to persist and spread to others. Is it the beginning of the end of the American empire?

Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
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