Science Denial Can’t be Cured by Education

A recent LA Times op-ed by Pat Morrison addressed important similarities between creationists and anti-vaccine advocates, both of whom affect the collective intellectual and physical health of those around them due to their rejection of scientific evidence. Though it is an important point, it only scrapes the surface of larger issues surrounding pervasive skepticism and the borrowing of scientific authority.

In associating science with faith, deniers of current scientific knowledge present theirs as the “true” science. They portray themselves as fighting hegemonic elites who wish to silence minority opposition. Anti-vaxxers claim the right to abstain, equating scientific practice with replacing parental control, while creationists point to gaps in scientific research and claim that science requires a greater leap of faith than religious explanations.

Morrison’s original comparison of creationists and anti-vaxxers begins to uncover this larger, pervasive issue of skepticism that ignores scientific evidence and authority, and replaces it with a façade of scientific inquiry. The key mistake in the piece however, is the ending which states, “Ignorance is curable by education, but willfully ignoring the facts can be contagious—and even fatal.”

To assume that education is the missing link between those who accept and those who deny widely-accepted science is to oversimplify the argumentative frameworks that each occupies.

Those who believe in creationism tie their beliefs to every action of their lives as a guiding force. The origin of humanity is not merely an issue of fact, but of the definition and explanation for one’s entire life. Rejecting creationism or not fighting for its inclusion in schools is viewed as a betrayal of faith and submission to the elites of science that denies alternative explanations.

Anti-vaxxers are focused on protecting their children and the children of others, an extremely powerful motivating factor. Simply presenting new information or facts may not deter strongly held beliefs influenced by celebrity moms or one’s peers.

Those who deny climate change may find themselves more fiercely loyal to a political party or economic influences than long-term environmental protection. More science and data may fall on deaf ears, as other priorities overshadow and complicate the acceptance of new information.

Kenneth Burke, rhetorician and scholar, wrote in Attitudes Towards History, “The shift to another attitude, requiring a different rationalization, does involve ‘conflict.’ Insofar as we do not ‘travel light,’ we thus assemble much intellectual baggage, and the attempt to reshape this to new exigencies may require considerable enterprise.” To replace the baggage collected over one’s entire life with new, contradictory exigencies nearly requires rejection. Introducing new information or repeating old information through education is rarely enough to shift rationalizations for action and behavior.

Skeptics do not “ignore the facts”; they simply do not respect the facts lauded by scientific frameworks. Instead, they replace those facts with their own facts such as the importance of God’s role in human origins, the autonomy of parents over children, and the benefits of short term party loyalty over long term environmental protection. The issue is not ignorance, then, but the warring frameworks that are currently empowered by a skeptical culture to reject scientific authority. The focus should be on separating what is science and what is not, giving skeptics a voice, but not allowing that voice to be labeled “scientific.”

Emma Frances (E.F.) Bloomfield is a PhD student in the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California.

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