Science isn’t Scary

by Gemma Woodhouse

Or so we keep saying. But the reality is more and more people are embracing ‘alternative thought’ movements; whether this be anti-GMO, anti-vaccine, flat-earth conspiracy, or believing that every scientist/doctor/healthcare professional in the world is working with Big Pharma to make you more sick.

The truth of the matter is that anti-science is becoming more and more popular. You may see this as completely ridiculous, but spend a day on Facebook and YouTube and you soon begin to realise the appeal of it all. Now, some facts are inescapable – nobody tried to deny the onset of both hurricanes recently. Yet, the climate processes which govern and drive the weather systems are hotly contested. Why do some facts get immediate acceptance and others get ignored or argued about?

It’s hard to ignore a hurricane. It’s easier to ignore melting ice caps and rising sea levels. One is immediate and devastating, the other slower and subtler. Humans are driven by the immediate; our immediate, primal needs for food, water, shelter, and mates. If we as individuals stand to lose any of that, we pre-empt as many negative outcomes as possible and try to prepare. However, ask us to prepare for an event potentially 100 years into the future, and suddenly our foresight fails us. We seem to be notoriously poor at planning for the distant future (Rome, anyone?). Some might argue it’s because we won’t be here to see the repercussions of our actions, but in light of biology this makes no sense. Humans shape the land to suit ourselves, we know this. Reproduction enables the continuation of our genepool. We know this too. So it makes no sense to potentially jeopardise our future genepool’s home planet.

Perhaps our own knowledge (and awareness of our own knowledge) is a self-limiting factor in our species: our big brains drive us forward industrially, but the arrogance and ego which develop from witnessing our own progress stop us from seeing our behaviour as destructive to the planet we live on. There are many people who acknowledge the devastation our species has caused and collectively work together to salvage what they can before any more is destroyed, but these people are not just shouting above the voices of climate deniers; they are also shouting above the deafening silence of the apathy, generated by the “not my problem” population. Sometimes it feels like fighting a losing battle, but no battle worth fighting was ever easy pickings.

Back to the original question; why do some people choose anti-science over science? It’s like shopping in the library for a diet plan. The science section promises grit, reality, slime, bacteria, equations, monotony, repetition, and far more fails than ‘eureka’ moments. The ending isn’t always what you wanted, 9/10 times it is nothing spectacular and it doesn’t make your soul smile. It’s the 5 a day, regular exercise, frustratingly slow progress that pays off for those who stick with it. The alternative science section promises overnight results and dramatic weight loss – it’s pretty and romantic and feel-good, it’s the thing you really want to be true. The endings always work out the way you want them to because the ones that don’t are edited out of the narrative. The catch? If you deviate from that plan for one second, you break the suspension of disbelief. Reality hits as you see the weight piling back on.

The entire marketing of anti-science targets a) those who are willing to suspend their disbelief for something which appears both inescapably beautiful and comforting, and b) those who simply know no other alternative. Admittedly, the latter is easier, which is why young and questioning minds are especially vulnerable to conspiracy theories. The science side are fighting back: making science more accessible is becoming an emergent practice, with notable faces such as Professor Brian Cox and Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson picking up the batons from forerunners such as Sir David Attenborough and Dr Carl Sagan; teaching children logical thinking and problem solving is becoming recognised as necessary; science cafés, blogs, and interactive museums all aim to encourage an understanding of the scientific method first hand. In addition to all this, we need to be understanding of those who are afraid of science by trying to discover where the fear stems from. Only by targeting the source of the fear itself can we hope to unravel the pseudo-protective web of anti-science which surrounds them.

Science isn’t scary. Of all the lessons we can teach, perhaps this is the most important.


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