The battles over evolution, climate change, childhood vaccinations, and the causes of AIDS, alternative medicine, oil shortages, population growth, and the place of science in our countryall are reaching a fevered pitch. Many people and institutions have exerted enormous efforts to misrepresent or flatly deny demonstrable scientific reality to protect their nonscientific ideology, their power, or their bottom line. To shed light on this darkness, Donald R. Prothero explains the scientific process and why society has come to rely on science not only to provide a better life but also to reach verifiable truths no other method can obtain. He describes how major scientific ideas that are accepted by the entire scientific community (evolution, anthropogenic global warming, vaccination, the HIV cause of AIDS, and others) have been attacked with totally unscientific arguments and methods. Prothero argues that science deniers pose a serious threat to society, as their attempts to subvert the truth have resulted in widespread scientific ignorance, increased risk of global catastrophes, and deaths due to the spread of diseases that could have been prevented.
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About the Author
Recipient of the 2013 James Shea Award of the National Association of Geology Teachers for outstanding writing and editing in the geosciences.
Donald R. Prothero is Emeritus Professor of Geology at Occidental College and Lecturer in Geobiology at the California Institute of Technology. He has published 32 books, including Rhinoceros Giants: The Paleobiology of Indricotheres (IUP, 2013); Earth: Portrait of a Planet; The Evolution of Earth; Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters; Catastrophes!; and After the Dinosaurs: The Age of Mammals (IUP, 2006).
Read an Excerpt
How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future
By Donald R. Prothero, Pat Linse
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2013 Donald R. Prothero
All rights reserved.
To treat your facts with imagination is one thing, but to imagine your facts is another. John Burroughs
What's real is what's real, and, like it or not, no one can change the nature of reality. Except, of course, with mushrooms. Bill Maher
Let us imagine a scenario:
This scientific consensus on this idea is accepted by 95–99% of all the scientists who work in the relevant fields;
This scientific topic threatens the viewpoints of certain groups in the United States, so it is strongly opposed by them and those they influence;
Their antiscientific viewpoint is extensively promoted by websites and publications of right-wing fundamentalist institutes such as the Discovery Institute in Seattle, and is often plugged by Fox News;
Opponents of this consensus cannot find legitimate scientists with expertise in the field who oppose the accepted science, so they beat the bushes for so-called scientists (none of whom have relevant training or research credentials) to compose a phony list of scientists who disagree on the topic;
Deniers of the scientific consensus resort to taking quotations out of context to make legitimate scientists sound as though they question the consensus;
Deniers of the scientific consensus often look for small disagreements among scholars within the field to argue that not everyone in the field supports their major conclusions;
Deniers often nitpick small errors on the part of individuals to argue that the entire field is unsound;
Deniers of the scientific consensus often focus on small examples or side issues that do not seem to support the consensus to argue that the consensus is false;
Deniers of the scientific consensus spend most of their energies disputing the scientific evidence, rather than doing original research themselves;
By loudly proclaiming their "alternate theories" and getting their paid hacks to question the scientific consensus in the media, they manage to make the American public confused and doubtful, so only half of U.S. citizens accept what 99% of legitimate scientists consider to be true;
By contrast, most modern industrialized nations (Canada, nearly all European countries, China, Japan, Singapore, and many others) have no problems with the scientific consensus, and treat it as a matter of fact in both their education and in their economic and political decisions;
The deniers are part of the right-wing Fox News echo chamber, and repeat the same lies and discredited arguments to themselves over and over again;
Powerful Republican politicians have used the controversy over this issue to force changes in the teaching of this topic in schools.
Most people reading through that list would immediately assume that it describes the creationists and their attempts to target the overwhelming scientific consensus on evolution. Indeed, the list could describe creationists, or evolution deniers—but it also describes the actions of the climate deniers (who deny global warming is real and caused by humans) as well. Indeed, the membership lists of creationists and climate change deniers have a great deal of overlap, and both causes are promoted equally by right-wing political candidates, news media (especially Fox News), and religious organizations such as the Discovery Institute.
Even more revealing is how these denier movements get the money to make such a fuss. As Deep Throat said in All the President's Men, "Follow the money." Both kinds of denialism are heavily funded by wealthy entities with vested interests that further their causes while characterizing them as populist grassroots movements in opposition to unpopular scientific topics. The creationists are funded not only by many rich fundamentalist churches, but also by powerful right-wing businessmen or institutes—such as Howard Ahmanson, Jr., the Coors family, the McClellan Institute, and the Stewardship Foundation. The climate deniers receive massive funding and support from the oil, coal, and other energy industries—especially ExxonMobil and Koch Industries—that are threatened by the possibility of our reduced dependence on oil and coal.
Let us make an important distinction here: these deniers are not just "skeptics" about climate change or any other scientific idea that they do not like. A skeptic is someone who does not believe things just because someone proclaims them, but tests them against evidence. Sooner or later, if the evidence is solid, then the skeptic must acknowledge that the claim is real. A denier, by contrast, is ideologically committed to attacking an opposing viewpoint, and no amount of evidence will change their minds. In the words of astronomer Phil Plait,
I have used the phrase "global warming denialists" in the past and gotten some people upset. A lot of them complain because they say the word denial puts them in the same bin as holocaust deniers.
That's too bad. But the thing is, they do have something in common: a denial of evidence and of scientific consensus.
Moon hoax believers put themselves in this basket as well; they call themselves skeptics, but they are far from it. Skepticism is a method that includes the demanding of evidence and critical analysis of it. That's not what Moon hoax believers do; they make stuff up, they don't look at all the evidence, they ignore evidence that goes against their claims. So they are not Moon landing skeptics, they are Moon landing deniers. They may start off as skeptics, but real skeptics understand the overwhelming evidence supporting the reality of the Moon landings. If, after examining that evidence, you still think Apollo was faked, then congratulations. You're a denier.
Really, it's this difference that biases people against skeptics like me. I am always accused of having a closed mind—of being a denier. But that's not only not true—I can be convinced I am wrong by evidence or a logical argument—but it's usually the person accusing me that has a mind closed against reality. No matter how much evidence you put in front of them showing them clearly and obviously that they are wrong, they refuse to see it.
BELIEF VS. REALITY
Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.
Philip K. Dick
Climate denialism and creationism have a lot in common with many other kinds of denialism. In each case, a well-entrenched belief system comes in conflict with scientific or historic reality, and the believers in this system decide to ignore or attack the facts that they do not want to accept. Holocaust deniers are a classic example of this. Despite the fact that we have hundreds of survivors who were victims and witnesses of the Holocaust (sadly, fewer and fewer of them remain) and accounts written by the Nazis themselves, the deniers keep on pushing their propaganda to a younger generation that has no memory of the Holocaust and does not get to hear about it in school. When you dig deep enough, the Holocaust deniers are nearly all hard-core antisemites and neo-Nazis who want to see the return of the Third Reich, but for public appearances they attempt a façade of legitimate scholarship. Most people regard the Holocaust deniers as a minor nuisance, but to the Jewish community they represent the threat that the Holocaust might happen again. In Germany and in several other European countries, it is a crime to deny that the Holocaust happened, and prominent deniers (such as David Irving) have been convicted and gone to prison. Yet in the Muslim world, Holocaust denial is commonly used to incite Muslims against Israel. Just in the past few years, we have heard numerous Muslim leaders (such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran) make statements of Holocaust denial with the full approval of his government and many other Muslims.
Human beings have many ideas that conflict with reality. Most of the time we regard them as just harmless cranks and curiosities. Just Google the term "Flat Earth Society" and you will find websites describing small but sincere groups of believers who are convinced that the earth is not a sphere but a flat disk. When confronted with photographs of the earth from space, they always claim that these images are fraudulent or doctored in some way. When the topic of the moon landings is raised, they claim it was all a NASA hoax filmed in a soundstage. Their insistence on a flat earth and a geocentric view of the world (with the earth, not the sun, at the center of the solar system) is based on biblical literalism. There are many verses in the Bible (e.g., Isaiah 11:12, 40:22, 44:24) that say so, and they believe the Bible must be literally true. Most people find them amusing and silly, but their belief system is just as strongly held as the beliefs of many of their audience. When these same people who laugh at the flat-earthers are confronted with aspects of their own belief systems that conflict with science and reality, they do not find the issue so amusing after all.
Likewise, there is an entire group of religious fanatics who still believe that Galileo (and Copernicus and every astronomer since then) was wrong and the Church was right in insisting the earth was the center of the universe. They held a conference in November 2010 that featured many speakers with impressive-sounding credentials (but none with any true scientific training in astronomy). The list of talk titles reveals a mix of weird science, paranoid conspiracy theories that claim the shots of earth from space are hoaxes, and apologias for the literal interpretation of the Bible that does indeed claim the earth is the center of the universe (as all ancient cultures believed). Ironically, the Catholic Church has long ago apologized for its persecution of Galileo and for its long rejection of the heliocentric solar system, so clearly they do not endorse these views by Catholics who do not follow their own church's teachings.
Sometimes, however, these crazy ideas have negative consequences and cannot just be dismissed as the human propensity to believe "weird things." In Appalachia, there are churches that routinely handle rattlesnakes, copperheads, and other poisonous serpents out of a conviction that their connection to God will protect them against snakebite and death. After all, the Bible says so (Mark 16:17–18; Luke 10:19). Most individuals in our society regard these people as a deluded cult, and find them amusing or appalling. Nevertheless, more than seventy people in these small churches have died of snakebite over the past eighty years—proof that their faith does not stop Mother Nature. The latest such person was Pastor Mack Wolford, who died in May 2012 from snakebite, just as his pastor father did in 1983.
Sometimes the belief systems are so dangerous that the cult followers lose their lives, as in the case of Jim Jones's People's Temple in Guyana in 1978 (913 people died drinking cyanide-laced Flavor Aid) or the Heaven's Gate cult, whose 39 members committed suicide in 1997 in the belief that aliens were aboard a comet and about to take them to heaven. Other belief systems demand that their followers physically abuse themselves, or stare into the sun until they are blind, or starve themselves.
These examples are indeed extreme, but most humans practice many behaviors that are in denial of reality. These include superstitions that a certain activity or item of clothing will bring luck to their favorite team, or gambling in the lottery or casinos. We like to think of ourselves as rational beings, but we fall back on irrational thinking and behavior time and time again. For example, we often make the mistake of assuming that if two events happen together, one must have caused the other. An example is the urban myth of "earthquake weather," the idea that earthquakes happen when a particularly hot day occurs. There is no link, of course, and it makes no sense, since earthquakes are generated many kilometers down in the earth's crust and cannot feel the daily changes in weather, which only penetrate a few centimeters down into the ground. This, and many other examples, of two phenomena that seem to be connected but are not, is commonly known as the post hoc fallacy (from the Latin Post hoc ergo propter hoc, "After this, therefore because of this"). Scottish philosopher David Hume put it in a more modern context by pointing out that correlation does not equal causation. Just because two events occurred together does not mean they are related or causally connected.
Another example is the old myth that sleeping while wearing your shoes causes a headache. A closer examination of the facts shows that the shoes did not cause a headache; drunks who fall asleep without taking off their shoes almost always have a hangover headache the next day. This is similar to the situation with the anti-vaccine deniers discussed in chapter 7. They claim to have noticed signs of autistic behavior in their children about the time that the child received certain shots (such as the MMR vaccine), and assume that the shots caused autism. But as chapter 7 shows, this is a coincidence, not cause and effect. It just happens that autistic symptoms show up in most developing children at about eighteen months, the same age when these shots are given. Correlation does not necessarily prove causation.
Why do people fall for this type of thinking? Much of it is hardwired in our brains because it conferred survival value, and the ability to see patterns and connections was a particularly important skill. When we were small and helpless and hunted by a wide variety of large, terrible predators during the Ice Ages, a fast reaction on our part to a sound or to a movement might have meant escape and survival. Making links and connections between various events is how people navigate complex environments. In the past, it helped us to hunt, find food, and avoid death; now it helps us deal with people and keep track of large amounts of information. The curious hominid who stopped to discern whether a threat was real might end up as lunch for a saber-toothed cat. So, like a skittish deer or bird, we correlate any unusual sounds or movements with threats, even though these things rarely threaten us any more.
Another common fallacy hardwired into our brains is confirmation bias. Humans tend to see what they expect to see, and forget when things do not match expectations. We hear evidence that appears to support our existing belief systems, and ignore or try to discount evidence that suggests we might be wrong. We correlate events with a wide variety of belief systems, and whenever the events seem to respond to our prayers, we claim that our beliefs made it so. A typical fortune-teller or medium or psychic or faith healer works with confirmation bias when they conduct a session, using the principle of cold reading. They start by describing very general things that commonly trouble most people and that may or may not be true about you. If you give them any positive feedback (by speech or body language), they then zero in on your cues and make more and more specific predictions. Yet if you sit down with a transcript of a psychic reading, you will find that the psychic or fortune-teller was more often wrong than right—but every time they get one thing right by random guessing and following our cues, we forget the ten times they were wrong.
In short, humans are very easily fooled, and believe all sorts of "weird things" that are manifestly not true. We are very easily deceived and duped, especially by our own instincts and training, and often make disastrous decisions based on these false beliefs. As the Nobel Prize–winning physicist Richard Feynman said, "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool."
So how do we avoid fooling ourselves? How do we avoid getting caught up in weird beliefs and find out what is real? Many people have their own ideas about this—from religious beliefs to political dogmas—but the one method that has worked time and again is the scientific method. That is the subject of our next chapter.
Excerpted from Reality Check by Donald R. Prothero, Pat Linse. Copyright © 2013 Donald R. Prothero. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. Reality Check
Belief vs. Reality
2. Science, our Candle in the Darkness
A World Transformed
What Is Science?
Whom Can We Trust?
3. Selling Out Science
"Cancer by the Carton"
The Truth Will Set You FreeIf You Can Find It
Secondhand Smoke Kills, Too
Star Wars vs. Nuclear WinterHow To Crucify Carl Sagan
4. Making the Environment the Enemy: Acid Rain, the Ozone Hole, and the Demonization of Rachel Carson
The Tragedy of the Commons
Acid Rain: Death from the Skies
The Ozone Hole: Another Environmental Crisis Resolved
Rachel Carson and DDT: How Far Will the Anti-Environmentalists Go?
5. Warm Enough for You?
Political Hot Air
Global Climate Change: the Scientific Evidence
The Global Climate Denialist Conspiracy
It’s all Politicsand Our Planet Is the Hostage
6. Gimme that Old Time Religion: Creationism and the Denial of Humanity’s Place in Nature
The Battle that Never Ends
Why Do We Say Evolution Is Real?
What Is Creationism?
What Is Intelligent Design Creationism?
The Creationists’ Standard (Discredited) Arguments
Why Should We Care?
7. Jenny’s Body Count: Playing Russian Roulette with Our Children
The "Good Old Days"
Vaccines and Autism: Is There a Link?
Playing Russian RouletteWith Other People’s Children
8. Victims of Modern Witch Doctors: AIDS Denialism
The Strangest Denialism of All
The Scourge of Africa
Ignorance that Kills: AIDS Denialism
9. If it Quacks like a Quack: Snake-Oil Con Artists in an Era of Medical Science
Modern Snake-Oil Salesmen
Homeopathy: The "Water Cure" Revisited
Back-Cracking: The Chiropractic Con Game
Where is the Evidence?
10. Down the Slope of Hubbert’s Curve: The End of Cheap Oil and Natural Resources
The Never-Ending Oil Crisis
The Wealth of Nations
What People are Saying About This
Prothero is a skeptic. So am I. When we call ourselves skeptics we mean simply that we take a scientific approach to the evaluation of claims. Science is skepticism and scientists are naturally skeptical because most claims turn out to be false. Weeding out the few kernels of wheat from the substantial pile of chaff requires extensive observation, careful experimentation, and cautious inference to the best conclusion. Donald Prothero is a scientist's scientist in this regard. . . . In this volume you will indeed get a reality check on some of the most important issues of our time.