Tuesday, 9 March 2010

From the disbelief to the distrust

Science do not require belief, actually science try to fight belief most of the time in favour of trusting what can be proved and demonstrated, and the things that can’t be proved or demonstrated as religion and philosophy, are just taken apart, out of the scope of science. However every day I see more and more people refusing to trust science, to some extremes that are frankly alarming.

I just read this excellent article who discusses the topic: The trouble with trusting complex science, and I recommend its reading, it talks about a lot of problems that science and the general public face in this day and age.

The first one is about the access to the information. Let’s face it, science is not easy to be understood if you don’t have a basic scientific training, in could be confusing and boring to the “lay” people, and even if all the scientific knowledge was open to everybody, just a few will understand it for real. However, the alarming thing is that people who can have a basic understanding do not read the scientific studies for two main things. First laziness, except for some science geeks like myself, people don’t want to spend hours reading papers about science if it is not their “homework”, and second, availability, most of the primary sources of information, the first hand knowledge is published solely in scientific journals, that sadly, are not for free. So spending 20 quid to read just one article that may interest you, is out of the question for many. I think that information, specially this important information should be free, why to keep the firsthand knowledge in the hands of just a few?

After this, people then rely in second, third or fourth hand sources to inform themselves, in this era of information, disinformation is equally powerful and disturbing. Some popular books and media articles use pseudoscientific vocabulary to, ironically, attack science and it’s facts.

But Why? I mean if someone would publish a book saying that in reality the planets, sun and moon orbit the earth, and that all the satellite, telescope and books about the heliocentric nature of our planetary system is just a conspiracy and that there are no facts to sustain it... what will you think about him/her? My first thought will be, why do you believe that? Why are you refusing to see the evidence? And who benefits with you and your friends questioning some accepted facts?

Well, there are a lot of examples of people doing this: there are the creationist who call evolution a “laughable theory” and think that everything happened as the Bible said. There are the climate change deniers, who refuse to take the evidence into account and shout that everything is just a conspiracy, there are the ones who believe that sugar pills and drops of water can cure people even when evidence says that they don’t; there are the ones who believe that they daily horoscope is going to give them hints of their future, even when it’s just psychological discourses so open to interpretation that anyone can relate to them, oh and by the way they don’t even acknowledge that the star map on our skies is so different from ancient Greece. And the list goes on and on, and on.


Well, I have not all the answers of course, but I have some clues of what are the ulterior motives. And we are not talking about conspiracy theories of a New World Order in a magnitude as you can see in youtube. But realistic economic and political interests that move all that along. Information means power, disinformation means much more power, if you are able to confuse people to the extent that they don’t know what is real and what is not, to the extend that everything becomes relative, then those people are easier to manage, to keep them consuming without thinking of the consequences, of saying any lie enough times so the public think is true, to gain the war against critical thought, against rational and honest scrutiny, and therefore have free road to do as they want. This is no conspiracy is a reality that has being in use for centuries, mastered by many people from the Roman Emperors, later the Roman Popes, the Kings and Queens, or the dictators and the people behind them, from Richelieu to Goebbels.

It seems that people don’t care about facts and the truth, I was amazed when I read on the article I mentioned before this: In 2008 the Washington Post summarised recent psychological research on misinformation. This shows that in some cases debunking a false story can increase the number of people who believe it. In one study, 34% of conservatives who were told about the Bush government's claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction were inclined to believe them. But among those who were shown that the government's claims were later comprehensively refuted by the Duelfer report, 64% ended up believing that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. It looks that even when evidence is thrown to their faces they refuse to accept it. And here we are not talking about the “interests” behind, they just put the trail of bread-crumbs, but is the people the one who enter freely and on their free will to their game.


Because it is easier. Let’s take the example of climate change deniers. Accepting that there’s a climate change and that man-generated pollution is affecting it to a great degree is not easy to embrace, because there’s then only two options, either you become a cynical person that cares for no-one but himself and continues consuming and wasting energy, and on a consumerist way of life, prey of fashion and false needs. Or you realize that the only way of fighting this challenge is that everyone of us, not only our governments, make a change in our lives, attitudes, habits, etc. So the easy stance is “I’m not going to change”. But since most of people don’t want to feel like insensitive selfish bitches, then, deny that there’s a problem, hence embrace those theories. Like an alcoholic who refuses to accept his problem and says that you are limiting his freedom to drink if you say to him that is wrong. Another example, the horoscopes and homeopathy. People usually can bare the thought of not having control of their lives, not knowing what is going to happen next. Let’s face it, people need certainty and stability, one way or another, they need also hope, those things give people that, even when it’s a false sense of it.

So what can we do? Is there any solution to this?, or are we going to live in an age where science is less and less trust, with a big risk of getting ahead to a new age of obscurantism, a new middle ages, but now fuelled by relativism, and disinformation.

As I said, I have no answers, but questions. I firmly believe that education is the key, real education, teaching people to be honest and critical, to think for themselves, to reach for the truth, to get their own information instead of third or fourth sources, I think is the only way, although sometimes I think is not enough.

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