Stop Telling People To Believe The Science
When I attended a Flat Earth convention in 2018, one of the presenters emphasized that he was not anti-science. “I love science,” he said. “Science got me here on an airplane.” These days, I think about him whenever I see a “We Believe Science is Real” lawn sign, as though COVID deniers are walking by and thinking “Now, hang on here. As an irrational moron, I take offense to that!”
The rallying cry of “I believe in science” was born out of frustration with climate change denialists, but it’s evolved into a shibboleth to distinguish the vaccinated from anti-vaxxers. You’ll see it on social media, celebrities and activists shout it loud and proud, you can get it on a mask or a T-shirt. Joe Biden made it part of his campaign.
No one disbelieves science, but we’re all selective in our embrace of it. I “believe” in science, but I still consume alcohol and junk food, which science says are terrible for me. Flat Earthers count doctors, pharmacists, and engineers among their ranks; most of them are presumably competent scientific professionals, yet they all believe that the experiments they conduct to prove the Earth is flat have a scientific basis. Some “believers” in science believe in rather unscientific propositions, from the imminent triumph of transhumanism to Elon Musk not being full of shit. Here’s a notable aerospace bro arguing that the key to “beating” China is, essentially, to revive eugenics:
Are you rolling eyes extra hard at that guy? Weird thing, though: Eugenics used to be part of America’s scientific consensus. It was taught in colleges, it was espoused by high-profile figures like Teddy Roosevelt and Alexander Graham Bell, it led to forced sterilizations and marriage bans for the “feeble-minded.” The Supreme Court, backed by science, declared “it is better for all the world if … society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind” when ruling in favor of compulsory sterilization. Some German fellas you may have heard of studied up on America’s flirtation with Darwinism, and I doubt you’d call them credible, despite their pursuit of science.
Centuries of science “proved” that white people were inherently superior. That led us to bizarre conclusions like the “discovery” of drapetomania and dysaesthesia aethiopica, mental ailments that claimed to explain why slaves fled or resisted working despite slavery being part of the natural order of the cosmos. Science will take you to strange places if you’ll turn to it before you examine your own assumptions.
We’re still grappling with the legacy of racial science today. White supremacists use racial science to justify their hate crimes. James Watson, one of history’s greatest scientists, is spending his golden years arguing that Black people are inherently less intelligent, among other specious claims.
Sam Harris, a poster boy for obnoxious people who pretend that they alone are objective and rational, got in hot water for dabbling with the idea that race and intellect are intrinsically linked. The full debacle is far too stupid to get into here, but Harris said he was resisting “political correctness,” as though embracing some particular science is rebellious and edgy. It’s an idea that’s starting to weasel its way back into society thanks to people like Harris, because otherwise intelligent people will believe stupid things as long as they’ve convinced themselves there’s a scientific backing.
At the risk of getting all political, I think eugenics and slavery are bad. Modern science has certainly discredited the racial science of yesteryear. But a slaveowner or eugenicist or Nazi could have deflected all criticism by throwing up their hands and declaring “Look, man, I just believe what modern science says I should!”
Because that’s all “just believe the science” is, really; a deflection. Science—actual science—isn’t something you believe in. Inertia and friction don’t need your belief to keep existing. A scientific theory, tested by an experiment, will either produce or fail to produce evidence, regardless of what you hope or believe will happen. If you actually believe in science, you should welcome reasonable questions and criticism and skepticism, because that’s how science moves forward.
What does this have to do with anti-vaxxers? Well, a lot of them believe “the” science too. They’ll cite statistics, they’ll point to research by prominent scientists, they’ll make arguments they think are logical and rational. Their statistics are flawed, their research is fringe, and their arguments have more holes than Swiss cheese used for target practice, but they have them. Again, science will take you to strange places if you only rely on it to reinforce your own assumptions. But having a serious and tragic misunderstanding of science is not the same as disbelieving it.
This pic is satire. Anti-vaxxers generally do not say this.
Science isn’t a natural resource that makes chemistry papers sprout from the ground. It’s conducted by people, with all of their flaws and biases. COVID denialism can lead to insane conspiracy theories, but it’s often been the right move to question the scientific consensus of the day. Sometimes science has led us to heinous places, like when a powerful Soviet agronomist insisted that he knew genetics better than his colleagues even as the plagues he caused killed millions. And sometimes it’s just plain wrong because that shit’s hard. Geocentrism used to be part of the rational scientific consensus. The idea that the continents drift around thanks to plate tectonics was a weirdo fringe theory until the mid-1960s. In the early days of COVID we were told not to wear masks. The pursuit to get science right often means getting it wrong first.
We’re all deeply frustrated with anti-vaxxers, but screaming “Just trust the science!” avoids the heart of the problem. For every complete lunatic who thinks masks are part of a plot to lower his sperm count, there’s someone who’s been quietly talked out their stance by a doctor or friend. That can be hard to believe when you look at clips of conspiracy theorists harassing nurses, but shit, are the lawn signs working? Because science also suggests that haranguing people to change their mind often just makes them double down.
There’s a tendency to let “belief” in science slide into scientism, the idea that the scientific lens is always the best way of looking at the world and that scientists could, in theory, solve all of our political and ethical problems if we just got those dumb politicians and philosophers out of the way. At best, that leads to bizarre assumptions about how knowledge works, like how the media loved to have Stephen Hawking—a theoretical physicist and cosmologist—issue ominous warnings about the threat of AI, aliens, and imminent human extinction. At worst, it turns science into a stick to beat people with until they agree with your views, all while we pretend that science is conveniently independent from politics. There’s a reason the modern anti-vax movement traces back to bad science and rogue scientists rather than no science at all; we all think we can win political arguments as long as we have the “right” science in our corner.
And man, these days, I get it. I don’t think it’s possible to quantify how much harm and frustration anti-vaxxers have caused. It’s hard to reconcile the fact that we live in a time when a life-saving vaccine was pushed out on a miraculous timeline with the fact that a notable chunk of the population rejects that miracle. But while the minority position on vaccines is horribly, horribly wrong, it’s ludicrous to pretend that minority positions have never been wrong, and anti-vaxxers will be all too happy to remind you of that.
“But what about all the studies that say vaccines are safe?” Well, we used to have studies that said cigarettes were safe. “But that implies vaccine manufacturers have an ulterior motive!” We’re literally in the middle of castigating a pharmaceutical titan for cashing in on the opioid crisis. “But there are so many experts who are pro-vaccine!” Right, just like the vast majority of experts say that genetically modified food is safe, only for Americans to distrust GMOs and believe that the science is still up in the air. “They should educate themselves with the news!” We’re drowning in fake science news sites and far-right propaganda; it’s a small wonder that more people aren’t confused. “But some anti-vaxxers are just assholes!” I’m totally with you, but I don’t think the pockets of the internet mocking the deaths of confused and misled people are very charming either.
People have to be engaged on an emotional level, regardless of how unpleasant that task can be, because otherwise we’re ignoring how they reached this point.
Americans overwhelmingly trust scientists right up until their results clash with our worldview. And so we’re stuck with lawn signs that aren’t interested in the precepts of science, because there’s nothing terribly scientific about insisting that science is always perfect and that anyone who disagrees with you is an idiot. It’s not up to random homeowners to navigate the complicated quagmire of political and social strife that has led us to this point, but pithy slogans aren’t doing much beyond making us all feel smug. Man, someone should really do a scientific study of why we love lawn signs so much.
Top image: Pavel Tcholakov