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Science denial in the 21st century

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MADISON, Wis. — The arc of science has faced roadblocks for centuries, but the pattern of denying the weight of evidence has taken on new virulence recently. Highly motivated people openly cast doubt on well-established evidence — the theory of evolution, the human effects on climate change, the value of vaccines and other findings that have achieved an overwhelming consensus in the scientific community.

Researchers and science writers tasked with reporting on these issues gathered April 23–24 at the University of Wisconsin at a meeting titled “Science Writing in the Age of Denial.” Some noted that seemingly spontaneous denial of science in the populace is quite often a carefully choreographed attack. 

Sean B. Carroll, an evolutionary biologist at UW–Madison, has traced similarities between an anti-polio vaccine movement by chiropractors in the 1950s and later attempts by others to deny evolution.

“There was a common playbook,” Carroll said. The deniers started by doubting the science, despite the evidence. They questioned the motives of researchers and cited gadfly “authorities” to give the impression of a disagreement among scientists. The doubters exaggerated potential harm, Carroll said, and appealed to personal freedom — such as the right to not get vaccinated.

Finally, he said, science denial embraced a viewpoint that “to accept the science would repudiate some key philosophy” of an individual or group. In the case of the polio vaccine, this would require the acceptance of the fact that a virus causes the disease, which chiropractic rejected. Same with evolution, Carroll said, which was framed as undermining biblical teachings.

Historian Naomi Oreskes of the University of California, San Diego has done similar investigations regarding climate change. Not long after potent evidence began to emerge in the 1980s and 1990s that global warming is happening and that human fingerprints are all over it, countervailing forces showed up to deny it, she said. “This emerged as a politically motivated campaign saying the science was unsettled and thus it was premature to act” to limit carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, she said.

This strategy has worked in part because initial doubts, once seeded, can be difficult to overcome, said political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan. “We have a tendency to discredit that with which we don’t believe,” he said.

Part of the strategy, Oreskes said, has been to demand “balance” from journalists, even when the scientific community is already in agreement. Researchers at the meeting generally acknowledged that more than 97 percent of climate scientists now agree that the data on climate change are legitimate in showing the human hand.

Even so, science writers run a risk of injecting false balance into stories, and should take care to avoid other pitfalls of language, said Cristine Russell who studies the media at Harvard University. “Saying someone ‘believes’ in climate change or evolution is the wrong way to characterize it,” she said. “It’s not a belief system. That suggests that the evidence is something that can be dismissed.”

Wilson da Silva, editor and cofounder of the Australian magazine Cosmos, said journalists have a responsibility to write about these issues unequivocally. “It is science that freed generations from the superstitions of the past,” he said. In the modern context, writers ought not be shy. “Science writers need to take an active role in challenging quackery,” he said.

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