An article that has been making the rounds on the twitter/blogosphere is The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science by Chris Mooney in Mother Jones. The article asks why it is that people cling to old beliefs even in the face of overwhelming data against them. It argues that we basically use values to evaluate scientific facts. Thus if the facts go against a value system that was built over a lifetime, we will find ways to rationalize away the facts. This is particularly true for climate change and vaccines causing autism. The scientific evidence is pretty strong that our climate is changing and vaccines don’t cause autism but adherents to these beliefs simply will not change their minds.
I mostly agree with the article but I would add that the idea that the scientific belief system is somehow more compelling than an alternative belief system may not be on as solid ground as scientists think. The concept of rationality and the scientific method was a great invention that has improved the human condition dramatically. However, I think one of the things that people trained in science forget is how much we trust the scientific process and other scientists. Often when I watch a science show like NOVA on paleontology, I am simple amazed that archeologists can determine that a piece of bone that looks like some random rock to me, is a fragment of a finger bone of a primate that lived two million years ago. However, I trust them because they are scientists and I presume that they have received the same rigorous training and constant scrutiny I have received. I know that their conclusions are based on empirical evidence and a line of thought that I could follow if I took the time. But if I grew up in a tradition where a community elder prescribed truths from a pulpit, why would I take the word of a scientist over someone I know and trust? To someone not trained or exposed to science, it would just be the word of one person over another.
Thus, I think it would be prudent for scientists to realize that they possess a belief system that in many ways is no more self-evident than any other system. Sure, our system has proven to be more useful over the years but ancient cultures managed to build massive architectural structures like the pyramids and invented agriculture without the help of modern science and engineering. What science prizes is parsimony of explanation but at the risk of being called a post-modern relativist, this is mostly an aesthetic judgement. The worldview that everything is the way it is because a creator insisted on it is as self-consistent as the scientific view. The rational scientific worldview takes a lot of hard work and time to master. Some (many?) people are just not willing to put in the effort it takes to learn it. We may need to accept that a scientific worldview may not be palatable to everyone. Understanding this truth may help us devise better strategies for conveying scientific ideas.